Dreams Theories attempting to explain the origin and functions of REM sleep include: (1) that REM sleep provides stimulation for the development of the brain; (2) that it performs a chemical restoration function, since during REM dreaming neuro-protein synthesis occurs along with the restoration of other depleted brain chemicals; (3) that it provides oculomotor (eye movement) coordination, since during non-REM sleep the eyes move independently of each other; (4) that it provides a vigilance function, since REM sleep (stage I) is characterized by a level of consciousness close to the awakened state; (5) in a more recent and controversial theory, REM dreaming performs a neurological erasure function, eliminating extraneous information build-up in the memory system; and (6) that, in a more cognitive psychological explanation, REM dreaming enhances memory storage and reorganization.
Contrary to popular belief, dreaming is not caused by eating certain foods before bedtime or environmental stimuli during sleep. Dreaming is caused by an internal biological process. Some researchers have proposed the activation-synthesis hypothesis. Their neurological research indicates that large brain cells in the primitive brain stem spontaneously fire about every 90 minutes, sending random stimuli to cortical areas of the brain. As a consequence, memory, sensory, muscle control, and cognitive areas of the brain are randomly stimulated, resulting in the higher cortical brain attempting to make some sense of it.
This research suggests that dreams are experienced due to neurological impulses from the brain stem. However, there is controversy surrounding whether dreams have intentional personal meaning. Some psychotherapists believe that the content of dreams is caused by nonconscious needs, wishes, desires, and everyday concerns of the dreamer. These psychotherapists subscribe to the phenomenological-clinical explanation, which holds that dreams are intentionally meaningful messages from the unconscious. On the other hand, the neurological explanation maintains that dreams have no intentional meaning.
In between these two positions is an approach called content analysis. Content analysis simply describes and classifies the various representations in dreams, such as people, houses, cars, trees, animals, and color, without attributing any deep interpretation to the content. Differences in content have been discovered between the dreams of males and females, and between dreams occurring in different developmental stages of life. The meaning of these differences is under investigation. Recent research suggests that dream content reflects problems that the dreamer experiences in life, and that the function of such dreams is to facilitate the emotional resolution of these problems. There are numerous accounts of scientific problems being resolved and literary works being developed in dreams after dreamers had consciously immersed themselves in a problem for an extended period of time.
Cognitive psychologists are concerned with logic and thought processing during dreaming and how they differ from mental processes during the waking state. Studies of the developmental cognitive processes of children’s dreams have found that the increasing complexity of their dreams parallels waking cognitive development. Many researchers believe that knowledge about dreaming is important for understanding waking imagination. Current and future research issues involve further establishing and extending all of the above areas. Anthropologists are studying cross-cultural similarities and differences in dreams.
Research into nightmares and bizarre dreams continues. In addition, research on REM sleep is important for understanding psychobiological abnormalities. Some findings indicate that epileptic seizures are suppressed during REM sleep. Narcoleptics, who may involuntarily fall asleep at any time, enter REM sleep almost immediately.
Research continues on the variations in dream recall. For instance, artists tend to recall more dreams than scientists. For the population at large, only a small percentage of dreams are recalled. Lucid dreaming, the ability of dreamers to become aware of and control their dreams while dreaming, is also the focus of current research. Some lucid dreamers can learn to communicate with researchers through nonverbal signals.
New research promises to yield significant knowledge about memory, storage, retrieval, cognitive organization, psychobiological processes, human consciousness, and specific operations of the mind in science.