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The Dream Series (literally)

What Do Dreams Mean?

I‘m sitting in the right seat in the cockpit of a 747. We’re flying low and suddenly enter a parking garage. The captain tries to turn a corner and gets stuck, blaming me for distracting him.

Okay, true confession – I have recurrent airplane dreams. The scripts vary, but there are only two plots. I’m either zipping along in a low-flying commercial jet, amazed we aren’t hitting electrical lines. Or I’m witnessing a plane crash.

Dreams are amazing, aren’t they? And, to me, the best part is they remain a mystery – even in this age of high-technology and discovery.

Well, let’s see what we can make of them in a two-part series.

What Are Dreams?

Dreams are a chain of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that involuntarily occur in the mind during specific stages of sleep. The study of dreams is known as oneirology (pronounced own-eh-rology). It’s from the Greek, oneiros – for dream.

During an eight-hour sleep period, the majority of us will dream for approximately two hours. Most dreams last 5-20 minutes. No one knows exactly where in the brain dreams originate, and it’s unknown if the purpose of dreaming is for the benefit of the mind or body.

News Flash: Though many tout being able to accurately interpret dreams – no way.

REM Sleep

To understand dreams it’s a good idea to know a bit about rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep) (not the band). REM sleep is a normal stage of sleep characterized by, you guessed it, rapid eye movement.

But it isn’t a for-your-eyes-only proposition. REM sleep also includes low muscle tone and rapid, low-voltage EEG (electroencephalography).

The release of  the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and histamine is shutdown during REM sleep. Why? So motor neurons can’t be stimulated, which prevents dangerous body movements during a dream.

In adults, REM sleep takes up about 20–25% (90-120 minutes if sleeping eight hours) of our sleep time. Newborns spend 80%+ of their sleep-time in REM sleep. Adults typically have four or five periods of REM sleep, becoming longer as the sleep period ensues.

Fascinatingly enough, the activity of brain neurons during REM sleep is very similar to that of waking hours.

So why do we need to know about REM sleep? Because that’s when the majority of the dreams we recall take place.

The Purpose of Dreams

No one knows for sure, but there are dozens of theories as to why we dream/the purpose of dreams. Let’s look at several…

  • Releasing unconscious impulses and urges.
  • The cerebral cortex creating sensory experiences in an effort to interpret chaotic signals from other brain structures.
  • The unconscious mind processing procedural (how to do things) memory while the conscious mind is operating at a low level. The data stream from the memory-stores to the conscious mind induces a dream. The individual’s own thinking takes over until the next pulse of memory insertion.
  • Ever-present excitations of long-term memory, even while we’re awake.
  • Erasing sensory impressions that weren’t fully worked-up, and ideas that weren’t fully developed, during the day.
  • Modification and testing of patterns of thought or behavior.
  • Emotional preparation for problem solving.
  • The creation of new ideas through the generation of random thought mutations.
  • Making necessary connections within a safe environment, integrating thoughts that would likely be scattered while awake.
  • Completing patterns of emotional expectation in our stress response network, naturally lowering stress levels.
  • Projections of parts of the self that have been ignored, rejected, or suppressed.

Conclusion (Part 1)

Dreams are wild business, aren’t they? And I still say the best part is they remain an amazing mystery.

Well, come on back tomorrow as we delve into dream content. And maybe we’ll figure out the meaning of my airplane dreams.