Sleep Health

Sleep and Dreams: The Connection Between REM Sleep and Dreams

July 9, 2024
Charles Belinky

Exploring the Mysteries of Dreams and Their Impact on Sleep

Dreams have fascinated humans for centuries, serving as a bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind. From ancient civilizations interpreting dreams as messages from the gods to modern scientists studying the complexities of REM sleep dreams, our understanding of dreams has evolved significantly. This article explores the historical significance, functions, and phases of dreams, delving into how sleep and dream cycles influence our mental and physical well-being.

Historical Significance of Dreams

The content and functions of dreams have been debated for centuries among scientists, philosophers, and religious scholars. Dream interpretation dates back to the ancient Sumerians and continues to play a significant role in modern psychotherapy. Throughout history, there has been a sizable shift in dreams and what to make of them. Earlier civilizations believed dreams were a medium between humans and gods (1). There were sanctuaries where people went and slept on unique dream beds in the hope of receiving healing, advice, or comfort from the gods. The Greeks and Romans believed that dreams could predict the future.According to scientists, a dream is a sequence of ideas, images, feelings, and impressions that happen involuntarily in the mind during specific stages of sleep. Oneirology is a term used for the scientific study of dreams.

Function of Dreams

Research suggests that dreaming serves several functions:

  • The brain consolidates learning and memory tasks, aiding in offline memory reprocessing.
  • Dreams help prepare for potential future threats.
  • They contribute to the development of cognitive capabilities.
  • Dreams provide a cerebral simulation of real-life experiences.
  • They create a unique state of consciousness, integrating present experiences, processing past events, and preparing for the future.
  • Dreams offer a psychological space where contradictory or complex notions can be reconciled, maintaining psychological balance and equilibrium.

Neuroscientists are interested in the structures involved in dream production, organization, and narratability. In contrast, psychoanalysts focus on interpreting the meaning of dreams and their relationship to the dreamer's past.

Phases of Sleep

Dreams and sleep are closely intertwined, with most dreams occurring during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. However, dreams can also appear during other stages. Understanding the phases of sleep helps us grasp the context in which dreams occur.

Sleep is not constant. Instead, it occurs in four stages. The first three stages (N1 to N3) are non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM), and the fourth stage is rapid eye movement sleep (REM). NREM stages constitute 75% of the sleep cycle (2). A typical night's sleep comprises 4 to 5 sleep cycles, where one sleep cycle can last for roughly 90 to 110 minutes. As the night progresses, the period of REM sleep becomes more prolonged, and with each stage, you progressively go into a deeper sleep. Every person has their sleep cycle, varying from night to night.

Brainwaves are electrical signals that are generated during nerve activity between neurons and assessed with EEG. Five different types of waves are produced by the brain: alpha (8 to 12 Hz), beta (12 to 30 Hz), delta (0.5 to 4 Hz), gamma (30 to 100 Hz), and theta (4 to 8 Hz).

  • Stage One: The Drifting Stage
    • This is the shallowest stage of sleep, lasting 1 to 5 minutes.
    • Low amplitude mixed frequency activity is noted on EEG.
    • Muscle tone is present in the skeletal muscle, and breathing is regular.
  • Stage Two: Light Sleep
    • The heart rate slows, and body temperature drops.
    • The brain goes into a deeper sleep.
    • On EEG, sleep spindles and K complexes are observed.
    • This stage lasts around 25 minutes in the first cycle and lengthens with each subsequent cycle.
  • Stage Three: Slow Wave Sleep (SWS)
    • This is the deepest stage of sleep.
    • Delta waves are observed on the EEG.
    • It is most difficult to awaken from this stage; even loud sounds will not wake you. If awakened, individuals have impaired mental performance for approximately 30 minutes to an hour (3).
    • This stage is critical to restorative sleep, as the body strengthens the immune system, repairs tissues, and builds bones. Evidence shows deep sleep contributes to memory, intuitive thinking, and creativity. It is also during this stage that bedwetting, sleepwalking, and night terrors occur (4).
  • Stage Four: REM Sleep
    • This stage is not restful sleep, as dreams occur here.
    • Beta waves are observed on EEG, similar to those in an awake person. However, the skeletal muscles are atonic, whereas the eyes and diaphragmatic muscles are active. During this stage, the breathing rate is erratic.
    • This stage usually starts 90 minutes after falling asleep. The first cycle is 10 minutes long, with each subsequent REM cycle getting longer throughout the night. In this stage, there is rapid eye movement and increased brain activity, which increases brain metabolism by up to 20%; the person is more challenging to arouse than during SWS, and people wake up spontaneously during REM sleep (5).
    • REM sleep is essential as it contributes to cognitive functions such as learning and memory. The National Center for Biotechnology Information describes that subjects awakened from REM sleep recall vivid emotional dreams.

According to Lauri Quin Loewenberg, a professional dream analyst and author, dreaming is a thinking process. When one enters REM sleep, the thoughts from the day continue as symbols and metaphors instead of words. According to her, dreams provide a metaphoric commentary on oneself.

