What is the Mystery of Dreams

Dreams, surrounded by a mystical and mysterious aura, have intrigued human beings since ancient times. More than 4,000 years ago, the inhabitants of ancient Babylon attached a sacred importance to dreams. Not only did they have their goddess, Mamu, who watched over people’s good dreams, but they also developed documents on the interpretation of dreams.

In this aspect, the story of the dream of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II is famous, narrated in the Bible, who moved heaven and earth to try to know the meaning of his dream, calling a multitude of astrologers, fortune tellers, and magicians. Sigmund Freud himself gave a significant role to dreams, which he considered symbolic manifestations of repressed desires and a path to the unconscious. For him, the interpretation of these dream fantasies was one of the keys to understanding the psychology of his patients and applying a treatment.

Even though adults spend 20% to 25% of their time we spend sleeping on dreams; science did not begin to dispel the magic that surrounded them until relatively recently. From the middle of the 20th century, when tools such as the electroencephalogram became famous, we were able to peer, for the first time in a rigorous way, into the ethereal and elusive world of dreams.

Today we know very peculiar details about sleep. For example, this process occurs mainly during the REM phase when we are asleep. This phase is characterized by rapid eye movements (REM = Rapid Eye Movement) and high brain activity, similar to when we are awake. In contrast to this increased activity, there is low production of different neurotransmitters, and our muscles are paralyzed. For this reason, we do not usually move when we are dreaming, although some neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s cause muscle activity during sleep in affected people, which can lead to violent movements, accidents, and involuntary aggression towards bed partners.

We usually have 4-6 dreams a night, but we forget 95% of them within a few minutes. In other words, we all dream while sleeping, even though the vast majority of conscious memories of these dreams are lost in time, like tears in the rain. On the other hand, a certain percentage of the population can be aware of their goals and control them. They are called onironauts and experience so-called lucid dreams.

Almost all of us see color images during dreams. However, some people only remember seeing these images as if they were an old television: in black and white. The blind also dreams of ideas, as long as the visual memories persist in their memory. If they were blind from birth or before 5-7 years of age, they could not have dreams with visual experiences.

We have learned a lot about sleep in recent decades, thanks to new tools that study brain activity. We know, for example, that the rational brain, the prefrontal cortex, is often deactivated, giving rise to the typical creative chaos and lack of reasonable limits and dream logic. We also know that dreams originate from our memories and experiences accumulated and recorded through the senses. We still have no idea about the central question: why do we dream?

Many hypotheses try to explain this nocturnal habit. A possible explanation suggests that sleep is a mechanism to reinforce memories of the day and thus favor their permanence in long-term memories. Different experiments both in laboratory animals and in humans point to this possibility. For example, the hippocampus, an area of ​​the brain involved in memory, is especially active when we are in the arms of Morpheus.

When mice are not allowed to have REM dreams (but are allowed to sleep), they have considerable trouble remembering details on different tests compared to their peers who had complete sleep cycles. It has also been observed that people who remember skills such as driving, playing an instrument, or getting out of a maze in their dreams enhance their learning in these tasks. So when an activity doesn’t work out for us because we haven’t had enough practice yet, going to bed and dreaming about it can make it a little easier the next day.

At the same time that sleep helps us settle memories, it would also allow us to forget by refreshing our memory by eliminating superfluous or unimportant memories that occurred previously. The dream would thus serve as a memory organizer that highlights what is essential and loosens ballast with what is irrelevant.

Other hypotheses indicate that sleep would help us learn to face situations that cause us stress, discomfort, or pose a challenge in advance in a safe environment and with greater creativity. This would explain facts as striking as why the blind have four times more nightmares than the general population and that, moreover, these nightmares consist, with high frequency, of accidents when moving blindly down the street. On the other hand, the role of sleep has also been pointed out to process past traumas or as an element to fulfill our desires.

Despite the variety and number of hypotheses raised, not all scientists favor sleep as having an essential function. Other researchers raise the possibility that sleep is something accidental. This chaotic and meaningless noise appears in our brain due to neuronal reconnection processes when we are asleep.

In short, everything indicates that the mystery behind the existence of dreams will continue with us for much longer. Let’s enjoy them despite our ignorance. Because, as it is said: “If it is good to live, it is still better to dream, and best of all, to wake up.”