Betina Vasquez: Why We Dream: A New Study Reveals How The Mind Processes Information

Written by Betina Vasquez, The Spirit Science, January 31, 2015

It’s safe to say that sleep and the ability to retain new information or learn new skills is intertwined. Imagine, the day before a big exam and we study all night losing out on precious sleep, possibly resulting in lower test results than we had hoped for because there was no other choice than to pull an “all-nighter.”

If there’s one thing I hear people say the most, it’s that everyone has difficulty falling sleep. With our minds occupied on what we did today or what we need to do tomorrow, technological gadgets, and external distractions it’s no wonder our capacity to relax is depleted, especially before bed.

Sleep-DeprivationIn the medical community and our personal lives it is well-known that restful sleep is significant in maintaining a sound mind and able body, yet plenty of people are affected from a lack of it, in fact about 50-70 million Americans according to the National Institutes of Health. How do we complete our tasks for the day? We simply push through somehow and we’re missing out in ways.

For nearly a century we have wondered why we dream, what is its purpose? How do they influence our waking lives? There seem to be a revolving door of hypothesis, experimentation, and articles on the subject.

Studies have shown that deep sleep and napping throughout the day can be helpful with mental cognizance and if improved or experimented with, have the potential to produce unexpected results.  One such study explains how dreaming is a function of the minds ability to sift through valuable information, which in turn shape our lives.

Scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) conduct the following experiment:

At the outset, the authors hypothesized that dreaming about a learning experience during nonrapid eye movement (NREM) sleep would lead to improved performance on a hippocampus-dependent spatial memory task. (The hippocampus is a region of the brain responsible for storing spatial memory.)

To test this hypothesis, the investigators had 99 subjects spend an hour training on a “virtual maze task,” a computer exercise in which they were asked to navigate through and learn the layout of a complex 3D maze with the goal of reaching an endpoint as quickly as possible. Following this initial training, participants were assigned to either take a 90-minute nap or to engage in quiet activities but remain awake. At various times, subjects were also asked to describe what was going through their minds, or in the case of the nappers, what they had been dreaming about. Five hours after the initial exercise, the subjects were retested on the maze task.

What the researches discovered is that the improvement of individuals who did not rest after completing the maze task for a second time, showed no significant increase in their ability to complete it even while actively thinking about the maze beforehand. And those who did sleep, but did not dream about the maze also showed little to no increase in their ability to complete it a second time. However, those who did dream about the maze, and quite vividly, did significantly better on the task a second time around.

Of particular note, say authors [Robert Stickgold, PhD, Director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at BIDMC and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Erin Wamsley, PhD, a postdoctoral [researcher] at BIDMC and Harvard Medical School] , the subjects who performed better were not more interested or motivated than the other subjects. But, they say, there was one distinct difference that was noted.

“The subjects who dreamed about the maze had done relatively poorly during training,” explains Wamsley. “Our findings suggest that if something is difficult for you, it’s more meaningful to you and the sleeping brain therefore focuses on that subject — it ‘knows’ you need to work on it to get better, and this seems to be where dreaming can be of most benefit.”

What we see here is a noticeable difference in the way information is collected within the mind, based on our ability to dream.  It not only absorbs experiences, information, and data from the outside, but will also transfer that information in abstract ways to build our dreamscapes. If waking life experiences are relatively important, difficult, or meaningful for us, there’s a higher chance it will appear in our dreams and if analyzed or reflected upon will bring incredible insight into our progression as human beings.

Dreamscape by elestrial
Dreamscape by elestrial

Ironically, our ability to learn and remember new information is not solely dependent on dreaming itself, though it does play a vital role in terms of the brain’s physiology. With the mind taking on multiple tasks at once; consolidating data and directing it to other areas for further integration, it is simply unbelievable how perfected this function has evolved to be.

Wamsley [points out], ”Every day, we are gathering and encountering tremendous amounts of information and new experiences,” she adds. “It would seem that our dreams are asking the question, ‘How do I use this information to inform my life?’”

So, with the information that we now know how can we apply this to our lives? What steps can we take toward healthy sleeping habits? Below are some helpful tips that may help you re-learn how to put yourself to sleep and bring about some fun experimentation with dream interpretation. You know, if that’s your thing.  🙂

1. Turn off electronics 1 hour before you go to sleep. This is important, because of our pineal gland. The pineal gland is sensitive to both light and dark and when we stimulate our senses with bright objects such as computer monitors, phones, or televisions before bed the pineal gland is unable to release the hormone melatonin which regulates our sleep and wake cycles.

2. Take a hot shower or bath prior to bedtime as this will relax the body, soak for at least 20 minutes. Add bath salts or candles as an added bonus.

3. Read a book or magazine and avoid topics that could stimulate your imagination in a negative way such as violence or horror.

4. Research natural sleep-aides, I found a valuable source here.

5. Perform Progressive Muscle Relaxation which is a systematic technique that manages stress and produces deep relaxation. Simply tense and release every part of your body for a couple minutes before going to sleep.

6. Keep a log of your dreams and though it may be difficult to remember every detail at first, that’s not necessarily the point. If you manage to jot down a couple key ideas, this can shed some light on some core issues you may be needing clarification on.

7. Refrain from eating right before bedtime as this stimulates the digestive system and can interrupt your ability to relax and fall asleep. A little snack or warm lemon water is harmless, so long as it’s not a huge meal.

I would also like to impart that while your ritual before bed is essential in helping you sleep more soundly, a morning ritual will play an important role in the flow of your day. Consider waking up and thinking about what you’re grateful for, drinking a nice cup of hot tea with lemon and honey, watching the sun rise, taking a walk out in nature, or simply meditating for 10 minutes. This can all be done with some simple preparation and mindfulness.

I wish you the best in your journey and encourage questions, thoughts, and comments about the ways you’re re-learning how to fall asleep and wake up.

Your friend,

Betina Vazquez

Team Spirit

Sources: Science Daily


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