Fascinating Facts about Dreams

Many fascinating facts about dreams remain lesser-known:

  • Etymology: The word "dream" originates from Middle English, "drem," which means joy and music.
  • Time Spent Dreaming: Approximately one-third of our lives are spent sleeping, with a significant portion spent dreaming. About six years of our lives are spent dreaming, equivalent to more than 2,100 days.
  • Extensive Study: No cognitive condition has been so extensively studied and yet is more frequently misunderstood than dreaming.
  • Universal Experience: Everyone dreams, although not all dreams are remembered. One can have multiple dreams during a regular night's sleep.
  • Historical Significance: Dreams are as old as human history. Significant dreams were analyzed and interpreted even in ancient times.
  • Frequency: On average, one can dream for one to two hours every night and have about four to seven dreams.
  • Memory of Dreams: Around 95% of dreams are forgotten by the time a person gets out of bed.
  • Indicator of Well-being: Dreams can measure human well-being, and a lack of dream activity may indicate a personality disorder or protein deficiency.
  • Dreams and Vision: Dreams have nothing to do with eyesight. Even blind people dream, and the content of their dreams depends on whether they were born blind or became blind later in life. Those who are blind by birth do not have visual dreams but instead dream through other senses such as taste, touch, smell, and hearing.
  • Brain Activity: The brain is more active during dreaming than when one is awake.
  • Gender Differences: Research shows men tend to dream more about other men, while women dream equally about women and men.
  • Learning and Memory: Dreams help with learning and developing long-term memories.
  • Dream Recall: Half of the dream content is forgotten five minutes after a dream, and almost 90% is lost after ten minutes.
  • Timing of Waking: People who wake up soon after REM sleep recall their dreams more vividly than those who sleep through the night.
  • Physiological Changes: During REM sleep, males experience erections, and females experience increased blood flow to the vagina, regardless of the dream's content.
  • Effects of Quitting Smoking: People who quit smoking have longer and more intense dreams.
  • Dreams in Toddlers: Toddlers do not dream about themselves before the age of three.
  • Nightmares in Children: Nightmares are prevalent in children between the ages of three and eight.
  • Déjà Vu in Dreams: According to a poll, 67% of Americans have experienced déjà vu in their dreams, more often females rather than males.
  • Snoring and Dreaming: If one is snoring, they are not dreaming.
  • Sleep Apnea: About 3% of adults suffer from sleep apnea, which causes tiredness and reduced competency.
  • Common Settings: The most common setting for dreams is one's own house.
  • Origin of "Nightmare": The word nightmare means a female spirit who besets people at night during sleep.

Types of Dreams

There are various types of dreams. Let's have a look at them:

1. Daydreams

Individuals daydream for an average of 70-120 minutes daily. While daydreaming, you are awake yet let your imagination take over and lose yourself in a fantasy world filled with happy thoughts, ambitions, or hopes imagined as coming to pass. Daydreaming has long been scoffed at as a lazy, non-productive pastime. However, it has proved constructive in certain instances, such as research scientists, physicists, composers, and novelists developing new ideas by daydreaming.

2. Lucid Dreams

In such dreams, you realize you are dreaming and are in control of the dream (7). Some people can make decisions and change the outcome of dreams without waking up. However, lucid dreams are often confused with dream incubation. In dream incubation, you influence your dream before and as you fall asleep.

3. False Awakening Dreams

These are vivid, convincing dreams regarding awakening from sleep when the dreamer continues to sleep in reality. These vivid 'dreams inside a dream' are usually completely mundane and may happen when the sleeper is experiencing something stressful, making it difficult to relax enough to drop off to sleep soundly. According to Sleep Foundation, they may be triggered by a nightmare or sleep paralysis. In sleep paralysis, the person is awake, but the body is frozen as if paralyzed. According to the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, during sleep paralysis, the brain is not awake but in a dreaming state. False awakening may sometimes provoke fear and anxiety. In case a dream is traumatizing, it can cause somniphobia (the fear of going to sleep), depression, and sleep deprivation.

4. Nightmares

These unpleasant dreams cause a strong negative emotional response, leaving you anxious and scared. The sufferer awakens in distress and cannot go back to sleep. It is believed that such dreams stem from real-life traumas or unclear life situations, such as hospitalization and kidnapping, and are a way for the subconscious to bring to attention something that needs to be recognized and confronted. Stress has a significant role in causing nightmares, as they are believed to result from emotions experienced during the day. To avoid triggering nightmares, it is best to reassure children. If children have nightmares for over a month, seek professional assistance and get a psychological evaluation. In a study carried out in Minnesota, people who experienced chronic nightmares were suspicious, self-centered, dissociated from their relationships, and hypertensive. They suffer immense difficulties in interpersonal relationships.

5. Recurring Dreams

As clear from the title, recurring dreams repeat themselves with minute variations in story or theme. They symbolize that there is a conflict that needs to be resolved. Once the problem has been addressed, the recurring dreams will cease.

6. Healing Dreams

Our body can communicate with our mind through dreams. Sometimes these dreams act as an early warning system that something is not right within the body. Such dreams act as messages for the dreamer regarding their health, thus helping prevent potential health problems or assist in healing.

