Dreams: What goes on in our brain when our body is at rest?
Fascination in complexity
The human brain is known to be one of the most complex networks in the universe, if not as complex as the universe itself. Containing billions of signal-transmitting neurons, these cells practically carry out all internal and external functions in our bodies.
How complex is the brain you might ask? To answer that question, scientists till this day are still trying to uncover all the why’s and how’s that lie deep below the brain’s surface, one of which, is probably one of the most fascinating phenomenons― Dreams.
In order to understand some of these why’s and how’s that revolve around dreams, we must first understand the basics of sleep, when and where do dreams occur, and what exactly are they? Most importantly, what do dreams convey about the brain itself when our bodies are at rest?
It has been calculated that humans spend an average of one third of their lives sleeping. Who would have thought that sleeping would take up so much time of our life? Although it might seem so time consuming, the importance of sleep goes beyond its basic necessity for survival.
Researchers from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke have proven that within the 7-9 hour period that the body is asleep, the brain uses this time to restore itself by clearing out all toxins that build up during the day, a process that cannot be done when the body is in its conscious state.
The exact process of the brain’s restoration however, is still unknown. The brain’s ability to restore and clear toxins for the improvement of its overall function proves to show how active the brain is during that period of time when our body is not.
Stages of Sleep
In the unconscious state during which our body is asleep, our brain produces different brain waves and neuronal activity, causing our body to go through two phases of sleep: non-REM sleep and REM sleep.
The abbreviation REM is short for rapid eye movement, however, this eye movement behind our closed lids does not occur until the last stage of sleep.
Non-REM sleep occurs in the first three stages in which our body enters its unconscious state. In the first stage, the brain transitions from its conscious state to sleep. This light sleep stage slows brain activity, breathing, and heartbeat as the body eases itself into slumber.
In the second stage, the body’s functions continue to lower, as well as its temperature. Although the brain’s activity remains to slow down, small sparks of electrical activity are detected.
The third stage is the stage your body enters its deep sleep. At this stage, your brain and body’s functions drop to their lowest points.
Soon after, the body enters its last stage ― REM sleep. It is at this stage that rapid eye movement begins, and the brain becomes strikingly active, as if it were in the body’s conscious state. This is when our brains start creating all sorts of visual imagery, with familiar characters in distorted situations. Dreams unravel and become the most vivid in this final stage.
This cycle eventually repeats itself, and the brain enters the REM stage 4 to 5 more times, which might explain why we experience a series of fragments of different dreams that have no correlation between them whatsoever!
What about dreams?!
Dreams are scientifically described as hallucinations that we experience when the brain is at its most active state during sleep.
Dreams carry a mysterious quality to them, as they leave people and scientists with questions that have no definite answers as to why exactly we experience dreams and if they hold some sort of importance on the brain’s or body’s overall function.
In REM sleep, significantly more brain activity is observed in the hippocampus, a section of the brain responsible for memory and learning. This observation allows scientists to conclude that there is a strong connection between dreams and memory.
Dreams are different from one individual to another, the reason being that dreams reflect on the individual's reality. These dreams are a distorted mirror of the environment we live in, the people in the past and present we associate ourselves with, our inner thoughts and emotions, and everything we have ever experienced or observed in our life.
All of this information is stored in our hippocampus as memories, which later on at night, our brain uses small fragments of to create a bizarre, happy, or even a frightful conscious-like experience while our body is in deep sleep.
A forgetful mystery...
The mechanism and function behind dreams continues to show how complex our human brain is, and how much more there is to discover.
Although we might not have all the answers to why our brain functions the way it does, or what the exact purpose of dreams are, or even why we remember only some parts of our dream and forget the rest, this mystery behind these unanswered questions is what keeps people fascinated simply by not knowing the unknown. Maybe dreams uncover emotions, thoughts, or desires that our conscious mind is not aware of itself? Maybe the purpose of dreams is to shine light on the true person we are deep down? Or maybe it is preparing the brain itself for the unknown, whatever that might be.
However, of all these questions, perhaps the one we should be more focused on is: Maybe some mysteries are meant to be left unsolved?