The science behind dreaming and nightmares


Why do we dream? It’s a question humanity has been asking for a long time. When we dream, we are swept away from reality and disconnected from our surroundings. This can be tranquil, peaceful and beautiful, or unsettling and scary, depending on what we dream about.

REM during sleep

Dreams occur during what is called the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. We enter this phase after roughly one hour of shut-eye. Here, the human eyes move rapidly back and forth, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and a person’s breathing changes. You’re almost awake, but you can’t move your body. Almost one fifth of all sleep happens in this stage.

Studies show that during REM sleep, our brain organises and processes information gathered during the day. Our brain is like a computer, and it uses this sleep phase to file a collection of old and new images and information. During REM sleep, our brain is reorganising its files. Scientists think this process is then presented to us through dreams, but we’re not even close to deciphering what it all means.

What’s it all about?

People interpret their dreams as strange and nonsensical, but oneirologists (interpreter of dreams) state there is correlation between the information we process and what we dream. There are many who claim to have the key to interpreting dreams, bringing spiritual elements (and even future predictions) into their interpretations.

This might all be true; understanding dreams is hugely complex. They’re not always as they seem. How you interpret them often depends on whether or not you think there is more to life than meets the eye, but the scientific study of dreams is called oneirology.

How do we study dreams

Lots of people believe dreams are manifestations of our subconscious, and that maybe they play a significant role in preparing us for our future. But before that, let’s discuss the science behind dreams.

Progression in recent neuro-imaging techniques now means specialists have the ability to connect the dots between dream features and specific patterns in brain activity. Advances in science mean we have the ability to see and understand the human mind in striking detail. These days, high density EEGs, PET scans and MRIs can show us how the brain is functioning whilst we sleep.

We often categorise the things we see during REM sleep into two categories; dreams and nightmares. They’re essentially the same things, but one is a positive experience, whilst the other is negative.

Lucid dreams

Most recently, scientific research has enhanced the study of what is known as ‘lucid dreaming’, and this is where it gets really interesting.

In this dream state, we realise we can do something, and have the ability to control what happens next. Neuroscientists can detect lucid dreams in subjects through frequency measures. We’re not far from having the technology to control what people are seeing whilst they are in this sleep state. For people with post traumatic stress disorder, or those who suffer from persistent nightmares, this would mean we could alter the outcome of their dreams, preventing them from experiencing further trauma whilst they sleep. It would be beneficial in helping them recover.


There aren’t many people who enjoy having nightmares. When we dream, things feel very real to us. If something scary happens, it can be terrifying.

Nightmares are said to rise for a number of reasons, but the most commonly cited causes are irregular sleep, anxiety, stress, mental health disorders, medicinal effects, and, most common of all, post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). Usually, this involves trauma experienced in the real world replaying in the dream world. This happens when the area of the brain that controls fear senses a threat, and becomes overly sensitive or overactive, even when we are sleeping.

Can you cure nightmares?

Research into nightmares has helped scientists develop a number of treatments. If nightmares are caused by stress, for example, understanding and identifying the route of this is an important part of the cure.

Chronic or post-traumatic stress nightmares are made of stronger stuff, and sufferers may need the assistance of a specialist. Often, psychological therapy can help. Image rehearsal therapy is a commonly used method of cure for people with these kinds of nightmares. This involves recording nightmares in great detail, then replacing the outcome of scary situations with positive ones. In time, nightmares change and become dreams. 

Humans are complex advanced beings. There’s a lot going on within ourselves we don’t know about. Our dreams (and nightmares) are insightful. If you’re interested in the more spiritual side of dreaming, there are plenty of resources out there on the internet to help you interpret them.

Dreams start with good sleep

For most of us, dreaming is pleasurable. Sleeping is often one of our favourite things to do. If you’re looking for a restful night, a decent mattress is an absolute must. Irregular sleep is known to cause nightmares, so a comfortable bed in a quiet, tidy room is the best way to solve nightmares if you think they’re being caused by poor sleeping patterns.

Studies show physical discomfort not only affects your health, but stops you from entering the REM phase of sleep, which means your brain has no time to process the things it needs to file away.

Ely Mattresses are comfortable and affordable, and made from high quality materials. In our opinion, they’re the best foundation for a good night of sleep.

Note: if you’re struggling with nightmares caused by post traumatic stress disorder, please seek professional help.






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