How much thought do you give to your dreaming life? We all wake and occasionally wonder why we dreamt a particular set of circumstances—let’s face it, sometimes dreams can seem strange in the light of the waking day. And for all of us at some point, a bad dream may linger, and you may need a little time to shake off the uncomfortable feelings associated with your dream.
But how much have you considered the purpose of your dreams, and the influence they might have over your waking life? Two recent studies explore dreaming from different angles, in search of deeper understanding of the purpose of this fascinating—and relatively little understood—aspect of our lives.
Their study included 41 participants, nearly evenly split between people with high capacity for dream recall and people with low dream recall abilities. The high dream recallers were able to remember their dreams an average of 5 mornings a week. Low dream recallers averaged about 2 mornings a month.
Researchers used PET scan to observe and record the brain activity of all participants during sleep and also during a resting, but wakeful, state. They were particularly interested in two areas of the brain—the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). After monitoring sleep and waking states using PET scans, researchers found significant differences in TPJ and MPFC brain activity between low-recall and high-recall dreamers. Dreamers with high recall abilities showed higher levels of brain activity in both of these regions during several different stages of sleep, including REM sleep, which is the stage of sleep most closely linked to dreaming. Most interesting? The differences in brain activity were apparent not only during sleeping, but also when participants were awake. High dream recallers also displayed more activity in these brain regions during their resting state of wakefulness than low dream recallers.
This study builds on earlier research by the same team of scientists, which found that people with high dream recall abilities awakened twice as often throughout the night, compared to low dream recallers. As best we know, the brain does not form new memories during sleep itself, and one possible explanation for differences in dream recall abilities may be the amount of time people spend awake throughout the night—even in brief awakenings that sleepers are not aware are taking place.
Their latest findings suggest that the activity in the TPJ and MPFC regions of the brain may influence the storing of dreams to memory. In particular, the TPJ is an area of the brain that engages in processing internal and external information, and is responsive to stimuli. Higher levels of activity in this region may make people prone to more frequent awakenings throughout the night—and more chances to commit dreams to memory they can access when they wake for the day.
Dreams have long been thought of as a source of guidance and answers to questions of the mind. Have you ever awakened from a night’s sleep having new insight into a problem, and found the source of that insight came in some way through a dream? It’s an experience that’s happened to many of us.
Scientists at the U.K.’s Liverpool John Moores University explored the potential link between dreams and problem solving by examining a specific type of dream: the lucid dream. In a lucid dream, the dreamer is aware that he or she is in the midst of a dream, and can take control and direct aspects of the dream. Lucid dreaming is a skill that can be developed, according to research.
In the current study, researchers worked with 9 experienced lucid dreamers, male and female, between the ages 18-41. Researchers created a control group of 9 participants with similar demographic characteristics who were not lucid dreamers but who did have strong dream recall abilities. Over a 10-day period, all participants were given a nightly “task” to solve. Researchers delivered tasks via email each night at 9 p.m. for every participant’s local time. Both the lucid dreamers and the control group were instructed to read over the task several times before going to bed, and to try to memorize the task without actually solving the problem it contained. The tasks were of two types: logical and creative. Logical tasks involved providing factual information in response to a question, while creative tasks involved creating metaphors.
Researchers asked lucid dreamers to use their dream skills to complete each task. Lucid dreamers were given specific instructions about how to do this, including initiating a dream and seeking out within that dream a guide who could help the dreamer solve the problem of the nightly task. Once the task had been resolved, lucid dreamers were instructed to wake themselves up and write down the answer they received.
Non-lucid dreamers were asked to recall their dreams immediately after waking, to record their most vivid dream of the night, and to solve the task with the first answer that came to their minds. This was also the procedure that lucid dreamers followed if they weren’t able to successfully complete their instructions to find an answer through a guide within their dream. Research analyzed 160 individual dream reports of both lucid and non-lucid dreamers, examining the responses to both logical and creative tasks. They found no significant differences between lucid and non-lucid dreamers in terms of the logical problem solving. When it came to solving creative problems, however, researchers’ analysis determined that lucid dreamers had an edge over non-lucid dreamers. Lucid dreamers were more successful in creating metaphors than non-lucid dreamers. The experiment is a fascinating one, and ought to spur more research into lucid dreaming, and the role that dreams can play in the creative process and in problem solving.
There’s so much we still don’t know about why we dream, where dreams originate in the brain, and what functions our dreams serve. The search for answers to these questions provides a fascinating look inside one of the deepest mysteries of sleep—and may shed light on our waking lives as well.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™