There's nothing like a good night's sleep, uninterrupted and peaceful, to help us wake up the next morning refreshed and ready for the challenges of a new day. Regardless of how many hours a day you think you need, we all need our sleep and relish those nights where we can awaken the next day feeling better than we did the night before
There is, however, at least one other important factor in determining how good a night's sleep we had and what benefits those hours gave us. Something happened during that time of self-imposed unconsciousness, and they are called dreams. They are as much a part of life as eating breakfast or reading our e-mail, but dreams also comprise a universal mystery expressed in one of the great two-part questions of our time, What exactly are dreams, and why do we have them?
Many experts – and, yes, we include the eminent Dr. Sigmund Freud in that group – have taken a stab for centuries at interpreting dreams and pinpointing the purposes they serve, and yet even in 2015 few definitive answers are out there. One apparent consensus, though, is that dreams apparently play an important role in maintaining our health (physical as well as psychological), while helping our minds to 'de-clutter,' sort of like what happen when we hit a key on our computer telling it to de-fragmentize itself.
Here's a few interesting facts – or maybe a better word is 'beliefs' – about dreams, compiled by Medical News Today: it is thought that everyone dreams three to six times a night (your inability many times to remember them doesn't change the fact they occurred); each dream last 5-20 minutes; dreaming can help you learn and develop long-term memories; about 95 percent of dreams are forgotten by the time you get out of bed; and the consumption of alcohol can affect not only sleep but also the quality of your dreams.
The website also describes dreams as "a universal human experience … a state of consciousness characterized by sensory, cognitive and emotional occurrences during sleep." Among the possible explanations for why we have dreams are to represent unconscious desires, to process our experiences and information received that day, and to even function as a form of psychotherapy, helping us work through issues and, on a good night, giving us creative solutions and inspiration.
According to Psychology Today, former Beatle Paul McCartney came up with the group's hit song "Yesterday" while in his sleep: note the title. Legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus reportedly solved a nagging problem with his golf swing by working through it in a dream (imagine having that instructional video in your library). The author of this blog can vouch for this phenomenon, having, literally overnight, gone from being a relatively novice skier struggling to keep his feet together to a confident skier who could parallel ski on advanced slopes, all after a dream one night in which he could see and feel himself parallel skiing.
"There is a long-held view of dreams as a creative portal—and scientific study may be giving that belief some credence," says Psychology Today. "Evidence suggests that dreams may assist in daytime function and performance, especially as they relate to creativity and problem solving."
In delving further into what dreams are and why we have them, we do know from webmd.com that dreams, some more vivid than others, are stories and images our mind creates while we sleep. They can be quite rational or on the other end of the spectrum totally nonsensical, almost humorous in how far-fetched they can be. Most dreams take place during our REM (rapid eye movement) stage, when the brain is most active and which Medical News Today identifies as the fifth of five stages of our nightly sleep.
It is when people are awakened during the REM phase that they report bizarre dreams, typically illogical, although even those can be quickly forgotten. Studies have supported the notion that dreaming is crucial to our health and well-being, webmd.com reports. Researchers awakening study subjects just as they were drifting off into REM sleep have concluded that people who don't dream are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, weight gain, difficulty concentrating and decreased coordination, among other symptoms.
The moral of the story: get enough sleep and go to bed expecting your dreams to make you a better you by the time you wake up.