You can party in outer space, have breakfast atop the Eiffel Tower, speak various languages and scale skyscrapers with Tom Cruise in his next blockbuster – all in your dreams. Behnaz Sanjana dives into the mysterious world of the sleeping mind for more.
You are waiting for the elevator, all dressed up. You step in to see similarly well-dressed people. They reciprocate your smile. However, wait; a closer look at your co-riders reveals that their faces are upside down. The hair on the back of your neck is on end and you want to let out a bloodcurdling scream, but your throat is constricted out of terror. The man beside you leans close to ask, “Which floor?” and you realise he has no face. You try to get off, but the doors have closed and the elevator shoots up into a black hole; there is no escape. Then, you wake up with a start.
Blurred vision and a foggy brain tell you that you are in your own room; your own comfort zone. You feel the sweat trickling down your neck and remind yourself to breathe easy. In a few seconds, you fall back into peaceful slumber, only to wake up in the morning and have some fleeting memory of a dream that woke you in the night.
Dr Ram Vatwani, consultant neurologist, explains this fantastic occurrence that takes place while our body rejuvenates to brace itself for the next day. “Dreams are successions of images, ideas, emotions and sensations that occur usually involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep,” he says.
He tells us that scientists believe adenosine, a natural compound, accumulates in our blood during our waking hours, propelling us towards a sleepy state at the end of the day. Gradually, the heart rate and breathing slow and muscles all across the body relax more and more.
At about the 90-minute mark, after most people have fallen into deeper, slow-wave sleep, they switch into a cycle of sleep characterised by rapid eye movement (REM).
REM is when your eyes move rapidly back and forth under the eyelids and is the stage of sleep where the most vivid and frequent dreams happen. “The body lies mostly still through the REM cycle, but the brain is nearly as active as when it’s fully awake,” Dr Vatwani adds.
Besides being a storytelling session in your head, dreaming doesn’t light up the brain alone. There are many physiological phenomena going on while your subconscious mind takes a trip around bizarredom at night. Your adrenaline and blood pressure levels soar, while your breathing and heartbeats quicken. During REM, arm and leg muscles are temporarily paralysed. This explains why some people cannot move immediately after a ghastly nightmare.
If you think you do not dream, you’re mistaken. Everybody steps into foreign terrain every single night. It’s just that, more often than not, we do not remember our dreams. “The average person has several dreams a night, with two of our typical eight hours of daily sleep devoted to dreaming,” says Dr Vatwani. “Therefore, no matter how big an impact they make, or don’t make, on your waking self, dreams do occur while you sleep.
“Many scientists believe it is difficult recalling our dreams because the specific type of neuron-firing that helps us create new memories doesn’t go on while we’re asleep. Thus, we can only remember dreams that happen right before we wake up.”
Dream trivia says that five minutes after the end of the dream, half of its content is forgotten. Then after ten minutes, 90 per cent is lost.
The most common dreams that people see are of falling (from the top of the stairs or from a swing, for instance), being late for an important event, sitting in an exam without adequate preparation, losing hair or teeth and the death of a loved one.
Interestingly, there is a difference in dream themes between men and women. The European archives of the Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience journal report that men tend to dream about violence or loss of employment, while women lose sleep over bereavement and sexual harassment.
So, are dreams any more than a rolling reel of images in our minds? Sigmund Freud, noted the world over for his notorious psychological theories, maintained that dreams represent unfulfilled wishes or dormant desires of the subconscious.
Dream experts think that dreams, especially the ones that wake you up with a fright, are linked to something unresolved. They are frequent when the dreamer is stressed and can be laid to rest by dealing with the underlying issue.
Giving a more spiritual spin to dream interpretation, Sharmee Divan, a Mumbai-based tarot and angel card reader, says that dreams are symbolic. They give a message, but each of us can interpret them in our own way. “For example, dreaming of snakes could mean different things for different people. It could point to an underlying fear in someone, while I would see it symbolic of Lord Shiva, the Indian deity. So it’s all very subjective,” she opines.
Even after years of study, human beings have not been able to decipher the purpose of dreams. Without any concrete explanation on the hows and whys of this elusive and mysterious subject, let’s all just enjoy the entertaining act that the mind puts on for us at night.