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Dreams and Emotional Well Being

by Pat Bremkamp
(Portland, Oregon)

It is exciting to see that brain science is moving from what happens to why it happens and the breakthroughs that will occur when, for example, it is discovered that autism is a dreaming disorder.

To understand why we dream, first look at how we use dreams. If we have had an emotional shock or have an important decision to make, the historical advice is "sleep on it". In the morning, we are calm and refreshed, or not, based on the effectiveness of our dreams.

Dreams have an emotional purpose, not a logical one. Throughout the course of a dream the setting morphs and changes and it does not follow any logical path, but it does maintain an emotional path.

As an aside, did you ever notice that when you sleep on your right side, the dreams are scary or sexy, but when you sleep on your left side, they are analytical? For example, take the common dream of having trouble with your school locker. On your left side you are trying to figure out the combination. On your right side, there is a monster inside the locker.

Why is it taking so long to figure this out? Because, for some reason, brain studies attempt to remove all emotional content so it will not "interfere" with the study. But, in fact, emotion controls the brain because it controls attention and memory. For example, take your commute. Most days, you arrive at work or at home and you can't remember a thing about the trip. That's because everything that happened was predictable, and when the brain believes that events will follow a predictable, uneventful course, it goes into low power, low attention, low memory mode in a process called habituation. But, if you get cut off by another driver or have a flat tire, it gets all your attention, you get emotional and you remember it clearly. In the future, you are on the watch for that to happen again. Hurtful and pleasurable events stir our emotions, get our attention and stay in our memory.

Fight or flight get's a lot of study, but the third leg of brain function is what to ignore. That's the major under-studied area of brain research.

So, the purpose of dreaming is to help our brain figure out what to pay attention to, and what can be ignored. Considering all the stimulation the brain receives from our senses, it could not possibly pay attention to everything. So, how does the brain choose what gets attention and what doesn't? By looking at the patterns. The brain is a pattern recognition machine. So much so, that we will often ascribe a pattern to a single event like the flat tire. Once it happens, we expect it again and again. So, the brain needs to constantly work out the patterns of future events and assign attention priorities to the expected outcomes. That's what happens when we dream and why we cannot put it off. When we dream, we compare unresolved events to memories where we can predict an outcome. The memories may be real or imagined or seen in a movie or read in a book. The key is, have we assigned an importance to that situation? That's why we have reoccurring dreams... because that dream is a good benchmark for comparison.

That's why we, and every other animal sleeps: to enable us to dream. "to sleep. Perchance to dream". What happens when we don't sleep? We hallucinate which is the brain's attempt to dream while awake. Otherwise. sleep makes no sense. From an evolutionary point of view, sleep should have evolved out of us millions of years ago. It is a time when we are not foraging for food and when our senses are reduced which makes us more vulnerable to predators (though my wife says my snoring would scare away the fiercest sabre tooth tiger!).

When we dream well (is it a skill?) then we are calm, our focus expands, we are more creative and our minds can be more agile. That is the only thing that makes the risk worthwhile.

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Welcome! This site is continuously being created by students of Dr. William C. Dement's Sleep And Dreams course at Stanford University.

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