Why your brain needs to dream
Research shows that dreaming is not just a byproduct of sleep, but serves its own important functions in our well-being
We often hear stories of people who’ve learned from their dreams or been inspired by them. Think of Paul McCartney’s story of how his hit song “Yesterday” came to him in a dream or of Mendeleev’s dream-inspired construction of the periodic table of elements.
But, while many of us may feel that our dreams have special meaning or a useful purpose, science has been more skeptical of that claim. Instead of being harbingers of creativity or some kind of message from our unconscious, some scientists have considered dreaming to be an unintended consequence of sleep—a byproduct of evolution without benefit.
Sleep itself is a different story. Scientists have known for a while now that shorter sleep is tied to dangerous diseases, like heart disease and stroke. There is mounting evidence that sleep deprivation leads to a higher risk of obesity and Alzheimer’s disease. Large population studies reflect a saddening truth—the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. Not only that, sleep helps us to hold onto our memories and to learn facts and skills faster, making it important for everyone including infants, students, athletes, pilots, and doctors.
Dreaming is like overnight therapy
It’s said that time heals all wounds, but my research suggests that time spent in dream sleep is what heals. REM-sleep dreaming appears to take the painful sting out of difficult, even traumatic, emotional episodes experienced during the day, offering emotional resolution when you awake the next morning.
REM sleep is the only time when our brain is completely devoid of the anxiety-triggering molecule noradrenaline. At the same time, key emotional and memory-related structures of the brain are reactivated during REM sleep as we dream. This means that emotional memory reactivation is occurring in a brain free of a key stress chemical, which allows us to re-process upsetting memories in a safer, calmer environment.
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