Understanding Our Dreams and Nightmares Research Paper

Pages: 8 (2133 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 7  ·  File: .docx  ·  Topic: Psychology


An Analysis of Why Dreams Exist and What They Mean

All humans, and even some animals, know what it means to doze off to sleep and dream. Whether it is seen in the quietness of the dark in a partner who is sleeping in the same bed, whose eyelids flutter as he or she sleeps, or whether it is experienced firsthand, as a series of recurring images, drawn together by the threads of a seemingly important story, dreams are inescapable features of sleep, and particularly of REM sleep. Dreams are not just 'B-rated movies,' as some have called them, but are a way for the mind to sift through events and make sense of the day just passed, as well as categorize experiences for later use. Good dreams and bad dreams all teach a lesson, and nightmares are often ways in which the mind stresses that something must be done about a particular issue. The following paragraphs will thus aim to make sense of the phenomenon of dreaming, and explain that dreams exist for a very specific reason, that they occur in order to help an individual, not hurt or hinder a person, and that what they mean can be left up to one's interpretation in his or her quest to solve a problem.


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In order to begin to tailor the phenomenon to the purposes of this paper, an exercise that seems to understand why dreams occur, it is important to signify that when speaking of dreams, this means both good dreams and bad dreams, or nightmares. It is also important, prior to beginning the analytical section to define the phenomenon of dreams and dreaming. A first definition states that dreams are "a series of thoughts, images, or emotions occurring during REM sleep."

Another explanation suggests that dreams are "the thoughts, or series of thoughts, or imaginary transactions, which occupy the mind during sleep; a sleeping vision."

TOPIC: Research Paper on Understanding Our Dreams and Nightmares Assignment

These definitions both agree on the fact that dreams occur as thoughts, or images, during sleep, and include both good and bad dreams. Of course, good dreams incite pleasurable feelings whereas nightmares arouse "feelings of intense fear, horror, and distress," both again, both types can be seen under the umbrella of the above-offered definitions.

Why Dreams Occur

The explanations as to why dreams occur, which will be the sole focus of the remainder of this paper, vary to a high degree. Because of the intangible nature of dreams, the phenomenon has been 'explained' by a variety of outlets, including by psychologists, through scientific studies, as well as by superstitious tales, in a less scientific way. Yet no matter who aims to make sense of a dream or nightmare, and how, the end goal is always the same: making sense of dreams is vital to understanding oneself, including one's problems and successes. This is the very reason, put succinctly, as to why humans dream and why they seek to understand their dreams.

Though superstitious approaches to dreams do exist, as interpreted by psychic readers and even grandmothers with a bountiful imagination, this paper will focus on explaining dreams from a more psychological-scientific perspective, and will reference a few studies in order to cement the various explanation as to why dreams exist and how they can help an individual in daily life. According to one article,

"…there's increasing evidence that our dreams are not neural babble, but are instead layered with significance and substance. The narratives that seem so incomprehensible -- why was I running through the airport in my underwear? -- are actually careful distillations of experience, a regurgitation of all the new ideas and insights we encounter during the day."

In order to further substantiate this claim, Lehrer references the research of Matthew Wilson, who found tangible evidence that dreams interpret daily events when studying rats at MIT in the 1990's. Lehrer continues,

"Wilson was recording neuron activity in the brains of rats as they navigated a difficult maze. (the machines translated the firing of brain cells into loud, staccato pops.) One day, he left the rats connected to the recording equipment after they completed the task. (Wilson was preoccupied with some data analysis.) Not surprisingly, the tired animals soon started to doze off, slipping into a well-deserved nap. And that's when Wilson heard something extremely unexpected: although the rats were sound asleep, the sound produced by their brain activity was almost exactly the same as it was when they were running in the maze. The animals were dreaming of what they'd just done."

In other words, what Wilson found was that these rats did not simply drift off to sleep and dreamt or did not dream about a random subject; the rats actually relived, through their dreams, the very circumstances that they had just experienced, thus proving that learning was still occurring long after they succumbed to relaxation, and also suggesting that with the restful, yet activity-laden, sleep that they were undergoing, they were also constantly learning and applying experiences, which could very well, according to researchers, also transcribe to humans. With a view to a scientific explanation as to why dreams replay experience, Wilson and Louie's more recent endeavor, a study that built upon that initial one of Wilson in the 1990's, details,

"…in dreaming rats are consolidating their new memories, embedding these fragile traces into the neural network. While [they're] fast asleep, the mind is sifting through the helter-skelter of the day, trying to figure out what [they] need to remember and what [they] can afford to forget."

Again, because of the very real similarity between rat and human sleep patterns, one can certainly apply these findings to humans.

Another study discusses not only the ways in which humans think and learn through dreaming, but also how this essential component of sleep helps foster creativity and keep long-term memory healthy. Lehrer thus references the fact that "scientists have discovered that R.E.M. sleep isn't just essential for the formation of long-term memories: it might also be an essential component of creativity."

Essentially what this experiment claims is that proper sleep (i.e. 8-hour cycle sleep), with dreaming about what subjects had undergone, in a parallel nature to the rat experiment, can help subject perform better at a said tasks. In the experiment, five scientists described the following,

"Insight denotes a mental restructuring that leads to a sudden gain of explicit knowledge allowing qualitatively changed behavior. Anecdotal reports on scientific discovery suggest that pivotal insights can be gained through sleep. Sleep consolidates recent memories and, concomitantly, could allow insight by changing their representational structure."

The researchers go on to state that the study, given the knowledge presented above, means to see how sleep can facilitate thinking, or insight and if dreaming has anything to do with the afore-mentioned gain of knowledge. The subjects in this experiment thus performed a "cognitive task requiring the learning of stimulus-response sequences, in which they improved gradually by increasing response speed across task blocks."

Essentially, the subjects here had quite a dull task to perform, and even when told of a shortcut, without sleep, many were unable to ease their workload. However, after being allowed to sleep for eight hours the subjects were much more successful in finding the said shortcut. The authors also state that,

"…initial training establishing a task representation was followed by 8 h of nocturnal sleep, nocturnal wakefulness, or daytime wakefulness. At subsequent retesting, more than twice as many subjects gained insight into the hidden rule after sleep as after wakefulness, regardless of time of day."

As expected, the authors found that "sleep, by restructuring new memory representations, facilitates extraction of explicit knowledge and insightful behavior."

A last study to be referenced here, in order to prove just how important dreaming is to one's health and mental well-being was conducted by Sara Mednick at the University of San Diego. In this paper, Mednick states that subjects were give a variety of puzzles that encouraged free association; in other words, subjects were required to find a word that could be associated with three unrelated words, such as in the example: broken, clear and eye. In this example, the common word was 'glass.' After these initial instructions, Mednick instructed subjects to take a nap. The finding are as follows,

"Interestingly, subjects who lapsed into R.E.M. during their nap solved 40

percent more puzzles than they did in the morning, before their brief sleep. (Subjects who quietly rested without sleeping or took a nap without R.E.M. showed a slight decrease in performance.)"

Lehrer thus ads that "according to Mednick, the dramatic improvement in creativity is due to the fact that R.E.M. "primes associative networks," allowing us to integrate new information into our problem-solving approach."

A Less Scientific Approach

Whereas the last section of this paper focused on scientific studies that promoted the importance of dreams, this latter section will focus on a more generalized, social-based analysis of why dreams are so important. In an article written by Margarita Tartakovsky, a Psych Central article writer and… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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