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Health benefits of dreaming

Health benefits of dreaming

Dreams are not nonsensical random illusions of the brain but might have multiple neurological health benefits, say experts
Dreaming is a sign of a healthy mind
Photo: Unsplash

When American author Katrina Mayer said, “Believe in your dreams, they were given to you for a reason”, she tapped into a lesser-known truth about dreams not just being a mundane by-product of sleep.  Our dreams whether vivid, hazy, nonsensical, or disturbing have not only fascinated us, but they have been a source of intrigue and subject of debate for experts over centuries.

Famed psychoanalysts, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung saw dreams as buried forbidden desires and symbols of the unknown psychic content respectively.

According to Dr Hozefa Bhinderwala, consulting psychiatrist, at Saifee Hospital Mumbai, India, the content of a dream is something medical science doesn’t have a clear understanding of. It is believed that the creativity of the person and the various sensory inputs they get during the day is what manifests as a part of the dream. But it can be a complete mix and there may or may not be any relevance to a person’s problems.

Dreams — sign of healthy mind

“Dreaming is a sign of a healthy mind,” says Rashida Mustafa, a clinical and psychoanalytic psychotherapist from Manchester, UK, and a member of the British Psychological Society (BPS).

It’s an alpha function that shows that a person is capable of reflecting on their experiences and composing them into a dream, she adds. “Just like how a hurting body indicates that a muscle is in pain or rising blood pressure tells people that they are angry, dreams reflect what the psyche thinks,” she says.

Empirical neuroscience research suggests that dreams are effective tools the brain uses to process information to deal with stress and trauma and aid in problem-solving as well as memory enhancement.

Research published in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2017 discovered that people who spent more time in the Rapid-Eye-Movement (REM) phase of sleep – the phase in which dreams occur – had reduced fear-related brain activity when they were given mild shocks the following day. The study indicated that getting enough REM sleep before any fearful experiences may reduce the tendency to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as people have an opportunity to practice their responses prior to the actual stressful situations. “The more REM, the weaker the fear-related effect,” the authors write in their paper.

Dream sleep, a healer

Mathew Walker, a scientist, and professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, through his research on overnight therapy and the role of sleep on emotional brain processing, got more clarity on the mechanism of what happens to the brain while dreaming.

The research was published in the Psychological Bulletin in 2016. It indicated that the stress-triggering molecule, noradrenaline is absent in the brain during the REM phase of sleep and at the same time, important emotional and memory-related areas of the brain are reactivated. The research concluded that emotional memory reactivation occurs in the brain without the presence of a key stress chemical, allowing people to reprocess disturbing memories in a calmer environment. Hence boosting the ability to solve problems and process tough emotions that affect waking life.

Dreams activate memory

A 2010 study published in Current Biology reiterated the problem-solving and memory-activation functions of dreaming. During the study, 99 subjects were trained on a virtual-navigation task (A 3D virtual maze) and then retested on the same task five hours after initial training at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. During the break, some of them were asked to read while others were instructed to try and take a nap. It was observed that subjects who napped the following training and dreamed about the maze, showed a remarkable improvement at solving the task as compared to those who remained awake during the retention interval.

Fatema Hakimi an 18-year-old student from SNDT University, Mumbai, had a similar experience while studying for her exams. “I wasn’t prepared for my chemistry paper and was up till late night trying to memorise the formulas,” she recalls. Incidentally, Hakimi fell asleep and remembers dreaming vaguely about the formulas.  “When I woke up after a few hours I was surprised at my ability to grasp and learn the formulas much faster than a few hours before.”

The Threat Simulation Theory by Antii Revonsuo a Finnish cognitive neuroscientist explains why most people dream of failure regarding an upcoming event important for them. The theory states that dream consciousness is essentially an ancient biological defence mechanism, evolutionarily selected for its capacity to repeatedly simulate threatening events. Threat simulation during dreaming rehearses the cognitive mechanisms required for efficient threat perception and threat avoidance. The brain responds to any potential upcoming perceived danger by initiating a sort of fire drill to deal with the threat effectively during sleep.

Sakina Khorakhiwala a 60-year-old homemaker from Surat says she has terrifying dreams on the eve of any big party or celebration at home. “In the dream, the party is about to begin, and I am totally unprepared! And to top it all I just cannot move so that I can complete the preparations. The feeling is horrible,” she says. Khorakhiwala however adds that the dream drives her into action mode the next day to ensure all the preparations are done.

Dreams revive the mind and body

When people in therapy begin to dream, we see it as a sign of mental growth, says Rashida.

Dr Bhinderwala points out that dreams, Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, and the physical health of a person are interrelated.

He says, dreams can occur in all phases of sleep but only the ones in REM sleep, which is deep sleep, are remembered. So, if you know you are dreaming, it is proof that you are getting enough deep sleep and helping the body to restore itself. “More dreams mean more deep sleep and better physical health,” he says.

Why are dreams bizarre?

“When you dream, although some of your conscious cognitive faculties may be at rest, your executional functioning is not fully operative. Since the reasoning is not completely there, the dream goes from being concrete to bizarre without filtering,” says Dr Bhinderwala.

Freud suggested that the sleeping brain creates a ‘manifest dream’ which consists of everyday images, experiences, and memories. The manifest dream simplifies, reorganises and masks repressed and unconscious wishes. These suppressed and unconscious wishes constitute the ‘latent dream’. The manifest dream uses various symbols and bizarre or unusual images to conceal the latent dream, or what we are really dreaming about.

“I love dreaming!” quips Hakimi. “They transport me into an entirely different realm. I travel to places and experience things that are not a part of my real world and often wonder how boring our nights would be without them.”

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