Dreams and sleep – The surprising reason dreams really are important

Dreams and sleep – The surprising reason dreams really are important

The surprising reason dreams are important: they help us process emotion and learn new things says sleep experts Matthew Walker and Cheryl Fingleson

We all know people who insist they never dream. Well, they’re dreaming! Everyone has dreams – we just don’t always remember them. But apart from helping us live out some seriously kooky fantasies and activities, is dreaming important? Sleep coach Cheryl Fingleson says yes. ‘Most of our dreaming happens during REM sleep and this stage of sleep stimulates the part of the brain used in learning,‘ she explains. ‘If you don’t get enough REM sleep then you’ll might have trouble remembering things you’ve learnt the day before.’

So why else is dream sleep so important?

It’s like overnight therapy

There’s science to back up the phrase, ‘everything will seem better in the morning’. Matthew Walker, the psychology and neuroscience professor and author of Why We Sleep, explains that having REM-sleep takes the pain out of difficult and even traumatic events that happen in your day. Our brain doesn’t produce any of the anxiety-triggering molecule noradrenaline when we’re in REM sleep. ‘This means we are essentially working through our problems in a safe space. Aren’t our bodies clever?’ says Cheryl.

Dreaming enhances creativity and problem solving

While deep non-REM sleep strengthens individual memories, REM sleep is when those memories are blended together and consolidated. In one study, Matthew explains that people who were woken up during REM sleep were able to solve 15% to 35% more puzzles than when they were awake. ‘Babies spend much more time in REM sleep than adults, probably because this kind of sleep stimulates the parts of the brain used in learning,’ explains Cheryl.

Your body keeps you safe while dreaming

Most of us have dreamt about flying or doing something physically dangerous or silly. But did you know that our voluntary muscles are paralysed while we have these crazy dreams to prevent us from acting them out? Even so, it’s still a really physically active time for our body in other ways: our eyes move rapidly and our cardiovascular system goes through moments of acceleration and then deceleration.

How to ensure you get a good night’s dreams? 
  • Stay away from screens for at least the last hour before bed.
  • Turn your lights down low 2-3 hours before bed.
  • Go to bed at the same time every night.
  • Make sure you’re not too hot – or too cold.
  • Don’t go to bed too full of food or too hungry.
  • Diets high in sugar and low in fibre generally lead to worsened sleep – try and follow a healthy diet.
  • Understand that sleep is not like a bank – you can’t accumulate a debt and pay it off at the weekend with long sleep ins or naps.

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