Have you ever asked yourself, "What happens to my body when I dream?" Well, you're not alone. We've all wondered, at one time or another, what exactly happens to our bodies when we dream. Now, it's time to get some answers.
Interestingly enough, the whole brain is actually active during dreams. From the brain stem to the cortex. Most dreams occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is part of the sleep-wake cycle and is controlled by the reticular activating system whose circuits run from the brain stem through the thalamus to the cortex.
The limbic system in the mid-brain deals with emotions in both waking and dreaming and includes the amygdala, which is mostly associated with fear and is especially active during dreams.
The cortex is responsible for the content of dreams, including the monsters we flee from, the people we meet, or the experience of flying.
Least active are some parts of the frontal lobes, and this may explain why we can be so uncritical during dreams, accepting the crazy events as though they are real – until we wake up.
According to the International Association for the Study of Dreams, everyone dreams — even if they don't remember it. Dreaming is a natural part of sleeping. So maybe instead of asking, "What happens to my body when I dream?" you should be asking, "What happens to my body when I sleep?" Dreams and sleep go hand in hand. And it turns out, our bodies do a lot while we're doing both.
Sometimes people remember their dreams in vivid details, sometimes there is a feeling that you have had a dream but can't remember what it was, and other times you can't remember if you have had a dream at all. In order to remember the dream, another area of the brain needs to be active - so if it's not active you don't remember it.
Dreams play a significant role in our lives. There is a shared understanding among therapists that dreams are compensatory, meaning that they are not arbitrary and meaningless but have a distinct intention and purpose, which is to bring material from the unconscious into consciousness.
When you dream about people you know, you are not actually dreaming about them. Rather, the people in your dreams actually represent aspects of yourself. Yes, even in our dreams, we're all a little self-obsessed!
Do dreams mean anything?
Dream meanings are subjective because meaning is subjective. If your dreams mean something to you, that means something. Content analysis approaches are looking at the common themes, which may also reveal common or universal meanings, but we’re not there yet. In a study by Nielsen and Powell in 2015, it was found people perceived there to be a causation between eating specific foods and bizarre or disturbing dreams, but there were other factors that influenced this kind of dreaming. This included sleep quality, emotional stress, and poor mental well-being. In fact, indicators of wellness like good sleep quality, healthy diet and longer fasting between meals were associated with vivid dreams.
Did "You Know"?
- Not All Dreams Are in Colour! While most people report dreaming in colour, there is a small percentage of people who claim to only dream in black and white. In studies where dreamers have been awakened and asked to select colors from a chart that match those in their dreams, soft pastel colors are those most frequently chosen.
- Adults and babies alike dream for around two hours per night—even those of us who claim not to. In fact, researchers have found that people usually have several dreams each night, each one typically lasting for between five to 20 minutes.
- Interestingly enough, women tend to have slightly longer dreams that feature more characters. Men tend to dream about other men twice as often as they do about women, while women often dream about both sexes equally.
- Also, did "you know" you are actually paralysed throughout your dream! REM sleep is characterised by paralysis of the voluntary muscles. The phenomenon is known as REM atonia and prevents you from acting out your dreams while you're asleep. Basically, because motor neurons are not stimulated, your body does not move.
In some cases, this paralysis can even carry over into the waking state for as long as 10 minutes, a condition known as sleep paralysis. While the experience can be frightening, experts advise that it is perfectly normal and should last only a few minutes before normal muscle control returns.
Let's now explore what certain dreams could mean...
Dreaming About People You Know
When you have a dream about someone it is important to remember the dream exactly as it happens in order to understand exactly what it means.
Dreaming of family members typically represents your characteristics. A dream involving your cousin having a car accident or maybe an urgent situation could indicate that a part of your personality could be a little used. If your cousin is in your dream, but not as an active participant, this might suggest that you’re not allowing your positive characteristics to be displayed in the real world
Dreaming About An Ex
So, say you had a dream about an acquaintance from school — someone you haven't thought about for years and years. While the dream may seem totally out of the blue, it's possible that you saw someone earlier in the day who reminded your brain of your former friend. This may have happened without you even realizing it, but your mind stored the information regardless. We have no control of how all that information you receive during the day might show up as you sleep, that's why it can sometimes make people uncomfortable.
