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What's the big deal with dreams and why is it so important we figure it out? Well, because when we dream, our brain is doing something. So, what if what it's doing is helping or hurting us? The science behind dreaming—especially the physiology and how it relates to health—is a subject we just don't know a whole lot about.
The topic of dreams has been a hot one for so many years you can trace it back to Ancient Greece, where they thought dreams told the future. The beliefs about dreams are numerous and range from ridiculous (showing the future) to plausible, including:
- Dreams are a manifestation of the unconscious (show of hands, Freudians)
- Dreams stimulate problem solving
- Dreams help process negative emotions
- Dreams are the collecting/discarding of brain trash (that’s very unjustly put, I admit)
- Dreams consolidate short term memories to long-term memory
- Dreams are a byproduct of neural impulses
Etc., etc., etc.
You see where I’m going with this? So, who’s right? Put your hand down, Dave, you don’t know the answer. There is no answer. Part of the reason for that is because it’s brain-stuff. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say any more on that, but I will. Of all the sciences, neuroscience is probably the one where the least amount of answers have been discovered. And that’s not a slam on neuroscience—for which I have a deep love—it’s a testament to the human brain.
Why Memory Consolidation is so Appealing
The theory of dreams being a byproduct of memory consolidation/processing makes very good sense to me, despite the nay-sayers. Part of the reason I’m so attached to this theory is because I can see it working. Take the elements in this dream I had, for instance:
- I was fresh out of college and the only job I could get was as a manager of a local supermarket
- I had crippling student loans
- I had just come on shift when there was a zombie outbreak, so I had to lead my employees to safety (without getting overtime)
- I had to run to my car to retrieve my revolver
That dream was both awesome and hilarious. It’s one of my favorites. I am also planning to write a book about it, so hands off my dream! Now, compare the dream elements with my reality:
- When I was fresh out of college, I worked a retail job where I was in management
- I have slightly less-than-crippling, although no less daunting, student loans
- I had been marathon-watching Ash vs. The Evil Dead the day/evening before the dream
- I keep a pistol in my car (this is a judgement-free zone)
This ability to connect dream elements with real world elements gives me the proof I need. But, you’re not me, so I don’t know if the same holds true for you.
Why All the Hubbub About Dreams?
Many people still believe that dreams mean something, whether it’s the expression of the unconscious mind or symbolism of what one might be stressing over, looking forward to, etc. And, if you fall into that category, that’s fine. Remember, judgement-free zone. Mostly.
In any case, learning about dreams—both causes and the result of REM sleep deprivation—can also lead to additional information on such mental health issues as depression, migraines, and the development of mental disorders. I want to note here that, in some cases, REM sleep deprivation has been shown to improve the state of depressive patients.
No matter what you believe dreams to be or not be, mean or not mean, I’d like to think that we can all agree on this: The more we discover about the nature, physiology, and effects of dreaming, the more ammunition we may have against some types of mental health issues. And that, my friends, would be a beautiful thing indeed.