Dreams: The Science of the Unconscious World

Posted by

How many times have you wished that your dreams truly mean something in your life? In recent years, scientists have found out that they are nothing but random images our subconscious minds receive while we sleep. This doesn’t mean that they hold no significance, though. Scientists have debated over the true meaning of dreams for years, but generally, it can be agreed upon that dreams are visual or thought-like brain activity during sleep.

The majority of humans, as well as other mammals, experience dreams. Our dreams such as lucid dreams, vivid dreams, as well as nightmares hit us during NREM and REM sleep. Rapid Eye Movement is one phase of sleep where the eyes would move faster under the eyelids. Non-Rapid Eye Movement means the eyes remain still. Brain activity is also more frequent in REM sleep. If dreaming occurs in both stages, then why do people usually say that dreaming only takes place during REM sleep? For comparison, 80 to 95% of laboratory subjects reported that they had a dream-like experience when woken up from REM sleep, but the number drops to 40 to 60% when it comes to NREM sleep. Other than the statistics, the way dreams affect us is quite different between the two stages. REM dreams are extremely visual and we feel engaged in them, overall being more exciting. On the other hand, most NREM dreams are shorter and less hyper-realistic than REM dreams. Emotions are usually much stronger during REM dreams, which is another reason why we tend to remember them more easily. REM dreams contain more intense negative emotions, involving more self-initiated aggression than friendliness, while it’s vice versa for NREM sleep (McNamara et. al.)

What good are dreams besides distracting us from the real world? REM sleep and dreaming are important to maintain our mental and physical health. They are generally related to emotional processing, memory processing, and learning. Though dreaming is just random images in our heads, humans suffer from symptoms of lack of dreaming and REM sleep including the inability to focus, decreased clear thinking, and difficulty to memorize and acquire knowledge. An experiment conducted by Louie and Wilson proved that dreaming is an opportunity to go over memory patterns, storing them in long-term memory. Before the mice enter their REM and NREM stages of sleep, they are informed about how to go through a specific maze. During their sleep, the neuron firing patterns match up compared to when they were going through the maze. They appeared to rehearse the maze and show traces of earlier maze experiences. This shows that they are constantly learning from past experiences in their dreams.

REM episodes recorded during sleep (Image Kenway Louie/MIT)

If dreams are so important, then why can’t we understand or remember them? According to Hoss, “This is because the ‘language’ of the dream is primarily that of metaphor or picture-metaphor.” This means that since everything in dreams is abstract, what we see in dreams is simply a made-up visual association between emotions, memories, and concepts. A young child’s conscient brain seems to work similarly to an average person’s unconscious brain. Metaphoric similarities are how we learn things, especially for children. It is later in life that we develop the ability and needs to apply rules to learn new information and sort through the ones we already encountered.

Dreaming can benefit our health whether we remember them or not. The short answer to why we don’t remember dreams is that we don’t have to. A study conducted by Shuntaro Izawa and others in 2019 showed that we are less capable of making memories during REM sleep. The science world can only obtain information about whether dreams are remembered through interviews with participants in experiments. Although the technologies we have can help us analyze brain activity, the content and memory factors in a person’s dreaming experience cannot be accurately captured. From what we do know, though, there are many factors that impact dream recall. For example, when we wake, how we wake, and sleep length all contribute to remembering dreams. Personality factors, gender-related factors, and many other things yet to be proven can also contribute. 

Dreaming is an intriguing yet mysterious topic in psychology. For decades, scientists have been trying to find information on dreams and sleep patterns, and we have made giant leaps in the past few years. Now that we know more about the science behind these topics, sweet dreams!

Works Cited / Further Reading:

  • Eske, Jamie. Why Do Some People Forget Their Dreams? 22 Oct. 2020, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/why-cant-i-remember-my-dreams.
  • Hoss, Robert. “The Science of Dreaming.” Dream Science, www.dreamscience.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Part-1-The-Science-of-Dreaming.pdf. Accessed 29 Jan. 2023.
  • McNamara, Patrick et al. “REM and NREM sleep mentation.” International review of neurobiology vol. 92 (2010): 69-86. doi:10.1016/S0074-7742(10)92004-7. Accessed 29 Jan. 2023.
  • News Office. “Animals Have Complex Dreams, MIT Researcher Proves.” MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology, https://news.mit.edu/2001/dreaming. Accessed 29 Jan. 2023.
  • Pietrangelo, Ann. “Is It Possible to Sleep Without Dreaming?” Healthline, 2 July 2020, www.healthline.com/health/why-dont-i-dream.
  • Suni, Eric. “Dreams.” Sleep Foundation, 15 Dec. 2022, www.sleepfoundation.org/dreams.
    Zwarensteyn, Jill. “REM And NREM Sleep Stages: Differences and Cycle Statistics.” Sleep Advisor, 7 Oct. 2022, www.sleepadvisor.org/rem-and-nrem-sleep-stages.

This column was submitted by high school student Iris Wang. Student STEM Columns are submitted by high school or advanced middle school students who wish to share their passion for STEM. Students interested in submitting a column should email us at info@areteem.org.

Share this post!