Racking your brain: What role do dreams play in a good night’s sleep?

Scientists and psychologists have very little information on why and how we dream but most agree that dreams do little to affect the quality of our sleep.

Close up of a woman sleeping on the bed

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Close up of a woman sleeping on the bed

Despite a century of research and advancement since Sigmund Freud said dreams are a window into human psyches, scientists and psychologists have very little in the way of information on why and how we dream. Most agree however, that dreams do little to affect the quality of our sleep (with the exception of the occasional nightmare, of course), says Carlyle Smith, professor emeritus of psychology at Peterborough’s Trent University and author of Heads up Dreaming.

While only a very small percentage of the population say they never dream (one study on “non-dreamers” pegs it at less than six per cent of the population), not everyone is great at remembering their night-time sagas, with upwards of 95 per cent of our dreams forgotten once we wake.

Most often, people will recall their dreams when woken suddenly from a rapid eye movement cycle (REM cycle), or when they’re jolted awake by a nightmare. As a result, people associate that disruptive waking process with poor sleep quality, says Smith. But in reality, bad dreams are a symptom, rather than the cause of a poor night’s sleep, and are usually the brain’s way of working through some psychological problem, he says.

Speaking with a sleep therapist, keeping dream journals to try to identify the stressing factor, can be used as tools to combat nightmares and bad dreams, he says. Those who do feel their sleep is affected by their dreams should let themselves off the hook a bit, lest they develop anxiety about dreaming, which would begin to affect their sleep.

“Lots of people think that sleep should be this time of absolute silence, a coma where there’s no thoughts going through their heads,” Smith says. “But everyone dreams.”

While it’s been widely accepted that people dream during their REM cycles, new research from the University of Wisconsin suggests that people dream well throughout the night – even in their deepest of sleep. This means the brain is likely never quiet, says Stuart Fogel, assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Ottawa.

Some people are just better than others are remembering what happens when they sleep. Fogel’s recent research found that people with good verbal skills and who are better at memorization are more likely to remember their dreams in vivid detail than people who are better at solving logic problems or puzzles.

Interestingly, however, when those problem solvers gain new information during the day, like taking an interesting math class or watching a new history documentary, they were more likely to remember their dreams, he says.

Fogel believes – and other studies back him up – that dreams is the result of neural processes going through our brains to help us build memories – a way for our brains to “back-up” what we learned throughout the day.

“Our brains are always busy,” he says. “Sleep without dreams is like being awake without thought.”

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