While some people awake every morning with a head full of dreams that are so lifelike they can’t tell if they actually happened, others swear blind that they have never had a dream at all. Whichever category you fall into, have you ever wondered why? Or whether being a dreamer or non-dreamer affects your sleep quality? Let’s find out:
What is dreaming?
A dream is simply a story that your brain creates while you are sleeping that contains things that are both familiar and strange, with dreams being described as everything from funny to just plain weird. Dreamers have little control over these sensory experiences that play out without conscious effort.
Why do we dream?
Dreams are universally believed to have a purpose, although scientists and other professionals are yet to agree on a common reason. Some state that dreaming is a way for your brain to process the day’s events, exploring alternative solutions and outcomes and storing the experience for future reference and learning. Others, such as the famous Sigmund Freud, suggest that dreams are a passage to the subconscious mind and focus on repressed emotions or fears that we keep secret. By allowing the subconscious to deal with repressed experiences, fears and insecurities can be addressed without having to actually face the issue. Although this fictitious solution doesn’t change anything in the real world, it is believed to be good for mental and psychological healing. It seems a cyclical solution, as anything that allows your mind to feel at ease and not stressed will enable you to sleep better and therefore allow your brain to deal with day to day issues more efficiently. According to other schools of thought, dreams act as a way for our unconscious desires to be acknowledged. It would appear they definitely have a place and a reason – whatever you choose to believe!
Do we dream all night?
Although some may claim to dream all night, it simply isn’t true. Although dreams are believed to happen regularly throughout the night, sleep scientists say that most dreams that are recalled occur in the REM stages of sleep.
When does REM sleep happen?
Our sleep goes through 90-minute phases that are repeated throughout the night. Each phase has 5 stages. The first stage, where your brain waves slow, is relatively short, lasting just a few minutes, and occurs anything from seconds to minutes from when you nod off. The second stage puts you into a slightly deeper sleep as the brain waves known as sleep spindles increase slightly. Stages three and four are the official beginning of the deep sleep phase and it is this stage that is the hardest to wake up from. Stage five involves Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and is exactly that – when your eyes start moving erratically under your eyelids – and is when you experience not only dreams but also body paralysis – vital to ensure you don’t act out any particularly energetic dreams! – As you move from Non-REM sleep through to REM throughout the night, the REM phase getting longer with each phase – starting at a few minutes in the first and a full 40 in the last. It is in this phase that people are most likely to remember their dreams, although experts agree it is theoretically possible for them to occur at other points during a sleep cycle, as yet, no study has proved it conclusively.
Does everyone dream?
Scientists are now in agreement that everyone has the potential to dream, but individuals differ in terms of dream frequency and their ability to remember their dreams. Some of this variance is also affected by an individual’s sleeping habits and daily rituals. For example, if you wake up abruptly to your alarm clock each morning, you are more likely to remember your dream as you were probably in the last REM phase of your sleep cycle. That also means that if you’re dreaming, you’re experiencing a full, healthy, and efficient sleep cycle.
What influences dreaming?
Although some people seem to recall their dreams more easily, there are influences that can increase or decrease the likelihood of remembering your nighttime experiences:
- Sleeping position. A study in Hong Kong found that those who slept on their front experienced more vivid and intense dreams than those who chose other positions.
- Diet. Given that it is accepted that your daily experiences influence the content of your dreams, it seems reasonable that your food may make an appearance in your nighttime thoughts.
- Daytime creativity. A dream expert from the United Kingdom, Dr. Ian Wallace, identified that dreams of a sexual or fantasy nature are not in fact influenced by desire, but actually from a noticeable increase in using your brain creatively during the day.
- TV & media exposure. Again, given that dreams are affected by your daytime experiences, it is no surprise that the presentation of one’s dreams are influenced by that exposure, and people who grew up in an era when television was broadcast in black-and-white are actually more likely to dream in a monotone color, with the reverse being true for Millennials.
- Bedding choice. Having bedsheets and duvets made of synthetic fibers can result in becoming too hot or cold during the night, which can lead to you having disturbed dreams, as environment has shown to link directly to dreams’ themes. Choosing a breathable fabric and filler will result in a more restful – dream-filled or otherwise – sleep.
- Being left-handed. One study concluded that left hemisphere of the brain seems to provide dream origin while the right hemisphere provides dream vividness, figurativeness and affective activation level. Those who use the right-hand side of the brain – left-handed people – are far more likely to report morevivid dreams and the ability to remember multiple dreams.
- Moon phases. Not scientifically proven, but important to many, is the phase of the moon with dreams around Full Moon being reported as particularly strange or clear.
What does it mean for sleep quality?
Sleep experts agree that sleep quality is heavily dependent on how much time you spend uninterrupted in the REM sleep stage, and that such sleep quality gets magnified with each sleep phase. That’s cause with each subsequent sleep phase, your REM phase gets longer. With good quality sleep contributing to our mental and physical health, as explored in previous articles like “----” and “----” [add link], there is a direct correlation between sleep quality and dreaming – as it occurs mostly in the REM stage. More dreams = more time in the REM stage = better sleep quality.
What about nightmares?
Although nightmares can only be experienced during REM sleep (or the dream stage), they don’t make a very positive contribution to a ‘good night’s sleep’. Waking up from a nightmare means that your sleep is disturbed, and of course any lingering anxiety from the nightmare or any fear of returning to sleep may lead to insomnia.
So do dreamers experience better sleep quality?
The good news for non-dreamers is that this is not necessarily true. Just as every individual needs a different sleep duration in terms of hours in a night, some individuals don’t require dreams to get great sleep quality. Although we noted that more dreams indicate more time in the REM stage, just because you’re not dreaming, it doesn’t mean you’re not getting sufficient deep sleep or REM sleep. The best indication of a good night’s sleep is waking up feeling invigorated and full of energy to face the day.