Have you ever had a nightmare when you suddenly woke up and thought that it was quite real? Have you ever wondered what dreams are made of, or rather why we dream in the first place?!
Well, the study of dreams is quite a modern study. This is because much of the history had found it difficult to study this rather complex subject, mainly for the reason that you cannot hold a dream. It’s difficult to measure a dream, taste it or see other people’s dreams. Even if you ask people about what they had dreamt, they would simply increase the ambiguity. In fact, we tend to forget almost about 90% of what we dream in the first 8-10 minutes of having them.
Years passed when finally in 1952 at the Chicago University, researchers found this interesting spike in their electroencephalogram (EEG) instruments.
At a particular stage of sleeping, they found this unique electrical activity. Upon further enquiry, the subjects reported that they had indeed been dreaming, along with signs of rapid eye movements (REM). Hence this stage of sleep was called REM sleep. This stage is also called as the paradoxical sleep stage for the very reason that in this stage those electrical activities reported earlier were eerily similar to what would have been reported if a person was completely awake. Interestingly, they also found that many chemicals that are produced in the brain like serotonin and histamine are blocked abruptly causing all the muscles to stop moving. This is the reason why we frequently dream about being superman, flying around, without actually moving our body. But some people have disorders with fully achieving this syndrome, causing them to sleepwalk. Furthermore, there were cases where people weren’t able to move their body even when they were wide awake at this stage or were in a rare state called “lucid dreaming” where one can live inside a dream and know the fact that they were dreaming.
Surprisingly, it was discovered that if a person learns a new task during the day, say like learning, to play a violin or a new chapter, the measured electrical activity is found out to be the same that also happens during the night as we sleep. Further studies showed that the function of REM sleep is uncertain but a lack of it, impairs the ability to learn complex tasks, affecting memory etc. This led to the conclusion of why we dream, based upon many popular theories like “reverse-learning, continual activation theory” etc. According to them, it is said that dreams serve a primary purpose to prepare us for threats. Long back our ancestors did not know what kind of threats they would deal with, in the daytime. So, our brain would simulate many situations to make us better prepared for the next day ahead. They help us to tackle stress and recharge the mind and revitalise the body. That said, there is no definite theory that explains everything. So, overall, dreams remain an unsolved mystery as further research is required.
Okay so I hope you have got a rough sketch of what dreams are. So, here’s food for thought, do we dream in order to sleep or do we sleep in order to dream?!