Whether we remember it or not, dreams populate each of our nights. But what is their real function? Scientific research has made it possible to put forward several possible implications of dreams in the body.
Dreams are the set of mental activities that occur while one is asleep, at which thoughts, visions, and sensations are perceived as “real”. Usually, they occur during the REM phase of sleep, also known as rapid eye movement sleep. If their function is still uncertain, science has shed light on certain mechanisms at work in the dreamer.
The dream: brain activity during sleep
Studies have shown that dreams originate from the forebrain. Lesions on this part of the brain are likely to cause an absence of dreams or, on the contrary, increase their frequency and liveliness, or even cause them to persist during waking phases.
In addition, several neurotransmitters play a role in these images that we perceive during the night. During REM sleep, acetylcholine and dopamine levels are elevated. The former keeps the brain in an active state, while the latter is linked to hallucinations. Dopamine, therefore, contributes to making us perceive visions of dreams as “real”.
Along with the increase in acetylcholine and dopamine, the levels of serotonin, histamine, and norepinephrine decrease. We, therefore, call this phase of “paradoxical” sleep because the brain is “awake”, while the body is “asleep”. Lucid dreaming, on the other hand, is a state between paradoxical sleep and wakefulness, which is why we can have control over the course of the story.
What is the dream for?
We’re still not sure exactly what the primary purpose of dreams is, but the fact that they mostly (but not exclusively) occur during REM sleep might matter. Indeed, REM sleep is essential for the proper functioning of the body – its deprivation can affect the quality of physical and mental life.
In this context, dreaming could be a way for the body to restore its key neurotransmitters and certain bodily functions, which cannot be restored while awake. Dreaming could also play a fundamental role in consolidating memories, knowledge, and skills.
Consolidate memories and knowledge
Studies consisting in depriving individuals of paradoxical sleep (and therefore of dreams), by waking them up just before they enter it, have shown the effects on the body of such deprivation: lack of concentration, tension, anxiety, mood swings, weight gain.
This phase is therefore associated with better concentration and better-organized thinking during the day helps to regulate the nervous system and to better control one’s weight.
Finally, lack of sleep increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. It is, in fact, while one sleeps that the brain effectively eliminates the beta-amyloid protein, at the origin of this pathology. However, it is not known whether this cleansing is done while we are dreaming, or during other phases of sleep.
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