Friday 5: Dreams

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Nablus storefronts shuttered on a Friday. Palestine, March 2010

When we sleep our minds are submerged in the sometimes-surreal, sometimes-all-too-real world of dreams. This week’s Friday 5 takes a scientific look at the brain’s nighttime activity.

  1. Dreams happen in the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep. If you remember your dream in the morning, that means you woke up during the REM stage. People who say they don’t dream much actually just wake up during different sleep stages.
  2. REM sleep is paradoxical because our brain is excited but our body is calm.
  3. Researchers don’t know for sure why we dream but have several theories. One possible explanation is that dreams help brain development by stimulating neural pathways. This would explain why infants spend most of their sleep in REM.
  4. Another theory is that dreams are the result of our brain trying to make sense of random neural activity.
  5. Although Freud’s ideas about dreams expressing one’s inner desires are widely referenced in popular culture, no scientific evidence has supported his theories.

I have a very active dream life, and unfortunately many of those dreams are stressful. Do you remember your dreams when you wake up? Are your dreams similar to your real life or full of fantasy? Tell me what happens in your brain at night!

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8 Responses to “Friday 5: Dreams”


  1. 1 Molly Caldwell July 13, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    Many of my dreams provoke anxiety, too…car problems, being late for work, showing up for a class in the middle of the semester that I didn’t even know I had and scrambling to attempt to save my grade…and then there are my dreams where something seems VERY funny in my dream and when I wake up and think about it, the humor is lost and it is absurd. I keep a pen and a pad of paper by my bed to write things down while they are fresh. One of my most vivid dreams was marrying Leonardo DiCaprio in a grocery store (7th grade)…and then there was an instance when I was very young (between 3-4) and I SWORE the neighbor’s VERY large German Shepherd was staring in my bedroom window at me, which terrified me. My mom and dad could never prove that the dog was or was not there, but that has stayed with me for my whole life! Dreams are fascinating to me and I would love to talk more about them with you.

  2. 2 Phil Leslie July 13, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    Great subject! I remember my dreams regularly, and I now believe I have a slight sleep cycle disorder after reading about REM and corroborating my observations with stories from my mother that I’ve always fallen into deep sleep very quickly. Much to the dismay of my girlfriend, I can go from having a conversation to REM dreaming within a minute. I consider it a blessing, however, and strongly believe it is related to my ability to remember my dreams almost every night…and also experience some of them a little differently.

    Have you heard of sleep paralysis? (good wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_paralysis) I experience this fairly often, once a month or so, and finally discovering the science and history behind it in the last year has my nights so much more enjoyable. In short, I become conscious and able to process all sensory input while still in REM. I open my eyes, look around, hear things, but I’m still dreaming. So yes, that means I’m still imagining things. Vivid subconscious hallucinations merge seamlessly with the rest of my senses. I’ve seen people, animals, unexplainable creatures, lights and patterns in the room where I’m sleeping all with my eyes perfectly functioning and open. But here’s the catch: while in REM your body paralyzes itself. So while all this is going on, I can’t move a muscle (save my eyes) or make a sound.

    The realization of paralysis is stressful and so my mind fulfills that panic with visions and sounds of terrifying figures and occurrences: werewolves, ghosts, shadowy strangers, lights in the windows or closets, etc. The cycle of panic and self-fulfilling hallucination continues while I futilely attempt to scream or escape until I finally “wake up” and everything disappears. The terror, however, truly is absolute because it is all I’m aware of at that moment. There is no other fear that I’ve experienced that comes close to sleep paralysis. I don’t think that I’m going to die, I KNOW that I’m going to die.

    The good news is that I understand now what this is and can make sense of what happens. These experiences used to occupy my mind for days and weeks before I had an explanation for them. It explains away ‘dreams’ from my childhood of hearing men coming up the stairs to stab me in my bed or seeing creatures watching me in the windows. I also agree with theorists that attribute alien abduction stories to sleep paralysis; it is not too uncommon to fall back asleep and dream in full after sleep paralysis. That is, your dream would continue from your room just as you saw it with your eyes open.

