Why Do We Dream?
Dreams are a type of hallucination that we have whilst sleeping. Although there is a lot of information on why we sleep and the health benefits for getting a good night’s rest, there is relatively less knowledge on the role dreams play.
Since the earliest recorded times in history, people have presented theories on the meaning of dreams, and their purpose in sleep, some of the more popular hypothesis from the past postulating that dreams were a way for us to act out our unconscious desires in a setting safer than reality.
Other theories suggest that dreams are something to do with preparing for a threat, as one of the most active areas of our brains during dreaming is also heavily associated with our survival instincts – the amygdala.
However, today it is still unclear exactly why we dream. Whilst we are awake, our thoughts hold a certain logic, however whilst dreaming, our thoughts are often more nonsensical. It’s been suggested that this may be down to our dreams being triggered by emotional centres in our brains, rather than the areas more heavily associated with logical thought.
Do Dreams Affect Our Sleep?
Whether they’re remembered or not, dreams are part of normal sleeping behaviour. The Sleep Foundation claims that everyone will dream for a total of roughly two hours each night, able to occur at any stage of the sleeping process.
Whilst dreams can occur throughout any stage of sleep, it’s reported that they are the most vivid during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage.
You might feel more rested waking up from a happy dream, and more restless after a distressing nightmare, however, does the content of your dreams actually have an impact on your overall sleep quality?
Despite how uncomfortable a bad dream can make you, it's claimed that they won’t necessarily have an impact on your quality of sleep. The Sleep Foundation states that:
“disturbing dreams don’t always have a significant effect on your sleep architecture, meaning they won’t necessarily change how much time you spend in the different stages of sleep or the number of times you awaken. What they can change: How long it takes to fall asleep at night and how challenging it is for your body to switch between non-REM and REM stages of sleep, which may leave you feeling less rested.”
Therefore, whilst the nature of your dreams may not have an impact on the way you sleep, they can impact the more conscious elements that contribute to your sleep quality and quantity, such as the time it takes to get to sleep after a disturbing dream has clogged up your thoughts, and can subsequently lead to you feeling less rested as opposed to if you had a happy, less impactful dream.
What Is the REM Stage of Sleep?
There are a total of five sleep stages, REM sleep being often referred to as the fifth stage. During REM sleep, people will move their eyes around quickly behind closed eyelids, whilst their brain activity, blood pressure, and heart rate will be close to the levels seen when a person is awake.
As previously mentioned, the REM stage of sleep is where dreams are reported to be the most vivid. Interestingly, during this stage the arms and legs will become paralysed temporarily, stopping you from physically acting out the dream.
REM, like all of the five stages is an essential component of sleep, needed for healthy bodily and mental function. Some people have even been reported to use such sleep-promoting products as weighted blankets to reach the deep REM stage faster.
Does Having Happy Dreams Mean I’ve Slept Better?
Research has shown that those with healthy sleeping patterns often describe having more enjoyable, pleasant dreams, whereas those who suffer from insomnia have been found to have less positive reactions to their dreams. However, what comes first – the dream content or the sleep quality – is yet to have been established, and a strong link between having good dreams and having a good quality of sleep also, for now, remains unclear.