Dreaming and the Brain

Transcript of Neuro Nugget Video:

Your brain is an orchestra when it comes to sleep. It’s a common misconception that when we sleep, we’re just turning off our brains. The brain, while sleeping never fully shuts down. When you’re dreaming, different brain parts and functions go to work at different times. Scientists believe the brain uses this time to clean out toxins in the area.

It also tells your body to produce hormones that keep you from acting out your dreams. The brain also lowers your breathing, heart rate, and body temperature. The brain’s electrical activity fluctuates depending on the phase of sleep you’re in. And 10 minutes after waking, you’ll forget about 90% of what you dreamt. Yet a good night’s sleep can help you store more information gained during the day versus a poor night’s sleep.

We are still figuring out the whole brain’s dreaming process including the purpose of dreaming really. But modern research suggests it’s a combination of imagination, psychological, and neurology. We know the whole brain is active during dreams, from the brain stem all the way to the cortex. Most dreams occur during REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep. This is the 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 it 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 we have of flying. Since we are highly visual animals, the visual cortex right at the back of the brain is especially active, but so are many other parts of the cortex.

Least active are some parts of the frontal lobes. And this may explain why we can be so uncritical during our dreams. Accepting the crazy events as though they were real, well until we wake up, that is, it’s said that time heals all wounds. But research suggests that time spent in dream sleep is actually what really heals. REM sleep dreaming appears to take the painful sting out of a difficult, even traumatic emotional episode that may have been experienced during the day, offering emotional resolution when you awake the next morning. REM sleep is the only time when our brain is completely devoid of the anxiety triggering molecule, noradrenaline.

At the same time, key emotional and memory-related structures of the brain are reactivated during REM sleep as we dream. This means that emotional memory reactivation is occurring in a brain free of key stress chemical, which allows us to reprocess upsetting memories in a much safer, calmer environment. Sleep is the single most effective thing we do to rest our brain and physical health each day. Atop of sleep, dreaming provides essential physical benefits in a unique form of emotional first aid. As the old saying goes, “Sweet dreams.”

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Posted on

March 1, 2023