How many times have you woken up after a crazy dream thinking, “what the fuck was that?” If you’re like me, the answer to that question is a thousand times. And as much as I’m sure you’d love to read about the intricacies of my nighttime escapades, we won’t be delving that deep, that’s what dream journals are for. Instead, we’re going to explore the science of dreaming. Yay!
It all starts with DMT, or dimethyltryptamine (let’s stick with calling it DMT). What is DMT? Short answer, it’s a molecule that some researchers believe is produced by our pineal gland and induces out of body experiences and intense hallucinations. The theory is that DMT is released during moments of “altered consciousness,” like birth, death, and during dreaming. It may even be the reason why people who are brought back to life sometimes recall experiencing vivid hallucinations upon death.
Our most intense dreams occur during the REM stage of sleep, which is where we achieve our deepest sleep and also where it is believed that DMT is released. Researchers at UC Berkley found that reduction in REM sleep leads to less dreaming and also affects our ability to interpret complex emotions while awake. So if you’re not getting much REM sleep, you may find it more difficult to decipher if your girlfriend really means it when she says “I’m fine,” or if she’s actually legitimately pissed at you.
Researchers have also found that severe REM sleep-deprivation is correlated with development of mental disorders, such as saying “I’m fine” when what you really mean is “how dare you snapchat your ex on the day of our 2-week anniversary.”
Famous neurologists and psychologists such as Sigmund Freud have come up with theories on why we dream. Let’s go over a couple of them:
The activation-synthesis hypothesis:
This theory states that dreams don’t actually mean anything, as they are merely electrical brain impulses designed to take random thoughts and images from our memories and present them while we’re asleep. In a natural attempt to make sense of these thoughts and images, we construct dream stories once we’re awake. Which kind of makes sense given that if you’ve ever had a friend try to describe his dream to you, it sounds an awful lot like a drunken mad-lib and you end up staring at him like an idiot until he’s through.
“So what do you think it means?”
“What… the part where your algebra teacher chases you through sea of peanut butter until you arrive at Gary Coleman’s pool party?”
“I think it means you’re retarded.”
The threat simulation theory:
The idea that dreaming is actually an ancient biological defense mechanism with the ability to repeatedly simulate potential life-threatening events. This provides us with an evolutionary advantage as we enhance our neuro-cognitive mechanisms that can quickly perceive threats in real life.
The problem with this theory is that we are no longer monkeys swinging from tree to tree trying to avoid monkey-eating jaguars. It’d be interesting to see a dream that is meant to help us with 21st century/first world threats. Maybe I’d have a dream about being on the subway seeing a homeless person walk the length of the train asking people for money. Would the dream properly prepare me to put on my headphones and assume a thousand-yard stare in order to avoid confrontation? I sure hope so, the real world is a jungle and homeless people are my monkey-eating jaguars.
There are a few other theories out there, but I’m tired of researching them and they can all be boiled down to the same point, which is “whoa dude, dreams be trippin” which I think we can all relate to.