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How and why do we dream?

How and why do we dream?
Form 11p from Northamptonshire (Age 15-24)

Why do we have dreams?
Luci Murray from Stockton on Tees (age 5-14)
Beth from Stockton on Tees (age 5-14)


Even though the sleeper has little knowledge of what is happening during sleep, the slumbering brain doesn’t just switch off like the bedside light, but is preoccupied with the events and thoughts of recent wakefulness. For much of sleep (‘non-dreaming’ sleep) these ruminations, whether they be happy, sad, or whatever, are fairly rational, slow moving, unimaginative and not particularly visual. In contrast, and to liven matters up, every ninety minutes during sleep the curtain rises on the cinema of the mind and dreaming sleep begins, lasting for twenty minutes or so at a time. This bizarre, technicolour pastiche of unpredictable, fast moving and usually fascinating scenes is largely based on previous waking events, distorted in irrational ways. By waking up out of a dream and immediately going over it, the dreamer can usually make some sense of it all. Dreams are idiosyncratic, and because only we know about the previous day’s events and thoughts, we are the best interpreters of our dreams. As the symbols in dreams mean different things to each of us, dream “dictionaries” and books on dream analysis purporting to explain the symbolism, are the fantasies of their authors, being greater works of fiction than are the dreams themselves.

Dreaming sleep is also known as ‘rapid eye movement (REM) sleep’, because the eyes move in bursts of activity, similar to that in wakefulness, when we normally look around. This is not scanning the dream imagery, as the eye movements remain when the part of the brain responsible for dreaming is damaged or destroyed. During dreaming sleep our bodies and limbs have the potential to enact the dream and move about quite violently, which would be hazardous. To prevent this happening the brain paralyses the body, preventing all movement other than some twitching of the hands and feet and, of course, the eye movements. Breathing and other vital functions continue almost as normal. Sometimes, when we are suddenly awoken from a dream, especially a nightmare, the paralysis continues for a while, even preventing attempts to cry out, and adding to the frightening experience.

The paralysis is absent during non-dreaming sleep. Here, sleepwalking and sleeptalking can occur, which is usually during the deepest form of non-dreaming sleep. Sleepwalkers are in a world of their own, engrossed, unresponsive, and often searching for something known only to themselves. They are difficult to arouse, more than from dreaming sleep. Leave them asleep and quietly usher them back to bed.

Prof Jim Horne (Director of the Sleep Research Centre) and popular science author publishing with Oxford University Press see http://www.oup.com/uk/catalogue/?ci=9780199228379


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