    Just a few months ago I had an episode but was able to realize that I was in sleep paralysis. Because I knew that I was dreaming, I could remain calm and ‘watch the show’ for the last 30 seconds of my REM as my walls rippled, figures walked past my bedroom door and squirrels and lizards populated my window sill. I’ve read about people who combine their ability to have lucid dreams with paralysis episodes so that they can literally create their own fantasy worlds before their waking eyes. That sounds incredible though if I could figure this out, I’m worried that I’d end up like Leo DiCaprio in Inception, addicted to dreaming. I put a high value on my dreams, but they still ain’t real life.

    • 3 RogueAnthropologist July 15, 2012 at 3:55 pm

      Wow, Phil, I don’t think I’ve experienced sleep paralysis as intense as yours but I do occcasionally have episodes where I wake up and can’t move–it’s usually still dark in the room (middle of the night?) and I’m convinced that a nefarious intruder has entered the room and I’m powerless to respond. I hate that! Relatedly, my biggest childhood fear was of being kidnapped.
      On your last point, I’ve heard that if you can see your own hands when dreaming you’ve reached a state where you can control them. Don’t know if that’s true!
      Thanks for stopping by the blog. I miss you, friend!

  3. 4 Jennifer Stuart July 13, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    My dreams are so mixed. Sometimes, I have dreams that I can drive to amazing places and of course, that I can fly (each time, I think it is finally not a dream). And then there are some where something is hilarious and I wake up laughing like crazy, (the jokes from those, when I can remember them, will still make me laugh even if they aren’t all that funny) and then there are some that are so scary that I wake up not knowing what’s real and what is just the dream. I also started waking up and writing things down- in the morning, even if they have nothing to do with the dream. Trying to remember the dreams sometimes stresses me out, so I’ll just take a kernel of what I remember and go from there, even if it’s as simple as a “door” or “a cell phone” or something.

    • 5 RogueAnthropologist July 15, 2012 at 3:58 pm

      Hi Jennifer, thanks for commenting! I can’t recall any dreams of flying, but there is definitely something bittersweet about waking up from a dream where something wonderful happens…the pleasantness lingers but the disappointment that it wasn’t real also sets in!
      Do you use the things you write down after waking for other purposes or just for the sake of daily writing?

      • 6 Jennifer Stuart July 15, 2012 at 4:47 pm

        I have only just started that habit- so, I am not sure yet! :) But I think that I will use them as sort of nuggets of inspiration for short stories and things like that.

  4. 7 Summer July 14, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    I barely ever remember my dreams, but when I do I never have nightmares. Some dreams may have events that in the morning I find unpleasant, or I can have dreams that provoke anxious feelings while in the dream, but rarely am I terrified, scared, angry, or any other extreme negative emotions that I would associate with nightmares. I don’t usually do crazy or outlandish things in my dreams; sadly, I’m never able to fly. The dreams I have/remember are always filled with mundane events; the most present part of the dream is usually how I feel emotionally. It’s as if the events are a little hazy and in the background, while my feeling are sharply defined in the foreground of the dream. I really like that because when I do remember a dream I can often wake up and vividly feel that dream feeling. Since I most often have very euphoric dreams it’s always a good day to remember one of them when I wake up. Sometimes I can think about and then recall that feeling for the rest of the day.
    Phil’s sleep paralysis experiences are fascinating to me because I also experience sleep paralysis, but less frequently and in a different way. When I wake up, I’m awake, not dreaming and no fun/un-fun hallucinations, but I can’t move. I find myself having a moment of panic and terror and then since I can’t move, I make the decision to go back to sleep. I always assumed those were dreams like when you dream you woke up, but then you wake up and realise it was a dream. It never occurred to me to think anything of it, but a few months back a sleep doctor told me that I was actually waking up before I was supposed to and my body was still paralyzed. Weird.

    • 8 RogueAnthropologist July 15, 2012 at 4:01 pm

      Lol I wish I didn’t have stressful dreams but mundane ones aren’t especially fun either :) I also think it’s interesting that make the decision to go back to sleep when you’re paralyzed…like “ah, well, can’t do much about it.” Haha. I think I usually get myself to wake up the whole way (or something external does?), realize there’s not really someone sneaking into my bedroom, and then go back to sleep.


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