Dreams are weird. Most of them seem to contain a mixture of familiar faces or places and an absolute mishmash of brain confetti. One minute you’re flying through the halls of your school, and the next you’re riding a roller coaster full of monkeys.
So why do our brains produce these nightly hallucinations, which most often occur when we’re deep in a kind of sleep known as rapid eye movement, or REM? And are dreams good for anything?
“There are a lot of theories,” said Alice Robb, science writer and author of the book “Why We Dream.” “One thing that’s happening with dreams is that we’re working through anxieties. We’re sort of going over and rehearsing things that we’re stressed about.”
Got a big test coming up? A trip to the dentist? Get in a fight with a friend? Don’t be surprised if your dreams start to echo those ideas, but in bizarre, dreamy ways.
The idea is that once “you’ve experienced it, you’re less afraid of the reality, which is almost always less scary than whatever your brain has cooked up in your sleep,” said Robb.
Another theory is that your brain uses dreams to assist with learning and creating memories.
“So your brain is sort of tightening the connections that you’ve made recently. It’s sorting through memories and figuring out what’s going to go into your long-term memory, what’s not important and we’re going to get rid of,” said Robb.
Interestingly, scientists have found that REM sleep increases when we devote a lot of time to studying something really difficult, such as learning a new language.
Robb also said that kids are especially good dreamers.
“Children actually sometimes spend more of the night dreaming and actually often have a more intense relationship with their dreams than adults,” Robb said.
Adults also train themselves to ignore and forget their dreams, said Robb, but you can reverse that trend by simply paying more attention. Try keeping a dream journal, for instance, as one way to be more conscious of all the wacky things that flit through your brain while you’re sleeping. This may also help you key into common themes in your dreams that relate to what’s going on in your own life.
“If you want to understand what those dreams mean to you, you have to pay attention to your own patterns,” said Robb.
Perhaps flying through the school represents your craving for summer break. Maybe the argument with your friend is your brain’s way of preparing you to settle your differences. And the roller coaster ride full of monkeys? Well, that’s for you to figure out.