The Science of Dreams
We don’t often read about findings from the science of dreams in the mainstream media. However the study of dreaming is a multi-cultural phenomenon, alive and well in laboratories and universities throughout the world. Researchers continue to explore how our brain processes and creates the experience we call dreaming. In addition, studies are ongoing about the ways in which gender, age, stress, culture and other factors affect the content and even the color in our dreams. The broad range of findings are too numerous to review on this site, but here are a few interesting samples of what we’ve learned about the nature of dreaming, R.E.M. sleep, nightmares, nightmares and trauma, gender and colors in your dreams:
Scientists now have the ability to scan the depths of the dreaming brain and determine more precisely what parts of our brain are indeed "awake" and involved in dreaming and what parts remain "asleep".
Consequently, we’ve developed a good idea as to why dreams speak in the language of metaphor and association and even why dream plots and our sense of time in dreams sometimes seem so bizarre. We also understand better why we don’t recall many of our dreams.
Researchers have found that it is the unique combination of active and inactive brain centers that give dreams their seemingly bizarre nature. This same research gives us valuable clues as to how dreams form the internal associations which appear as the visions, sensations and metaphors we call the dream. One important finding is that a brain center responsible for dealing with our emotions is particularly active during dreaming. Consequently some scientists conclude that the emotional aspect of our daily lives drives many of our dream stories. Regardless of the origin of our dreams, it is the dreaming brain that presents it to us its own unique language. The better science can understand how that dream language is formed, the better we can understand its meaning.Back to Top
Research shows that humans, and indeed all mammals, exhibit a stage of sleep called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) – a stage in which we experience the vivid emotional, sensory and visual experience we call dreaming. Humans enter this dream state about every 90 minutes and therefore, whether we remember our dreams or not, we actually dream five or more times per night. Our longest dream period occurs toward the end of sleep.
Dreams were originally thought to occur only during REM. However, research now suggests that dreams occur throughout all stages of sleep though REM sleep contains our more intense and vivid dreams. Findings indicate that adults are in dream sleep about 24 percent of the night, decreasing to about 15 percent as we age. Infants, even while in the womb, can dream as much as 80 percent of sleep time.
With all this dreaming going on each night it seems amazing that most of us rarely recall more than one dream if any each night. It turns out that the part of our brain responsible for storing dreams as memories is "asleep" and so only a portion of our dream experience, if any, can be captured upon waking.
Although research has shown that on average, negative content and emotion appear more frequently than positive emotion in dreams, we do not usually consider our dream as a nightmare unless it is extremely upsetting or contains overwhelming anxiety, apprehension and fear. Some studies suggest that only 11 percent of adult dreamers report feeling troubled by nightmares.
Other studies suggest that children have more nightmares than adults reporting on average that 25 percent of their dreams are frightening. It is thought that this higher number of threatening dreams may reflect the higher frequency of new and challenging experiences children encounter on a daily basis.
Nightmares can fall into various classes based on what the cause might be: a) trauma related; b) heavy emotional threat or stress of the day; c) medical problems requiring attention; or d) psychological conditions creating long-term nightmare suffering.
Nightmares are different from night terrors -- which occur most often in young children. Unlike nightmares, night terrors occur during a phase of deep non-REM sleep. Night terrors are thought to have a chemical or neurological basis. The dreamer most often has no recollection of the experience other than a sense of fear and some disorientation afterwards.
Major stresses of the day or extreme emotional threats which might alter our view of ourselves or our beliefs about our environment can create frightening dreams and nightmares as our mind tries to accommodate the disruptive situation. There is a separate class of nightmares which occurs as a result of extreme trauma.
We've all heard about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the recurring nightmares and daytime flashbacks that often accompany them. Research suggests that many so-called post-traumatic dreams aren’t dreams at all. Rather, they are flashbacks of the actual trauma that breakthrough into consciousness while one sleeps, much as flashbacks breakthrough during waking consciousness for those who are traumatized. One distinguishing element of such nighttime "dream" flashbacks is that the content is usually the same as the original trauma while the details of recurring nightmares tend to change from one dream to the next.
Whether due to biology or cultural conditioning — nature or nurture — there is strong evidence of gender differences in dream content from early childhood. Men have a higher degree of aggression in dreams than women. In general females tend to describe more emotional experiences in their dreams and report more detail. Men tend to dream more often of male figures; experience fewer people in their dreams and report interacting less with dream figures than women. Women dream equally of men and women, and more often of family members and interact with them on a more individual or personal basis than men. Verbal discussion and use of adjectives describing color are reported more frequently in the dreams of women.
Researchers who awaken people during dream sleep in the laboratory find from 80 to over 90 percent of recalled dreams contain color. Upon waking in the morning, however, color recall drops to about 20 percent or less. So the appearance of color in dreams is a matter of recall, not so different than the lack of recall of certain parts of a dream or even the dream itself. Many report they only dream in "black and white" but it is simply that the color is forgotten as they wake from the dream.
Interestingly, when color is recalled it is often due to the emotional intensity of the dream, as we more frequently tend to remember the most emotional or stimulating parts of a dream. Some studies indicate that color represents emotion, "coloring the dream with emotion" so to speak; different dream colors seem to represent different emotional experiences. And not surprisingly, because visual details are more important for artists and those who are deaf, both groups tend to have higher recall for dream colors.
DREAMTIME will present the science of dreams in exciting ways in which we can all understand. With your help, as well as the help of scientists and researchers, DREAMTIME will explore the experience we call dreaming!