How Do Dreams Work? Research Shows It’s A Complicated Process

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

If you wonder why you keep having that dream about showing up naked to your high school reunion, and what it actually means when you dream that your teeth are falling out, you’re not alone. The phenomenon of dreaming has been kind of a mystery since forever. How do dreams work? Well, it's a question that's haunted people for ages.

Recently, scientists found that there may be two genes at the root of why we dream. According to LiveScience, without these two essential genes, we wouldn’t experience rapid eye movement phases during sleep, otherwise known as REM sleep. And without REM, we wouldn't have dreams. During REM sleep, the brain is as active as if it were awake, but the body is paralyzed so that we don’t act out our dreams. Since mood and mental health disorders are often linked to chronic poor-quality sleep, understanding the basic functions of sleep, and how dreaming works in the brain, may help researchers develop more effective treatments for both sleep and mental health disorders.

But beyond the genetic mechanics of how our brains produce dreams, what else is going on in our dreaming brains, like — how do dreams actually work in the brain, and why do we need them?

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According to Greater Good Magazine, in addition to our physical needs for sleep, our brains actually need to dream. Dreaming is sort of like a prolonged overnight therapy session, and dreaming in REM state can help us resolve painful, difficult, or even traumatic experiences that we’ve experienced during the day. Dreams help us process all our complex life stuff out. Greater Good notes that during REM, our brains are totally devoid of certain anxiety-triggering molecules, and, at the same time, key areas of the brain associated with memory and emotion are activated during dreaming. This basically means that the brain creates a sort of stress-free opportunity for processing challenging emotions and memories during sleep.

But The Guardian also reports that dreaming happens in the brain in way more complex ways than previously thought. Not only do dreams occur in REM state, they may also happen in non-REM sleep states, according to recent research. Given that scientists previously thought that dreams happen only during REM, the results of this small study indicate that the ways in which dreams work in our brains are super intricate. But researchers also note that such studies might not only help us better understand how dreams work in the brain, but also the nature of consciousness itself — like, whether our brains simulate reality to some extent. Knowing when we switch from unconscious to conscious experiences, and how this relates to sleep, is key to knowing what the functions of dreaming really are.

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Given that we cycle through REM and non-REM sleep every night, according to LiveScience, understanding these different patterns of brain activity during sleep and dreams may help scientists better understand how problems with REM state link up with illnesses like neurological disorders, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. Hiroki Ueda, who lead the study on the genes responsible for dreaming, told LiveScience that understanding how dreams work in the brain, the function of dreaming, and those specific brain regions that control sleep, may help in the development of treatments for many different illnesses and disorders — and may also prove especially helpful in the development of more effective therapies for PTSD and major depression. Ueda further noted that more research is needed to better understand how dreams work in the human brain.

For now, studies suggest that dreaming is closely linked to how well we process memory, trauma, and emotions, and it may even provide insight as to how we perceive daily reality all together. And what we do know is, there are way too many reasons to prioritize quality shut-eye to count — so, as much as possible, make sure you're getting enough zzz's every night.