Understanding And Controlling Your Dreams

By on October 9, 2011

Understanding DreamsDreams are one of the more elusive processes that occur in the human brain. Of course there are some aspects of dreaming that we can define. We can confidently say that dreams are a series of images, ideas, emotions and sensations that occur involuntarily in our minds during certain stages of sleep. Yet we don’t know why exactly why we dream or if it’s even a necessary function. Perhaps it’s a by-product of some other mental activity that occurs in our sleep. There’s no sure answer. There’s also the question of whether dreams mean anything, and if so, how to interpret them. There are a variety of opinions and theories on this matter but, again, no clear answer. Despite the lack of knowledge we have about dreams, there is still a good amount of information we do know, and it’s worth going over this information, regardless of whether it will clear up every question you’ve ever had about dreams.

What We Know About Dreaming

When Do Dreams Occur?

Scientists have determined that dreams mostly occur during the rapid-eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. It is during this stage of sleep that your brain activity is the highest; it is signaled by a series of continuous movements of your eyes under your eyelids. Dreams can also occur during other stages of sleep, but those dreams tend to be less memorable and less vivid.

The REM stage usually takes around 20-25% of your total sleep, resulting in about 90-120 minutes of REM sleep a night. On average, people usually experience about four to five cycles of REM sleep, starting with short periods of REM sleep at the beginning of the night and progressing to longer REM cycles toward the end. So, in essence, your dreams occur throughout the night, when you cycle into the REM stage of sleep.

How Long Are Dreams Typically?

While this is extremely difficult to quantify, scientists can measure REM sleep cycles by observing eye movement of the person sleeping. The first and shortest REM sleep episode lasts around ten minutes in duration while the second episode lasts roughly 15-20 minutes. It is estimated that dreams at the end of the night typically last 15 minutes though these may be experienced as shorter separate dreams due momentary interruptions which tend to be more frequent at the end of the night.

How Often Do You Dream?

Studies have shown that you dream every REM sleep episode. This means that you have several dreams a night although sometimes you will have a reoccurring dream in one night. Although it seems like it is the same dream and may be perceived as an extension of the same dream, this is actually a separate but reoccurring dream. Some people believe that they never dream; in actuality, they simply don’t remember any of the multiple dreams that happen every night.

Why and When Do You Remember Dreams?

Dreams are most often recalled when a person is awakened while dreaming, particularly during the REM sleep episode. In general, women recall dreams more often than men. In most cases, dream recall is extremely difficult and unreliable; at least 95% of all dreams are not remembered because certain brain chemicals used to convert short-term memories into long-term memories are suppressed during REM sleep. Most dreams that are recalled are due to either to their anomalously vivid nature or to the dreamer being waking up during the dream or REM sleep. Otherwise, most dreams will not be remembered.

To increase the chances of dream recall, many people keep a dream journal in which they write down and record their dreams. Some people record their full dreams upon waking while others take quick notes after waking that will assist in recall later. It is better to record dreams sooner rather than later as most people have a strong tendency to forget their dreams.

What Influences Dreams?

During REM sleep, you mind consolidates memories and experiences, and it is hypothesized that these memories and experiences create much of the dream world. Dreams are also influenced by external stimuli, such as smells. Many drugs, such as sedatives and many stimulants (cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy) have been linked to the suppression of dreaming due to their effects on the cycles and stages of sleep. Interestingly, the security of relationships has an effective on dreams as well with those having less secure relationships have reported dreaming with more frequency and more vividly.

Why Do Some Dreams Seem Real While Others Are Bizarre and Impossible?

Some dreams, known as “authentic dreams” appear within the confines of reality. These dreams are based in actual memories and experiences that the dreamer relates to. Dreams that seem based outside of the realm of reality are called “illusory dreams.” It is hypothesized that these dreams stem from memories with efficacy errors. Older memories have refreshed synaptic efficacy multiple times in someone’s lifetime, resulting in the summation of efficacy errors that form illusory dreams when stimulated. Bizarre illusory dreams most likely stem from older memories while authentic dreams are believed to stem from more recent memories.

About Lucid Dreaming

One of the most fascinating concepts related to dreaming is known as the lucid dream. To have a lucid dream, you simply need to be aware that you are dreaming while in a dream. In lucid dreams, the dreamer can actively manipulate imaginary experiences in the dream environment. For a similar parallel to lucid dreaming, think about the power that Neo has in The Matrix when he realizes he’s the one. That’s the kind of potential power and freedom you can accomplish from lucid dreaming.

Of course, not allow lucid dreams allow you to control them with your every whim. According to a 1992 study, Deirdre Barrett found that lucid dreams exhibited four “corollaries” of lucidity:

  • Realizing you are in a dream;
  • Realizing that the dream world will disappear after waking;
  • Realizing that physical laws don’t need to apply;
  • Having a clear memory of the waking world.

Of all the lucid dreams recorded for the study, less than a quarter of them contained all four corollaries. Regardless, the main corollary that defines a lucid dream is realizing that you’re in a dream. From this realization many other possibilities can open up.

How Do You Lucid Dream?

Fortunately, you can learn the skill of lucid dreaming although experiencing lucid dreams on a regular basis may be extremely challenging. There are a variety of ways you can improve your chances of having a lucid dream such as the following:

  • Dream recall – This is considered the first step one should take to achieve lucid dreaming. Increasing your ability to remember dreams increases your awareness of dreams in general. There is a chance that you may have already had a lucid dream but just didn’t have good enough dream recall ability to remember it. Like I stated above, keeping a dream journal and recording dreams as soon as you wake from them is one of the best things you can do to improve dream recall. Other suggestions to improve dream recall include closing your eyes while trying to remember the dreams and recording your dreams in the present tense in writing. Sometimes just stating your goal out loud (“I will remember my dreams”) before going to sleep will help train your mind to become more conscious of your dreams.
  • Reality checking – There are quite a few tricks you can do to determine whether or not you’re dreaming. Essentially, you perform an action that dreams have trouble replicating and see if the results of this action are consistent with what you would expect in reality. Many lucid dreamers practice these tests often during their waking life, so that they will naturally begin performing the same tests in their dreams. If the test fails, they know that they are dreaming. These tests include checking the words and numbers on digital devices (changing drastically seconds later is the sign of a dream), flipping on and off light switches (dreams do not change light levels often due to switches), look into a mirror (reflections in dreams are often blurred, distorted, or frightening), looking down at your feet or hands (there is a difference in appearance which can alert you of your dream state), and holding your nose and mouth closed while trying to breathe (you will still be able to breathe in your dream state).
  • Prolongation – Sometimes people will experience and remember a lucid dream, but then they will awake prematurely. This can be incredibly frustrating for those who have invested a good amount of time into learning to lucid dream. The various solutions to prolonging your dream state involve focusing on and increasing your tactile or sensory engagement with the dream world. So doing something like spinning your dream body in circles or rubbing your hands together in your dream have shown to have a high correlation with prolonging your dream state.

Having lucid dreams on a regular basis is both uncommon and extremely difficult. Still, many of the practices used to aid lucid dreaming will increase one’s perception and memory of dreams in general. Even if you aren’t able to regularly achieve lucid dreaming, having a greater retention of dreams is still considered a valuable, or at the very least neat, skill that can open areas of creativity and even give ideas that could help solve practical problems within your own life

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