Have you ever dreamed that you are walking into a college final exam and you have done no studying for it? Better yet, in the dream, have you walked into the exam and forgotten your pants? I can tell you from personal experience, I have had dreams where both events occur. Fortunately, I’m pleased to report, this has never happened in real life and likely and hopefully never will. More importantly, though, I now know that my dreams have served an all-important psychological function-working out my anxieties in a low-risk environment and preparing for the future.
Most of the emotions we feel in dreams are negative; including fear, helplessness, anxiety and guilt. Yet, this night-time unpleasantness may, in fact, provide an advantage during the day.
All sleep is not the same. Dreams typically occur in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when our brains are more active. You cycle between REM and non-REM sleep. First, comes non-REM sleep followed by REM sleep and then the cycle starts over again. Babies spend 50% of their sleep in the REM stage, compared to only 20% for adults. Deep sleep which is non-REM is known for the changes in your body, not your brain; when your body repairs and regrows tissues, builds bone and muscle and strengthens the immune system.
REM sleep is crucial for mental and physical health, yet we generally slough off the dreams as being silly, juvenile, and self-indulgent and simply get on with our day. Because dreams seldom make literal sense, it can be easier to discard them than to try to interpret them. In fact, according to Alice Robb, author of “Why We Dream,” dreams can help us “consolidate new memories and prune extraneous pieces of information.” Further, they may provide a time for the brain to experiment with a wider array of associations of the facts and outcomes and sometimes help solve problems.
Finnish evolutionary psychologist Dr. Antti Revonsuo studied the perplexing question of why our minds subject us to something so unpleasant. He reasoned that if our ancestors could practice dealing with dangerous situations, perhaps battling a mastodon, as they slept, they might have an advantage when they had to confront them in the next day. Research on animals fits into this theory. REM deprived rats struggle with survival-related tasks such as navigating a maze, while rats with REM sleep apparently dream about this upcoming challenge and perform better.
In 2014 researchers at the Sorbonne interviewed a group of aspiring doctors about to take their medical school entrance exam. Nearly all of the 719 students who replied had dreamt about the exam at least once beforehand and, understandably, almost all of those dreams were nightmares. They had dreamed that they got lost on the way to the exam facility, that they couldn’t understand the questions and that they had written their answers with invisible ink. Ouch. But, when the researchers compared the results of the exam with dreaming patterns, they found that students who dreamed more often performed better in real life.
Ms. Robb suggests that, while we tend to focus on and discuss dreams that are strange, most dreams are less bizarre than we think. A study in the 60s by psychologist Frederick Snyder of 600 dream reports showed that “dreaming consciousness” was, in fact, “a remarkably faithful replica of waking life.” He found that 9 out of 10 dreams “would have been considered credible descriptions of everyday experience.”
In another study, Dr. Revonsuo and Dr. Christina Salmivalli, analyzed hundreds of dreams from a group of their students and discovered that the emotions in the dream were usually appropriate to the situation, even if the situation itself was unusual. “The dreamer’s own self was ‘well preserved.’” Effectively, even in dreams, we know who we are.
So, go ahead and get a good night’s sleep tonight and look forward to the REM dreaming phase. It may feel negative and not be all that comfortable. However, it just might give your brain some time to work through some important matters and find solutions.