The Emotional Importance of Dreaming

Can you remember your dreams? Many people think they don’t dream but researchers have shown that our brains experience dreams every time we sleep – we just don’t always remember them. If you’ve ever wondered what amnesia feels like, it’s just like waking up and thinking you didn’t have any dreams. If that sounds like a familiar experience to you, that might be a sign that you aren’t getting enough sleep at night and are missing out on some of the powerful benefits that dreams provide.

As we sleep, our brains go through several stages including rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Most of the rejuvenating effects (like restoring energy, building muscle, regenerating neurotransmitters, etc.) happen early at night when our brains are in a deep sleep. Dreams still occur but they are rarely remembered and they are usually quite boring if they are. The exciting (or scary) dreams we have tend to happen in REM sleep, which is predominant later in the night after about five or six hours of sleep. So, if you aren’t getting a full seven to nine hours per night, you are cutting off the major REM portion of sleep.

Our psychological wellbeing is impacted by a lack REM sleep, as researchers are beginning to understand. For instance, there’s a good reason why REM dreams are more exciting, scary, or arousing – and it has to do with our emotions. This is because REM sleep is a time when our brains process unresolved emotions, which helps us control our mood during the day. Let’s take a closer look at how this happens. Our dreams are built by our memories, and what we remember is influenced by how emotional the original event was for us. You’d simply be more likely to remember something exciting than something mildly boring. While emotional memories are partly what build our dreams, there are a couple other ingredients too. First, we have “dream lag”, which is the principle that when something interesting happens to us in our daily lives it will be reflected in our dreams about three days later. Second, whatever we fall asleep thinking about tends to creep into dreams. All together, there are a lot of factors influencing what we dream about and it’s our brain’s job to make sense of it all. That’s where things get truly bizarre.

The bizarreness of dreams (like being in a familiar place that you’ve never seen before) happens when memories are loosely connected together so we can figure out the associated emotions. If, for example, your friend tells you that your fancy new red sneakers “look fine” and you walk away not knowing if it’s a compliment or not. You’re left with some unresolved emotions floating around. Three days later you have a dream about your cat and he’s wearing red sandals. What could it mean?

This might be your brain working out how you really feel towards the red sneaker situation to give you closure. This works because dream imagery (the cat with sandals) comes from associations we have between our memories. Sandals are related to shoes and maybe red sandals hold another significant meaning to you (even if you aren’t aware of it). The actual emotional processing happened when your brain put the sandals on the cat because it was pairing your unresolved memories of red footwear with the familiar memory of your cat – which has some clear feelings associated with it. Basically, the unknown is presented along with the familiar to give it some context for understanding.

All of this happens “under the hood” of dreams and isn’t something we necessarily need to be aware of. It happens naturally and is a human adaptation what helps us regulate our emotions, among other benefits. Dreams also help improve memory, solve logic problems, and prepare us for future threats. So when you miss out on dreams you aren’t just missing some free entertainment. The last two or three hours of sleep per night lead to dreaming that helps keep us in a good mood throughout the day and feel calm. Most people need between seven to nine hours of sleep per day, and being able to remember your dreams is a sign that you’re getting enough. For more information on the other benefits of dreams check out some of the following websites or feel free to contact me directly.

John Bown, B.A

jbown@insightpsychological.ca

  • http://www.iasdreams.org/
  • http://www.dreamscience.org/