Why do we dream?

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A sleeping woman
There are four stages of sleeping at night, with the deepest sleeping being REM
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There are some new and interesting theories about why we dream.

The latest understanding of why we evolved to dream comes from the groundbreaking research of the eminent psychologist Joseph Griffin. For the first time the biology and psychology of dreaming have been blended into a model that is accepted by many eminent psychologists all over the world.


Psychologist Joe Griffin explains why, far from being just a by product of brain down time as some people think, dreaming plays a central role in keeping us sane and in some circumstances literally drive us mad.


In their book, The Origin of Dreams, Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell relate how dreaming is the deepest trance state we go into. They content there are three essential principles to understand:


  • Dreams are metaphorical translations of waking expectations.


  • Only expectations that cause emotional arousals that are not acted upon during the day become dreams during sleep.


  • Dreaming deactivates that emotional arousal by completing the expectation pattern metaphorically, freeing the brain to respond afresh to each new day.


We can assume a function of dreaming is that of weaving new material into the memory system in a way that both reduces emotional arousal and is adaptive in helping us cope with further trauma or stressful events.


REM Sleep


Dreaming occurs during the REM state of sleeping. The REM (Rapid Eye Movement) state was discovered in 1953 by Aserinsky and Kleitman. They noticed that when subjects were awakened from sleep during the phase characterized by "rapid, jerky, and binocularly symmetrical eye movements," they recalled the most elaborate dreams. When subjects woke from non-REM sleep, significantly fewer dreams were reported and the reports were less intense and more like memories of dreams. And so, the REM state was named and has been associated with dreaming ever since.


REM and Reality


It is thought that the REM state is the mechanism that connects us with reality,constantly running in the background, searching out at lightning speed the codes needed to match metaphorically to whatever is meaningful in the environment and creating our perception of reality. It is a reality generator, accessing the templates that are the basis of meaning. This is important in answering the question of why do we dream.


When REM sleep is at its most active and sensory information from the outside world is shut off, the templates searching for their completion scan the brain and make metaphorical images from whatever they call up from memory. The dream contains these images and becomes the reality we are conscious of. This is why the reality in dreams so often feels profoundly richer than waking reality. Each particular metaphorical dream image can contain multiple levels of meaning. The job of the dream is to deactivate emotional arousals, and it can do that with several streams of arousals through the same image at the same time.


Stages of Sleep


There are four stages of sleep:


  • This first stage is very light sleep. If you are not disturbed during this stage, you will quickly move on to the second stage.


  • You start thinking of images, even though there are no visions that you are seeing with your eyes. If you remain undisturbed, you will drift into stage three.


  • You sleep much more deeply now. Your muscles are now more relaxed, and your heart rate has slowed down. Your blood pressure is also falling. Your breathing's steady and even. It's hard to wake you now. Now you will go into stage four.


  • This is the REM stage; it is when you are dreaming. This is the deepest sleep of all the stages. It's almost impossible to wake you now. If there's a sudden loud noise or if you are shaken, you will wake up. Your blood pressure, heart rate and brain speed up.


If you're awakened during the REM stage, you will remember most of your dream. REM will slow down as you wake up. Adults usually have around three-to-five periods of REM during a sleeping cycle. REM will take about 90 percent of the time. There is a part of your brain called pons, and they control REM. Scientists still don't know why REM happens. You can't always control your dreams, and some people say they never dream; although no one is quite certain if that is true.


Sleep Deprivation


Following a period of sleep deprivation, a person may experience much higher rates of REM sleep than usual. For some reason the body tries to make up for REM time that is lost. The REM cycles would be more frequent with fewer intervening sleep stages. However, as the night progresses the rate of non-REM sleep drops sharply. So if you return to sleep when you are actually very well-rested, there is a good chance that you will return directly to REM sleep.

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