Nov 16, 2011
To Dream Or Not To Dream?
We process and build thoughts all day long, which become physical realities inside our brain. At nighttime we also think, but in a different way: we sort out the thoughts we have built during the day.
Dreams occur during REM sleep (rapid eye movement). And, just as you think in your own unique way, you will dream in your own unique way, which means that there are no predictable patterns. Moreover, dreams involve thinking about abstract ideas that are represented visually, so they can be confusing.
Neurochemically, when we are awake we have specific amounts of serotonin and norepinephrine that help us line up our thoughts and logically process the sensory input coming from the outside world, and we get bursts of acteylcholine as something captures our attention. When we are asleep at night, acetylcholine production is active (consolidating memories) in our minds, but the production of serotonin and norepinephrine is shut down, which introduces the element of peculiarity into our dreams. In fact, the frontal lobe is also inactive during REM sleep-the brain has no means of reasonably explaining the swirl of memories that often appear to flood one’s sleeping hours. However, it appears that really intense memories, i.e. the very happy or very toxic memories, get a lot of attention in this process.
Hence dreams are simply thoughts in a different biochemical state. We continue focusing on the same issues that concern us while we are awake, but in a different way. Dreams can also be helpful for problems that require creativity or visualization to solve. Dmitry Mendeleyev conjured up his final form of the periodic table whilst dreaming; Otto Loewi thought of a neuroscience experiment that won him the Nobel prize in medicine; Beethoven would often awake with new tunes ringing in his mind.
Did you know that by thinking about challenges, dilemmas, and issues before we go to bed, we can in fact increase our chances of dreaming up a solution? That just as waking thought can drift between reminiscing, introspection, ruminating, planning and so on, so can dreaming? But what exactly, you may ask, this gift for? Well such a simplistic question would never be posed about conscious thoughts, and the same goes for dreaming; it is for everything!