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How Our Dreams Influence Our Days

How much thought do you give to your dreaming life?

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 at some point, for nearly all of us, a bad dream has lingered, and we've needed a little time to shake off the uncomfortable feelings associated with it.

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 still relatively little understood—aspect of our lives.

Scientists at France’s Lyon Neuroscience Research Center examined brain activity during dreaming, in an attempt to better understand how dreams may carry over to waking memory—what’s known as dream recall—and why some people are better at remembering dreams than others.

Their study included 41 participants, nearly evenly split between people who'd indicated a high capacity for dream recall and those with low dream-recall abilities. (The high dream recallers were able to remember their dreams an average of five mornings a week, while the low dream recallers averaged about twice 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, the 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 brain regions during several different stages of sleep, including REM sleep, the stage most closely linked to dreaming. Most interestingly, these differences in brain activity were apparent not only during sleep, 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 throughout the night twice as often as low dream recallers did. As best we know, the brain does not form new memories during sleep itself, so 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 may influence the storing of dreams to memory. In particular, the TPJ 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 that 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 with new insight into a problem, and found that 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 some research.

In the current study, researchers worked with 9 experienced lucid dreamers, male and female, between the ages of 18 and 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. 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 it without actually solving the problem it contained. The tasks were of two types—logical and creative. The logical tasks involved providing factual information in response to a question, while the 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. 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 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.

This 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 provides a fascinating look inside one of the deepest mysteries of sleep—and it may shed light on our waking lives as well.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor™