Dreaming: A look inside your brain.
What did you dream about last night? Can you remember? Maybe. But maybe not.
That is what is strange about your dreams. Sometimes it is as if you didn’t dream at all during the night. Other times you remember your dreams as a vivid stream of bizarre images, experiences and the creation of your very own imaginary life stories. Free from the constraints of reality.
And dreaming has proved elusive to scientists too. More questions than answers. Perhaps not surprising given the difficulties in measuring responses from people who are not in a fully-conscious state.
REM or NREM
Traditionally, researchers believed that dreaming took place when you were in REM – or rapid eye movement – sleep. The state when you can often see someone’s eyes “fluttering” beneath closed eyelids. But in fact, dreaming also occurs in Non-REM sleep – sometimes called “deep”, or “slow-wave” sleep – especially later on in the night.
But no-one really knows why we dream. What benefits, if any, dreaming offers.
Nor do scientists know what is going on inside your head when you are dreaming. Where do those visual images come from? Why do dreams so often involve obscure connections between people, places and events which could never have taken place? A friend from childhood who you haven’t seen or thought about for years playing a role in the same storyline as a colleague from work. It’s just bizarre.
But that’s dreams for you. That is why psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud were so obsessed with them.
And although neuroscience has moved on considerably from trying to decode what your dreams say about your unconscious, dreaming is generally considered to be a powerful form of imagination. A form of unconscious mind is wandering where your brain is free to roam. Where anything is possible.
New dream research.
But this month scientists got a bit closer to understanding what goes on inside your brain when you dream. Researchers at the Centre for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin–Madison devised an experimental paradigm where they woke people up at various intervals during the night – a necessary evil for dream research because people are usually so bad at remembering their dreams when they wake naturally.
At each waking, they asked the person what they were dreaming about. Questions like: “Who was in the dream?”, “Where were you?”, “Were people talking?”, “What emotions did you feel?”. All while measuring their ongoing brain activity with high-resolution electroencephalography (EEG).
And by looking at the pattern of brain activity immediately before they were woken and comparing this with the reports of what the person was dreaming about, they could start to link the two together.
And they found that when you dream, your brain is active in the same kind of regions as when you are awake. So when there are people and faces in your dreams, your brain’s “face area” – called the fusiform cortex – lights up. Similarly, when you are moving around or performing some spatial task in your dreams, the brain regions involved in those computations are activated.
Furthermore, they found that it isn’t whether you are in REM sleep or Non-REM sleep that is important. That might just be a red herring. In fact, dreaming occurs when there is a reduction in the level of “low frequency” brain waves across a “hot zone” of regions at the back of your brain.
And so the theory of REM sleep and dreaming is out the window.
Instead, a whole new neural signature for dreaming has been identified. A way of predicting, simply by looking at the pattern of sleep-based brain activity, whether a person is dreaming or not.
But the scientists are starting to be able to go even further. To predict what you are dreaming about. Dream-reading.
And although the resolution and understanding of the brain signals aren’t yet good enough to provide anything more than a very fuzzy picture, a gist, of what you were dreaming about, the principles of how you might go about doing this in the future are being put in place.
What are dreams for?
This research brings us one step closer to answering the fascinating question of why we dream. Their function. The role they play in supporting sleep-based brain processes.
Because although we aren’t fully conscious when we are asleep, our brains are actually very busy. Consolidating. Organizing. Making sense of all our thoughts and memories from the previous 15 or so hours.
And dreams are part of this hive of neural activity. Somehow. We will just have to wait and see what the next chapter in the science of dreaming reveals.
This is one example of the many interesting insights that scientists are regularly discovering about how the human brain works.
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