The Neuroscience of Your Dreams

Ellie Gelardi

Dreaming is one of the most fascinating parts of the human mind. Our dreams reveal components of memory and the subconscious, and many consider dreams to be revelatory of who we are.

To understand what dreaming is, it is best to define dreams: a dream is a sequence of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that occur involuntarily during different stages of sleep. Whether you remember them or not, it is said that everyone has about an average of six dreams during a period of sleep. A dream can last anywhere from five to twenty minutes and by the time we leave our beds, about ninety five percent of them are forgotten.

What you see in your dreams is different conversation altogether. The visions that appear in your dreams can vary from unconscious desires (as Freud argued, though this is debated) to consolidating or processing information from earlier that day. Evidence from research methodologies speculate that dreaming serves the following functions: 

  1. Offline memory reprocessing: the brain’s way of consolidating learning and memory tasks
  2. Supporting and recording waking consciousness
  3. Preparing for any possible threats 
  4. Cognitive simulation of real life: the part of the brain used for “daydreaming” is where this simulation occurs.
  5. Helping cognitive capabilities 
  6. Reflecting unconscious mental function
  7. A state of consciousness that incorporates the experiences of the present, processing the past, and preparing for the future.
  8. A physiological space where overwhelming notions can be brought together by the “dreaming ego”; notions that would be unsettling while awake, serving the need for physiological balance.

Now, you might notice that you only remember your dreams right before you wake up, and there is a reason for this. Dreaming happens in the final phase of sleeping, phase five. Phase five is commonly known as REM (rapid eye movement). This is when breathing becomes more rapid, irregular, and shallow. Eyes rapidly jerk in various directions and limbs can become temporarily paralyzed. When people wake up during REM, they often describe bizarre tales, and these are dreams. 

Many people have recorded unusual and even momentous dreams in the past several months of COVID-19 and quarantine isolation. While there is no definitive reason for this, the factors listed above support the potential for additional internal processing of major emotions and life changes.