The Gift of Dreaming

Despite all that is scientifically known about sleep, there is much that remains unknown. Elements of how those essential hours of shut-eye work remain a mystery. Far from being inactive or at rest, the brain cycles through varying degrees of activity every night, the most active being a dream phase called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. The electrical activity during REM most closely resembles the waking state when the brain is fully engaged in a challenging task.

Interestingly, the extremely active REM state does not seem to have anything to do with external factors. It is entirely self-generated. Ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch said, “All men whilst they are awake are in one common world; but each of them, when he is asleep, is in a world of his own”. This statement seems to be backed up by science millennia later. Dr. John Ratey, in his book User’s Guide to the Brain, explains that during waking hours, the brain exhibits large bursts of electrical activity that seem to correlate with environmental activity and external stimulus. This same electrical activity is also evident during REM sleep. Researchers, however, found that the bursts do not correlate to the environment even when deliberate efforts were made to physically disturb the subjects. Ratey says that, “In dreaming, the cortex activates itself purely from within.”

Just like an attic or garage that accumulates miscellaneous items over time, so too the brain collects unnecessary information during our waking hours. It seems that dreaming is a way of decluttering our limited storage space. It is during the non-REM dreaming phases of sleep, mostly, that we rerun events of the day so that the brain can process, sort and review all the information it took in during the day. Freud called this “day residues”. This is why we usually feel better after a good night’s sleep. Emotional or upsetting events during the day are replayed at night and they are converted from an emotional memory to a narrative memory…one that we have control over.

However, there is something unique that happens in the brain during REM sleep that allows problem solving and creativity to happen. The pre-frontal cortex, where logic and critical reasoning happens, is basically “switched off” during REM sleep and the creative mind is let loose. Penelope Lewis, author of The Secret World of Sleep, states, “…the sleeping brain is somehow freed of constraints and can create whole sequences of free associations. This is not only useful for creativity, it is also thought to facilitate insight and problem solving.” Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, for example, was inspired by an intense and vivid dream the author had. Chemist August Kekule, in 1865, was struggling to explain the molecular formula of benzene until the answer came to him in a dream. And Rene Descartes, a 17th century scientist, created his principles for modern scientific method as ideas came to him and the framework took shape in his dreams.

There will be occasions in life when we have difficult decisions to make or problems to solve. The sort that we might agonise over or struggle with in our waking hours. Remember that there is something to be said about “sleeping on it”, as clichéd as it sounds. If you think those hours that you lie there in peaceful slumber are unproductive, think again. Nobel Laureate and author John Steinbeck once said, “It is common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it”.

By: Elaina Curran, HPD, DSFH, DPLR, AfSFHreg., CNHCreg., MPLTA

Published in BS35 Local Magazine, July Issue



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