Have you ever woken up from a dream feeling terrified? You might even feel devestated. You look around and see that your partner hasn’t actually dumped you or you haven’t ran through the halls of your school in your underwear. As you wake, you realize that your dream was absolutely ridiculous! Yet, everyone looked so real. Your emotions felt real. Your chest may still be tight and you might be sweating even as you get out of bed.
It’s not uncommon for dreams to feel very real, even when they have a very unreal premise. As we explore how our brains process dreams, take a moment to reflect. If our emotions can run so high during a dream, what does that mean for our emotions in real life?
Why Do Dreams Feel Real?
Dreams feel real because we use the same brain to process them! Parts of the brain that process “real” sensory information in wakefulness are active in REM sleep. The more rational parts of our brain only switch on in wakefulness. This is why dreams play out like any “real” experience!
We dream in REM sleep. What does that mean? Rapid Eye Movement Sleep. It’s true! We do not just lay our heads down on the pillow, fall asleep, and wake up. Our bodies go through many stages of sleep that are essential for our growth, recovery, and cognition!
Most stages of sleep are non-REM sleep. During this time, our brain is less active than our bodies. Our internal temperatures rise and fall, our breathing rate changes, and tissues undergo critical repairs. In the deepest stages of non-REM sleep, our bodies also release human growth hormones. Sleeping helps us grow! We do not dream in non-REM sleep.
REM sleep is where all the strange, bizarre, and pleasant dreams take place. Our bodies are, for the most part, paralyzed. (This is why you can’t act out your dreams!) The only thing that is moving is our eyes. And yes, they move quite rapidly. Our eyes and brain are very active during this time of the night. It’s a good thing are brains are active! We are able to learn more efficiently, remember more, and generate proteins that help us function throughout the day.
What Parts of the Brain Are Active or Inactive While we Dream?
Even if that heartbreak in our dream isn’t “real,” we may feel the same way in our bodies and minds when we wake up. Our visual cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and thalamus are hard at work processing information and emotions while we dream.
It’s especially important to point out that the thalamus, which processes sensory information, is active during REM sleep and nonactive during non-REM sleep. That is why we don’t dream when we are in other stages of sleep. Nothing in our brains is telling us what’s “going on!”
Our frontal lobe is not active during REM sleep. This is the part of the brain that rationalizes and uses logic. Without it activated, you can’t look at the giant marshmallow man chasing you and think, “This doesn’t make sense!”
How Do Experts Explain Lucid Dreaming?
In some dreams, maybe the prefrontal cortex is actually active. Most of the time, our frontal cortex is turned off when we dream. But have you ever had a lucid dream? If you have, you might have been using parts of your brain you don’t normally use!
Lucid dreaming occurs when the dreamer realizes that they’re in a dream. Some lucid dreamers can actually walk through their “dream world” and manipulate the situation they are in. You might realize that the giant marshmallow man is part of a crazy dream, stop running, and take a chunk out of his leg. Or, you might realize you’re in a dream and finally have the courage to call up your crush!
Experts aren’t exactly sure why we have lucid dreams. We do know they have been going on for centuries, and they are hard to pin down. Watching someone’s brain while they sleep, waiting for a lucid dream, might take months and months of research. There have been instances where a person was lucid dreaming and technology has shown parts of the frontal cortex activated, but more research needs to be done to confirm what is happening during this type of phenomenon.
Why Do We Remember Our Dreams?
There are nights when you seem to wake up in the middle of a dream. Maybe your alarm clock is part of the dream. Or, you wake up and have to take a moment to realize you’re not in your dream world! Other nights, you wake up and can’t remember if you had any dreams at all!
Why does this happen? Sleep experts believe it is because we may wake up during the different stage of sleep. We cycle from light sleep to deep sleep to REM sleep to deep sleep to light sleep many times during the night. In a perfect world, we would gently ease our way from the lightest stage of sleep to wakefulness. When this happens, we are less likely to remember our dreams. Too much time has passed since the dream occurred, and our minds have simply forgotten the dream.
If you do wake up and remember your dream, it is likely you were in REM sleep at the time you woke up. This isn’t bad! It’s not always easy to time our alarm clocks to our sleep cycles, and we have to get up to go to work or school at some point. Plus, it can be fun to remember our dreams.