What exactly are dreams? Why are they so common, and what is their importance in day-to-day life? Dreams and nightmares are experiences that almost everyone can relate to in some way. While they can often be bizarre or hard to remember, they can impact one’s thoughts, mood, and behavior even before waking up. Experiences like nightmares can disrupt sleep, force people to relive a bad memory, and leave lingering feelings of fear, stress, and discomfort. Dreams are one of many subjects about which there is plenty of potentially misleading, inaccurate, or unscientific information available, often in the form of trying to assign meaning to and interpret what is seen while sleeping. Because of all of the ideas circulating the topic of dreams and nightmares- whether backed by empirical data or not- it can be hard to decipher what is science-backed by research and evidence and what is merely speculation. The purpose of this paper is to research how dreams are studied and why they can be potentially beneficial or detrimental. It will also investigate whether or not they are more common in people who suffer from mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
Several personal assumptions about dreams were based on the notion that they would be hard to study. After all, the very personal experience of waking up late, and rushing to school in footie pajamas only to find that it has been turned into a spaceship and the teachers are all ducks, is unlikely to be a widely spread occurrence. Even though people can have similar events happen or see similar objects in their dreams, they often have very different contexts. Besides this, dreams can be hard to recall and are often forgotten soon after waking up. Another assumption was that dreams are related to the brain’s processing of thoughts, emotions, and memories that were recorded while conscious.
This stemmed from the personal experience that things seen or experienced in dreams, especially images, are often similar to those seen and experienced while awake. This is possibly related to why some dream events, images, or themes are more widely experienced than others, as they might be based on experiences that are common to real life. A third assumption would be that, since there are themes widely common to the experience of dreaming, that dreams can be interpreted in a relevant way, if only broadly. For example, many people have dreamed about flying or falling, being lost or mazes, and routine experiences like school or work. Many nightmares involved feelings of being chased, public humiliation, or some sort of dangerous monster. It wouldn’t be illogical to guess that these events in the unconscious mind were related to occurrences in the waking world or to established patterns of thought.
According to Matthew Walker and Scott Edwards, dreams are kind of like a smoothie- bits and pieces of memories woven together to create something new, intriguing, and occasionally terrifying (2020). Dreams occur mainly during REM sleep, which is characterized by faster eye movement and heightened breathing and pulse. Dreams can result in raised levels of creative problem solving, as it allows the mind to connect otherwise unrelated events, forming rules, forging links and working through puzzles the conscious mind had been struggling to solve. This sorting and evaluation of memories can allow for the processing of emotional or traumatic events in a less stressful environment, resulting in a less painful recall of the occurrences (Walker, 2020). However, sometimes these attempts at reevaluating events don’t remove the attached emotions, causing the horrifying experiences we call nightmares.
They are frightening, resulting in strong negative emotional responses such as stress, anxiety, and as most people have experienced, fear. Several studies have found ties between nightmares and various mental health disorders- a criterion for diagnosing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is recurrent nightmares, which about 80 percent of people with PTSD experience frequently (Edwards, 2020). According to a study conducted by Aliereza Haji Seyed Jayadi and Ali Akbar Shafikhani on the correlations between depression and anxiety and various factors in Iranian medical students, 28.4% of those exhibiting depression had nightmares, compared to 3.9% of healthy students (Jayadi and Shafikhani, 2019). Another study found more symptoms of anxiety in adolescents who had better recall of bad dreams or nightmares (Nielsen, et al., 2000).
The psychoanalytic perspective of psychology, developed largely by Sigmund Freud in the early twentieth century, would say that one’s personality is influenced by unconscious conflicts that begin in the early years as a result of interactions with caregivers and continue through life. These conflicts, upon being resolved or changed, could alter an individual’s behavior. This approach relied mainly on talk therapy to gain insight into the conflicts driving a patient’s behavior. It sees dreams and nightmares as an expression of subconscious desires and fears, which can make them easier to understand (Licht, Hull, & Ballantyne, 2017).
The evolutionary perspective is based on Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which suggests that certain traits are common because they aid in survival, and other traits disappear because they hindered it. It would argue that common psychological traits like fear of darkness or of heights has been widely inherited because it was useful in ensuring a longer lifespan (Licht, Hull, & Ballantyne, 2017). This perspective might argue that dreams are an unnecessary byproduct of sleep and a side effect of evolution, or, alternatively, that dreams serve a purpose such as stimulating creative thinking, which helped those who dreamed to survive and thus passed the trait onto future generations (Walker, 2020).
Both of these perspectives try to explain various behaviors: psychoanalysis attempts to explain unusual, abnormal behavior and try to fix it, while the evolutionary perspective tries to explain behaviors that are common and often considered normal. It also generally tries to work from a more scientific standpoint of gathering data and testing hypotheses, while psychoanalysis has widely fallen out of use due to a lack of support from experimental data (Licht, Hull, & Ballantyne, 2017).
At least one personal assumption was proven wrong by this research; although the exact content of dreams may be difficult to establish for study, the state of dreaming can be observed and quantified in several ways, such as monitoring the presence of chemicals in the brain, which parts of the brain are active, how long REM sleep lasts, etc. The research summarized above also established that bad dreams and nightmares are normal to some extent, possibly an emotional response to the brain processing recent events and feelings. However, they can also serve as a potential warning sign for stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental problems being on the rise. If a dream causes negative emotions in response to an event such as a test, an audition, a sports event, etc., it could indicate worries or fears about one’s potential performance and the possibility of failure. If one is prone to suppressing emotions or ignoring problems, nightmares may well serve as a metaphorical and literal wake-up call. Personally, as a result of these findings and individual experience, nightmares or bad dreams are usually related to stress over some sort of upcoming test of ability, prompting practice or studying to help ease personal anxiety and boost confidence about how a performance might go.
This research has found a correlation between bad dreams and mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, although there currently has not been enough research to determine whether or not nightmares can be a cause of mental health issues, or if they are a symptom, or if there is another variable involved entirely. However, dreams may be indicative of various mental processes such as emotions and thought processes, displaying them in an admittedly stranger and sometimes ambiguous way. Some new questions to investigate further include: are dreams capable of predicting behaviors? Can they actually show subconscious thought patterns? For example, if someone has a bad dream about failing a test, would they be more likely to score poorly, or to study so that they can do better? A possibility for more research in the future would be to gather more evidence for a correlation between nightmares and depression and anxiety. Another possibility for an experiment would be to track students’ dreams as they study for and take final exams in college. This would demonstrate whether or not there is a correlation between a student’s probability of nightmares and their test scores. A final possibility would be to examine the relationship between good dreams and how well various groups perform as well as how confident they are in their performance.
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