The Stuff That Dreams (and Nightmares) Are Made Of

Friday, April 11, 2014

When we fall asleep, our brains invent incredibly realistic and memorable dreams. Sometimes those dreams are dark and terrifying, making falling asleep something to fear. On this week's Please Explain, we'll find out what goes on inside our brains as we sleep. Dr. Andrew Gerber, a Neuroscientist and Clinician at Columbia University, and David K. Randall, journalist and author of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep , explain the neuroscience of dreams and nightmares.

Why do we dream? Do dreams have a purpose? When the brain is asleep it's inundated by impulses and senses and experiences, and the brain puts them together. A necessary function of sleep, especially of REM sleep, is to consolidate the information that was gathered in the previous day and even in the more distant past, into coherent, long-term memories that get stored for later use. That's what dreams are. Dr. Gerber explained that the general scientific theory is that “Every night when we sleep our brains are consolidating what we should remember and letting go what we don’t.”

According to  Dr. William Domhoff, a professor at UC Santa Cruz who collected 50,000 dream logs, most dreams are by and large negative. “People are attacked, people don’t like you, it’s kind of like the worst days of middle school,” said David Randall.

Are dreams and nightmares different? Dreams that have the same basic structure—a narrative, imagery, a plot—have the same kind of neural substrate to them, whether they be positive or negative. When you wake up with a generally bad feeling but not with any recollection of a bad dream, it might mean that you had a dream with a different kind of structure that involved different parts of the brain.



Dr. Andrew Gerber and David K. Randall

Comments [26]

Lots of good questions here, but I don't see answers. Isn't it the answers we're all really interested in?

May. 03 2014 02:53 PM

Years ago I read "The Interpretation of Dreams". I did not understand the material then and cannot find the book now. How does that book play into present-day dreams?

Apr. 22 2014 06:14 PM
Andee from Seattle

That's it! That's all that was said about Dreams? Wow! I was hoping for some up to date research or explanation about dreaming that I haven't already learned in grad school, jungian theory class.

Apr. 17 2014 06:39 PM
Isabelle from Miami

That much I could've told you myself!!! The real question is "why are those pictures chosen", " why are those memories chosen", " why that particular time and not another?" I think that's where the real question comes into play. We tend to under estimate our brain because we don't know yet what all the parts of the brain are utilized for (thus came the moronic idea that we don't utilize all of our brain). A perfect example would be SSRIs, we do not know how they work and why it takes for them so long to work. In the same manner, any psych undergrad knows what dreams are!! The true question lays beneath the surface of this psych101 article

Apr. 14 2014 07:55 AM
Alexandra from NJ

How does Narcolepsy affects dreams/night terrors?

Apr. 11 2014 01:59 PM
Denise from Sunnyside

I know everyone is supposed to dream, but I very rarely remember mine. Roughly 5-6 times a year I have a dream I can recall when I awake. Why?

Apr. 11 2014 01:57 PM
Mimi Cohen from Manhattan

Can you talk about hypnagogic hallucinations?
About once a month, I'll fall asleep and be awakened about 3 hours later. When I open my eyes I see what's like watching a movie. The doctor says this like seeing my REMs.

Apr. 11 2014 01:57 PM

Heated mattress pads create electromagnetic fields. Electromagnetic fields cause cancer.

Takeaway? You're insane to sleep in an electromagnetic field!!

Apr. 11 2014 01:55 PM
Maria from Queens

I read in my sleep but hear that that is suppose to be impossible. what is the story about that?

Apr. 11 2014 01:54 PM

I read in my sleep but hear that that is suppose to be impossible. what is the story about that?

Apr. 11 2014 01:54 PM
Estelle from Brooklyn

I frequently have dreams where I start to think, "Could this be a dream?" And within my dream I look around and notice how vivid everything is and think, "No, this is real." Then I wake up.

Does this happen to anyone else?

Apr. 11 2014 01:49 PM

There ARE people who DO remember absolutely everything that happens to them, and they don't seem to run out of space or energy.

It's a rare condition, but it's well known enough to have been the subject of a story on NPR.

Apr. 11 2014 01:48 PM
sportyjk from The working poor part of the UWS

how do you explain the phenomenon of vividly dreaming about people & places that you've never been to/met, and later (weeks, months, years) being in that situation? The dreams are vivid enough, that i can predict what they next few min's of conversation is, or recall feeling a strong emotion in that scenario. It's happened enough times that instead of just "letting the scene play", i sometimes say/react differently, just to "change my destiny". THis includes foreign countries & people i'd never met before.

This has happened to me on an occasional basis (2-4x/year) since high school.

Apr. 11 2014 01:46 PM
Frank from New Jersey

All my dreams are distressing. They are not horrible nightmares but I never have a fun or carefree dream. I find that when I am worried about someone, have a stressful situation or an unresolved problem, I dream about them.

When a particular situation is resolved, my dreams about them stop. I have an anxiety disorder. Is there any relationship?

Apr. 11 2014 01:45 PM
Tom from Blakeslee PA

Do you know of anyone who has memory of being born?

For decades I had a dream that would turn into a nightmare. About 10 years ago I (with a Dr's help) determined that I was experiencing my birth. Since then the dream/nightmare has never occurred. It happened so many times, that I still have the vivid memory

Apr. 11 2014 01:45 PM
Josh from Boulder, CO

How does marijuana affect our dreams/nightmares?

Apr. 11 2014 01:45 PM
Vandana from New Jersey

What, if anything, is currently known about lucid dreaming, from a neurological perspective?

Apr. 11 2014 01:43 PM
Anonymous from Upper West Side

I was never a heavy sleeper however my husband said he had been trying to wake me by calling my name, I did not awake until he touched me...what is going on. Age range 30-40...please advise. PS - I was not especially tired, just watching TV prior, I was sitting up for goodness sakes!!

Apr. 11 2014 01:40 PM
sharon from Manhattan

Why and how do drugs like Levequain trigger nightmares?

Apr. 11 2014 01:40 PM
E from Manhattan

What about dreams when you are fluent in a foreign language, or have some other sort of expertise that seems incredibly well-informed in the dream but doesn't exist in real life? Is this common? If only it were transferable to reality!

Apr. 11 2014 01:39 PM
sharon from Manhattan

How/why do medicines like Levequain trigger nightmares?

Apr. 11 2014 01:38 PM
Laura from Nyack

Does lying on one side or the other affect blodflow to different areas or the different sides of the brain, and thereby affect dreams?

Apr. 11 2014 01:37 PM
antonio from baySide

Seems like they're dreams which every culture have which are almost like themes, like what's with people losing their teeth? And of course dreaming of the dead (loved ones which have passed on)...

Apr. 11 2014 01:35 PM
Daria from Dallas

If one remembers dreams in vivid detail just before awakening, what does that reveal -if anything- about the quality (or stage) of sleep right befor waking up?

Apr. 11 2014 01:29 PM
Brook from Bronx, NY

Does the vividness of dreams and nightmares diminish with age?

Apr. 11 2014 01:28 PM
George from Bay Ridge

How does our diet affect our dreams and nightmares?

Apr. 11 2014 11:33 AM

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