7. Prophetic Dreams

Such dreams are an insight into what's to come. These dreams predict the future, and the subconscious mind pieces together the information that goes unnoticed. Such vivid dreams about the future can leave one shaken and anxious, especially if the dream has a warning about possible obstacles or disasters. Science has shown that the subconscious is a lot quicker and more powerful than our conscious minds, and it can put together bits and pieces of information about what can happen based on incidents that have already occurred.

8. Epic Dreams

These dreams are so vivid and compelling that they profoundly impact the dreamer. These possess beauty and archetypal symbolisms that cannot be ignored and feel like a life-changing experience.

9. Progressive Dreams

These are considered problem-solving dreams. The dreams continue for a few nights, having the same theme and continuing from where one left off the previous night. They help one explore different possibilities and approaches to a problem, state of affairs, or relationship.

10. Mutual Dreams

Mutual dreams are when two people experience the same dream. It can be pre-planned, in situations where two people are actively working towards achieving the same dream goal, and a way to build trust and improve inter-communication. On the other hand, they can also happen spontaneously, such as when one finds out that someone very close to them, be it a friend or relative, experienced an identical dream the same night as them. Even though not much data is available on this phenomenon of mutual dreams, it is believed that the two people who share the dream have a strong connection amongst them.

Why do we Dream and Its Interpretation

Various theories are there about why we dream. Genetic, psychological, developmental, and drug factors can cause them.According to some, dreams provide insight into our subconscious and can reveal much about our innermost emotions, fears, and thoughts. Whether one remembers the dream or not, they dream every night. Humans spend around two hours dreaming each night, almost every dream lasts five to twenty minutes. Some dreams are pleasant, while others leave a bad taste in your mouth. They can be surreal and yet incredibly meaningful. For some, they are a source of inspiration, and yet for others, they are a way to process one's emotions and even a way to solve their problems. For some, dreams are not random but fulfilling an unconscious wish.

As explained above, everybody dreams. But what do our dreams mean? What is the meaning behind them?

Some people deem that dreams are a way for our brains to process the day's events. Whereas, according to others, they are a way to work through unresolved issues. The vast majority believe they are just a bizarre jumble of random images and memories. Analyzing dreams can help us understand our subconscious minds and emotions, thus providing an understanding of the unaddressed issues.

Recollection of Dreams

Recollection of dreams is unreliable to an extreme. However, one can be trained in this skill. Dreams are usually recalled if the person awakens during the dream. Women recall dreams more often than men, which may be recalled upon hearing or viewing a random trigger.According to the salience hypothesis, dream content that is unusual or novel is more easily remembered. Indeed there is substantial evidence that vivid, intense dreams are more frequently recalled (9).

Moreover, it has been found that people who have unusual experiences during the day tend to have more unique dream content and hence better recall. In case of personal interest or for psychotherapy purposes, a dream journal can be kept to help recall dreams.These dream journals are also self-reflection tools, allowing us to face our fears and uncertainty.

How to Stop Dreams?

As a rule, there is no treatment for dreams. However, if you are experiencing upsetting and traumatizing dreams affecting your physical and mental health, consult your doctor. Ask for measures that can be taken to sleep more soundly. Some general measures that can be adopted to avoid dreaming are:

  • Follow a consistent sleep schedule. Avoid being sleep deprived
  • Calm your mind before going to sleep. Read a book or write a journal to help ease tension.
  • Exercise regularly. Take a short walk before going to bed.
  • Avoid caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol, and other stimulants in the evening.
  • Specific frequencies cause the formation of brain waves of a specific rhythm. This phenomenon is called brain wave entrainment and is the fundamental idea behind Miracle Night. Sleep quality significantly improves when brain wave entrainment is used. Generating electrical signals at a lower rate induces deep sleep, which Miracle Night is doing. Layered monaural beats generated by Miracle Night cause the subjects' delta waves to increase by 18%, and as explained earlier, delta waves are associated with deep restorative sleep. Listening to Miracle Night's MonauralBeats increases the percentage of deep sleep by 56%.
  • Practice self-care. This includes having less screen time and taking a bath before going to bed.

Integrating these practices into your nightly routine will help improve sleep quality, ultimately leading to a happier and more fulfilled life.

Bottom line

Dreams are a subject of fascination, cloaked in mystery and intrigue. They are not random occurrences but a window to the deepest recesses of our thoughts and emotions. By analyzing them, a deeper understanding of oneself can be gained. Understanding the meaning behind our dreams can help us address the underlying issues as they provide insight into the subconscious and different aspects of our life.

At Miracle Night, we understand the importance of quality rest in living your best life. With layered monaural beats, exclusively available in the Miracle Night app, we can help you improve your sleep quality, reducing tiredness. If you have been suffering from prolonged difficulties sleeping or extreme fatigue during the day, adopt the healthy habits mentioned. These no-fail tips will allow you to figure out how to get proper rest. Miracle Night is a team of medical doctors and experienced engineers that has come together to solve insomnia using technology. We are dedicated to providing solutions to your sleep problems. A good night's sleep is as essential for health as nutrition and exercise. Our sincere efforts and helpful resources, like this blog post, will provide you with the tools needed to feel mentally and physically well-rested.