what are dreams really, and how do they shape our unconscious world?

Dreams are frequently associated with tapping into the unconscious desires of a person. In film and media, they are a channel into the divine, magical, or otherworldly elements of life. Dream interpretation is a common practice by psychics and spiritual practitioners. But what are the real facts about dreams?

What are dreams?

Dreams are a series of sensory stimuli occurring during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep when brain activity is equal to levels seen during consciousness. Most common are visual dreams, which would have a series of images or scenes that play out, but other senses can be involved. This is especially true in people and animals who don’t rely on sight as much. Blind people tend to dream with sounds, tastes, or smells as the more prominent feature. Other mammals and some birds also dream in ways that relate to how they experience the conscious world, as they have similar sleep patterns to humans.

In addition to the senses that are invoked, some key characteristics seem to be universal. Dreams last for a few seconds or as long as thirty minutes, and we typically have about four dreams a night. They are typically first-person, involuntary, illogical, and include people and facets found in a person’s everyday life. Exceptions include  lucid dreaming, where the person is aware they are dreaming and can therefore influence and change what is happening. There are also vivid dreams, which include unusually realistic content.

Why do we dream and what do they mean?

There is still contention between scientists about why we dream and if dream interpretation is a valid practice. While most psychologists agree dreams tie into events that occurred during consciousness, anything after that is still being researched and debated. The most prevalent argument is that the brain uses this time to process and analyze events that have happened to us during the day. This can include examining certain emotional states, introducing new information, and replaying moments of the day. Another theory is that dreaming is another way to commit experiences to memory and strengthen our recall ability. In both cases, there is little to be interpreted, as they are straightforward and easily relate to the events of the day before. Some believe that dreams are just the effect of heightened brain activity during sleep, with no other purpose than filling in the absence of conscious thoughts. Therefore, dreams are simply too illogical and random to find any hidden meanings or messages.

Can dreams affect sleep?

Dreams tend to not affect sleep. Whether or not we remember them, they occur as a normal part of the sleep cycle. There is one exception to this- nightmares. Nightmares are different from bad dreams, which are dreams that simply contain distressing content, while nightmares wake you up and interrupt your sleep. People who have frequent nightmares should consult a doctor to see if they have a sleep disorder or other condition affecting their sleep. In general, there are some techniques to improve sleep by lessening the factors that cause nightmares. These include maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding distressing content before bed, limiting alcohol and caffeine before bed, and keeping a dark, quiet environment to sleep in.

More information about sleep and dreaming can be found at www.sleepfoundation.org and the American Sleep Association.

This article has been republished from Renewed Awareness Magazine.

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