I treasure the mornings I wake up still in the thick of my dreams. Whether I’m left with images, snatches of conversations, or ephemeral threads of emotion, there’s something otherworldly about the fibers of stories we carry from our dreams into our everyday lives. Perhaps I find them so enchanting because of their inexplicability. Sure, we have a fair amount of theories about how they are born and how we should interpret them. But for the most part, they’re uncanny and mysterious.
Dreams also inspire me to write. Novice writers are often encouraged to find a tiny corner of a story, pin it down, and write the world of the story from that square foot. And what are dreams if not corners? Yes, sometimes I remember a whole narrative or two scraps of conversation. But most often, I’m left with only a startling image. A poignant whisper left behind. I’m left to wonder, as Joan Didion has:
“Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?”‘
It turns out Didion is definitely onto something. Studies conducted on dreams in the last ten years have revealed a compelling relationship between our emotions and the time we spend snoozing, according to Scientific American. Past research has indicated that dreams are best remembered when the dreamer is awoken during REM sleep. But as dreams are analyzed, again and again, new findings are being uncovered:
Finding #1: During a 2011 study of 65 students, researchers found that participants with low-frequency theta waves in the frontal lobe had a higher chance of remembering their dreams. According to Sander van der Linden of Scientific American, ” [These findings] suggest that the neurophysiological mechanisms that we employ while dreaming (and recalling dreams) are the same as when we construct and retrieve memories while we are awake.”
Finding #2 : This round of research suggests that the dreams we’re most likely to remember, aka—the strange and the vivid—are linked with two other regions of our brain that function principally with memory: the amygdala (which processes memory and emotional reactions) and the hippocampus (which among other things, controls the creation of short-term and long-term memory).
Finding #3: This research, published by Matthew Walker and colleagues at the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at UC Berkeley, found that reductions in REM sleep weaken our ability to understand complex emotions during our everyday life. That’s why our emotions seem to outrun us on days when we’re working with limited hours of shut-eye.
When these three studies are placed side-by-side, Sander van der Linden says that they suggest, “what we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real, but the emotions attached to these experiences certainly are.” So the emotions we suppress throughout the day become expressed in narrative dream sequences. No wonder sleep is so vital to our mental states: it’s an obligatory pause for our brains. A time when we can’t talk ourselves out of dealing with the things that scare us.
Maybe that’s why we find dreams so enthralling. We sense that they offer us something greater than themselves— a peek at what we feel in the absence of the voice inside of us that attempts to yell, “I’M OKAY, I’M FINE, EVERYTHING’S COOL!” There’s nowhere to hide. If we don’t face ourselves in consciousness, we will in sleep. Or, in Didion’s case, we’ll run smack dab into ourselves on the page.
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