How Does Dreaming Affect Your Brain?


6 Min Read

Dreaming is a nightly phenomenon we still haven't quite figured out – one that's inspired artists like Salvador Dali to create some of the world's most fascinating paintings. What we do know about dreaming is that it's a complex process that involves activation of parts of the brain and inactivation of others. We can also interpret dreams as a reflection of what's going on in our waking lives. A scary dream, nightmare, or sleep paralysis may be linked to stress, anxiety, or fatigue.

Dreaming is one of the most mystical and mysterious of all human experiences. So, what exactly happens in the brain when we dream? Do these psychological processes also have an impact on the body? Our dreams can seem vague – we may even promptly forget what we dreamed about as soon as we open our eyes, or sometimes quite lucid, memorable right down to the fine sensory details.

Perhaps the surest sign that our dreams and conscious experiences are connected by the same neural networks is that our dreams are just as vibrant in detail. Dreams – full of bright colors, distinct scenes and settings, and specific dialogue – closely mirror the five senses we depend on while awake.1 What’s more, the same parts of the brain that are activated when we are faced with a tumultuous event while awake are also activated when we encounter such experiences in our dreams.2

The Development Of Dreams

Newborns have very limited cognitive capacity to perceive their surroundings and react accordingly. As they grow up, their ability to see, sense, and remember quickly evolves. Studies done on dreaming patterns in children have shown that the vividness of a child’s dreams is directly related to their stage of development.3

In adults, the vividness of a dream will depend on the stage of sleep. In one study, people woken up from sleep in its very early stages reported that they could remember few, if any, details about the dream, while those in a deeper sleep (called REM) could remember rich, specific details of their dreams.4 This points to how brain activity can vastly differ throughout a full night’s sleep.

What Happens In The Brain When We Dream?

Several theories have been proposed about how the brain generates and processes dreams, and one that is widely accepted is the continual activation model. According to this theory, the brain is an organ that needs a continuous stimulus to stay active, and when brain activity falls below a certain level, the brain automatically kicks into dream mode to increase its activity. This breakthrough theory is the first to explain why so many parts of the brain are active when we’re supposed to be resting!5

One thing we are all familiar with is the emotional response we have to dreams. When dreaming, our experiences of fear and anxiety are far more heightened than in our waking lives. During REM sleep, areas of the brain that are linked to emotional responses, such as the amygdala, are found to be highly stimulated. This points to the theory that dreams help our body respond appropriately to stresses in the real world.6

When Dreams Become Nightmares

We’ve all had a nightmare at some point in our lives, likely one so impactful that you may even remember it today. A nightmare is a vivid, disturbing dream that actually wakes you up, and it typically occurs during REM sleep, which means when you wake up, it’s easier to recall. Nightmares tend to be highly distressing and elicit emotions like fear, anger, disgust, and terror.7 Nightmares are not so prevalent among preschoolers, but children, adolescents, and young adults tend to have many. The number of nightmares decreases with age – elderly people typically experience only one-third of the nightmares of a young adult. However, no matter the age, women report many more nightmares than men.8

So, why do we have unpleasant dreams and terrible nightmares? While researchers are still finding this to be an elusive question, many do believe that nightmares are often a reflection of the stressful situations we face when awake – it could be related to workplace stress or a personal crisis, or even be triggered by unresolved issues from the past.9 One theory also suggests that nightmares are our way of regulating emotions: By decoding them, we learn to better cope with our emotions – even if just in baby steps.10

Sometimes even scarier than a nightmare is sleep paralysis. This is when a person experiences complete loss of bodily control during sleep. It can occur when a person moves into deep, REM sleep within 15 minutes of falling asleep. Called Sleep Onset REM or SOREM, this condition can be found in people who experience daytime sleepiness and fatigue. The person who is dreaming suddenly becomes aware of their surroundings without being able to move a muscle in their body. This sudden shift from the dream world to the real one, accompanied by temporary paralysis, can be truly frightening.11 Sleep paralysis is directly linked to the stresses of daily life, which means it can be resolved completely by making a few lifestyle changes, such as cutting down on caffeine and sleeping in a quiet, restful environment.12

The Science Of Lucid Dreaming

Many sleep researchers believe dreams play an evolutionary role, helping humans to think outside the box and adapt. This is where lucid dreaming, the ability to control what direction our dreams take, can be quite a rewarding practice. Proponents believe that lucid dreaming can help us address buried issues, become more mindful, and dream at will to create positive experiences in real life. Lucid dreaming can be tough, though. Some may use herbs like Calea Zacatechichi (aka the Mexican dream herb) or the blue lotus plant, but it’s best to get into a full relaxation mode before sleeping and set forth intentions to have a lucid dream. Keep track of your dreams as soon as you wake up so that you can start to become aware of the dream state when you’re sleeping and eventually start controlling your dreams.13

Lucid dreaming can potentially be a powerful tool to alter a person’s mental state and may even be useful in psychiatry and counseling. Though more research needs to be done in this area, it definitely offers some exciting possibilities.

References   [ + ]

1.Hobson, J. Allan. “REM sleep and dreaming: towards a theory of protoconsciousness.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10, no. 11 (2009): 803-813.
2.Domhoff, G. William. The scientific study of dreams: Neural networks, cognitive development, and content analysis. American Psychological Association, 2003.
3.Foulkes, David. Children’s dreaming and the development of consciousness. Harvard University Press, 2009.
4.Hobson, J. Allan, Edward F. Pace-Schott, and Robert Stickgold. “Dreaming and the brain: toward a cognitive neuroscience of conscious states.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23, no. 06 (2000): 793-842.
5.Zhang, Jie. “Continual-activation theory of dreaming.” Dynamical Psychology (2005).
6.Laura Marcus, Sigmund Freud’s the Interpretation of Dreams: New Interdisciplinary Essays, Manchester University Press, 12-Jun-1999.
7.Nightmares – Overview, American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
8.Nielsen, T. A., and Jessica Lara-Carrasco. “Nightmares, dreaming and emotion regulation: a review”. The new science of dreaming 2 (2007): 253-284.
9.The Science Behind Dreams and Nightmares, National Public Radio. 30 October 2007.
10.Angier, Natalie. “In the Dreamscape of Nightmares, Clues to Why We Dream at All.” New York Times 23 (2007).
11.Sleep Onset Rapid Eye Movement (SOREM) In Sleep Disorder Patients: Association with Sleepiness and Fatigue, University of Toronto.
12.Sleep Paralysis- Treatment, NHS Choices.
13.LaBerge, Stephen, and Lucid Dreaming Physiologically Verified. “Lucid dreaming: Psychophysiological studies of consciousness during REM sleep”, (1990).
CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.

CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.