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The Science of Dreaming

What are dreams?

Dreams combine verbal, visual, and emotional stimuli into a broken and nonsensical, yet entertaining storyline. Dreams can include people you know or people you’ve never met, as well as places you are familiar with or places you’ve never even heard of. Sometimes dreams are simply a recall of events throughout the day, while other times they reveal some of our deepest and darkest fears, secrets, and fantasies. 

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What happens in our brains when we dream?

There are five sleep stages that occur while we sleep. Our brain activity gradually slows down during the first four stages until we experience delta brain waves, which are the slowest brain waves and part of the deepest level of sleep. After the fourth stage, we enter REM sleep where most dreaming occurs. During REM sleep cycle, our bodies are paralyzed until we leave it, to ensure we don’t act out our dreams. We go through these stages several times and have more REM sleep as the night goes on. 

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Why can't we always remember dreams?

It is said that just five minutes after we wake up, we have already forgotten at least 50% of our dream’s content. And just ten minutes later, we’ve forgotten 90%. There are many theories about why we have trouble remembering dreams, such as Freud’s theory that we forget our dreams because they contain repressed thoughts and wishes that we don’t care to remember. Other dream researchers simply believe that because humans tend to think ahead rather than backwards, we can’t remember because other things get in the way and make it more difficult.

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How do you control your dreams?

There is currently research being done in dream control, specifically in the areas of lucid dreaming and dream incubation. These are both learned methods that allow you to control the events that occur in your dreams, but both take a lot of training and practice in order to be successful. Read on for more information about these methods and how you can learn to control your own dreams. 

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What is lucid dreaming?

Lucid dreaming is a method of dream control that occurs when you realize you are dreaming while you are still dreaming and are then able to control what happens in your dreams. Less than 20% of people in the United States are able to have lucid dreams once a month or more. There are many different techniques and approaches for learning how to have lucid dreams, but all take a great deal of training and practice to effectively accomplish. While lucid dreaming is generally just a cool concept, there are also practical applications for this practice as well, such as aiding in personal development, enhancing self-confidence, overcoming nightmares, and improving mental health. 

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What is dream incubation?

Less complex than lucid dreaming, dream incubation is a technique for controlling your dreams that involves learning to plant a seed for a specific dream topic to occur. If you believe that dreams aid in problem solving, this technique is useful for directing your dreams to include a specific problem that you are attempting to address. 

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What is sleep paralysis?

During hypnagogia, the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep, many mental phenomena can occur during this time, including sleep paralysis. This causes a person to temporarily be unable to move, speak, or react, and it is often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations and physical experiences. This can include seeing a person walk into your room and being unable to react or feeling a strong current running through your upper body. 

These experiences are known as waking dreams, and they can feel like your nightmares are literally coming to life. One theory for why sleep paralysis occurs is that it is the result of disrupted REM sleep, since your body becomes paralyzed while in REM. Sleep paralysis is sometimes a symptom of disorders such as narcolepsy, migraines, anxiety, and sleep apnea. 

 

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Why do we have recurring dreams?

A recurring dream means having the same or similar dream many times, either over a short period of time or sometimes even over your entire lifetime. According to some theorists, having a recurring dream usually means there is some underlying problem in your life that is causing you stress that you are ignoring. The reason the dream repeats is because you have yet to correct the problem. 

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What are nightmares?

Nightmares are dreams that are so distressing they usually wake us up in the middle of the night. Though they can occur at any age, nightmares are usually seen in children with the most frequency. Traumatic events can cause nightmares to occur, as can certain medications.  If you have recurring nightmares, getting treatment for the problem will vary depending on who you ask. Psychologists will usually recommend beginning with trying to interpret what the dream is about and why you are having it. Then you are expected to address the problem or problems that are causing the nightmare to occur. Another method for stopping nightmares is to learn lucid dreaming, which allows you to confront your attacker in the dream and therefore end the nightmares. 

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Can we learn from our dreams?

While most scientists see dreams as merely nonsense that the brain creates from fragments of images and memories, there are dream interpreters dedicated to examining the symbolic messages encoded in our dreams. However, dream interpretation should be taken with a grain of salt, as systems of interpretation are not supported by science

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