Even if you've gone no-contact with your ex, that person may still occupy a part of your brain — especially while you're sleeping. We all have a cast of characters who play in our dream theatre. And all of us have (at least) one ex with a recurring role. This is partially due to (mental) habit, partially due to what your ex represents to you, and partially due to an attempt to heal unresolved issues (perhaps the reason for breakup).
Although dreaming about your ex can be disconcerting — especially if you're in a relationship with someone else — these dreams don't necessarily mean you want to get back together. Jennifer Freed, a family behavioral specialist, said it could mean that "you are making your best effort to own the parts of you that you gave over to them, whether good or bad, and that you have an opportunity to become more whole."
Dreaming About Someone You Don't Even Know
Even creepier than dreaming about an ex or someone you once knew is dreaming about someone you don't know at all: a stranger. It may surprise you to learn that about 50 percent of the people we dream about are strangers. That is, people who are unfamiliar to us. An older study (via Psychology Today) found that these strangers tend to be male. Patrick McNamara, a neuroscientist, summarised the study in an article for Psychology Today, writing, "In short, male strangers occur very often in dreams and they invariably signal physical aggression." He continued: "...Male strangers appear to be a 'code' for aggressive impulses that are being processed in memory."
McNamara revealed that this is further proof that dreams do not necessarily mimic our everyday lives. "Instead they appear to be about other matters, matters (and characters) that we cannot capture adequately with images derived from everyday life," he added.
Dreaming About Someone Cheating On You
It can be unsettling to dream about your partner having an affair, but it's actually a fairly common dream, Michael R. Olsen, a dream and unconscious intelligence expert, researcher and speaker, wrote on his site. "When we dream that our partner is unfaithful, it's frequently a (perhaps unconscious) feeling in ourselves that our relationship with our partner may be experienced as less safe and secure during the time that we have this dream," he explained.
"Our partner may in the waking life be 'unfaithful' in ways other than with another man/woman," he continued. It could be that work, kids, or any number of things are dominating your partner's time and causing you to dream about infidelity. A dream about your partner cheating could also be a sign that your relationship has gotten stale, that you've started to bicker more often, or you are concerned they may cheat on you. Olsen said dreams about cheating "rarely reflect real infidelity," but you should still view the dream as a red flag and take the opportunity to assess your relationship in real life.
Dreaming About The Same Person Repeatedly
Chances are you've had a recurring dream at some point in your life. Clinical psychologist John Mayer revealed that around two-thirds of people are thought to experience the phenomenon of having the same kind of dream more than once. "The dreams are usually not exactly the same each time," the expert explained, "but the recurring theme is usually something in your head that is somehow unresolved."
While more than six in ten people may experience dreams with recurring themes, it is more unusual to dream about the same person night after night, Traci Stein, health psychologist said. Don't freak out if you've had the same someone making a nightly appearance, though, as it may carry a similar meaning to other recurring dreams.
Stein advised jotting down the details of this kind of dream in order to discover its theme. "That could either tell you something about what you feel about the person that you may not consciously want to address, but that a part of you thinks it's important to take a closer look at," Stein explained.
Dreaming About Marrying Someone
What does it mean when wedding bells are ringing in your dreams? Well, much depends on whom you're marrying. If you have a dream about marrying someone you wouldn't dare marry in your waking life, don't freak out. Dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg says that you'll want to "ask yourself what stands out about them to you." She continued, saying, "Maybe they are always volunteering and doing charitable work. That would likely be what they represent to you, in which case your subconscious is proposing the idea of ... being more charitable in your own life."
Even if you're already married in your waking life, you could have a dream that you're getting married again — and to someone other than your real-life partner. While this can hint toward dissatisfaction in your relationship, Loewenberg explained that it's more often about the dream figure's qualities. If the person is someone you know in waking life, think about their outstanding qualities. The dream expert said that "at least one of them is a quality you need to commit to 'til death do you part.'"
One way you can assure you have restful sleep with pleasant dreams is to take control of your health (and your dreams) by adopting a healthy lifestyle. Exercise, eating well and minimizing your risk of developing diseases that mess with your dreams is a good start.
You might also try having a healthy snack before bed like a banana and a glass of skimmed milk, which contains tryptophan, an amino acid that help makes people drowsy and sleep more soundly. By incorporating these good, healthy habits, you are more likely to wake from a night of sweet dreams.