Have You Been Having Weird Dreams Recently? Here’s Why
Ahh sleep – the dedicated time each and every day where you get to lay down, get comfy and restore your much needed energy for the day ahead. Although slumber is a time for our bodies to recharge during hours of physical stillness, mentally you brain is still active, even in the deepest of deep sleeps. And sometimes after an 8-hour stint in the land of nod, a particular set of brain waves can leave you reeling when you wake – your dreams. Dreams (or nightmares) are a result of the brain integrating new information into your memories; dragging up past events and slotting novel ones into place. And when you are going through a stressful period (which sadly a lot of us are right now), these scenarios can get stranger and more vivid – explaining why lockdown has made your nighttime episodes a little bit weirder.
During a 24-hour period, your brain goes through several stages of activity. If you think of your brain as a packed football stadium filled with fans, your awake brain is like before a match when all the fans are talking amongst themselves – with many “pockets” of activity and a lot of noise. However, when you sleep, this activity switches to more synchronised patterns – like when all the fans cheer in unison or do a collective wave around the stands. These waves vary in amplitude throughout the night; like the fans going from a slight raise of their hands while in their seats to a full-on standing, arms-stretched effort. The slower and larger these waves, the deeper sleep you are in.
Top and tailing this slow wave activity is a period of brain activity which looks very similar to your awake brain, and although dreaming is thought to occur in both, this active part of sleep most associated with vivid dreaming. Each one of these slow-to-busy-brain-wave cycles last approximately 90 minutes, and the closer you get to waking, the longer the active brain section becomes. This is believed to prepare you for wakefulness but is usually when you have your most ‘realistic’ dreams. One key difference between the awake brain and the active-sleeping brain is signalling from your brain to your body is prevented. This means that when you are faced with a large lion in the middle of Manhattan in a dream and have to run for your life, you can do so without the worry of physically leaping out of bed and legging it down the street in your pyjamas at 4am.
It is thought a key role of brain activity when asleep is to integrate new experiences into your memories and this can make some cooky scenarios play out. When you brain encodes a new experience into a memory, it has to be consolidated in order to be remembered, and this usually involves replaying the experience to strengthen the connections between the brain cells involved. And sleep represents a perfect opportunity for this looping. During this process, other similar past experiences can be activated to see where this memory ’ties in’, allowing some of the most random past events to be at the forefront of your dreams. Also, during this ‘awake-brain’ sleep, it has been reported that activity in emotional brain regions, like the fear-associated amygdala, are very active whilst areas involved in decision making and rationalising have a much reduced activity compared to the awake brain. Together, this combination could promote a highly emotive, non-rational state in the brain during the ‘active’ portion of our sleep, encouraging wild, non-sensical dreams.
So, as your brain uses the dream state to digest your daily events, it makes sense that your state of mind during the previous day could impact the night visions you have. Let’s take a look at how lockdown could be contributing to those crazy night shows.
Daily events/news: we are constantly hearing news which isn’t happy at the minute and so our daily experiences are filled with thoughts about the on-going situation. These events will be a huge proportion of what your brain is processes as new experiences during your sleep. And you could hypothesise that as the content of these events are not pleasant, other non-pleasant past experiences may also be reactivated during their integration.
Stress and Anxiety: a lot of us are consciously or subconsciously stressed or anxious at the minute. As the more common dream state is associated with very active emotional areas and reduced activity in areas of rationality, our stress could be amplified during our sleep as our ability to dismiss these fears is weakened.
Change of routine: Some dream psychologists report a change in your routine can significantly alter your dreams and promote dream recall (aka remembering your brain’s night time adventures). We are all currently going through huge changes to our routine (and a lot us are probably sleeping a bit more than usual if working from home), so this could be prompting the more ready recollection of the events played out in our sleep.
Collectively, the situation we are all living through is not something we have experienced before, and our strange, vivid dreams are potentially a consequence of our emotions, digesting the situation we are facing and the change to our normal lives. Once we are out of our isolation bubbles and the world regains some normality, you might find your dreams return to non-events. But I think we will always remember our weird lockdown dreams.
Julia xoxox (@julia.ravey.science)
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