The Science Behind Sleep and Dreams

“And a quiet old lady who was whispering ‘hush’ Good night room Good night moon Good night cow jumping over the moon Good night light And the red balloon” (Goodnight Moon; by Brown and Hurd)

Jinling Wang

One sheep, two sheep, three sheep jump over emerald fields, slowly dimming into falling darkness as they fall into a peaceful slumber.

Curling in the warmth and safety of our blankets, hours will tick by as our bodies and mind are ready to reset to function the next day.

Sleep is more than our head hitting a pillow. It is an incredible way to strengthen our immune system and sustain healthy blood vessels. Sleep is vital to our health.

How does sleep harness such power in our bodies while our consciousness has left its temporary dwelling?

We spend just about one-third of our lives sleeping, and the science behind sleep and dreams opens a door into how the nerve cells in our brains can transmit information to each other while we are asleep.

Looking back to the 50s, people initially thought that sleep was just a passive task while our bodies and brain were inactive in a state of rest.

However, in recent findings, John Hopkins neurologist Mark Wu believes sleep is a window of time in which our brain is occupied with numerous activities that play a crucial part in our daily lives.

In hopes of learning more about the impacts of mental and physical health when it comes to sleep, Wu and a handful of other sleep researchers looked into theories about sleep, including the REM cycles.

In the duration we are asleep, our brains frequently cycle through two distinct types of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep. Considered the first part of the sleep cycle, non-REM sleep is comprised of four stages.

The first stage occurs between the period when we are awake and falling asleep.

The second one takes place right as our body is ready for breathing control and our body temperature slowly declines, as well as our heart rate, transitioning us into a light sleep.

Combined, the final third and fourth stages are what we call a deep sleep. REM sleep is plays an important role in dreaming, memory, and emotional processing.

New data suggests that non-REM sleep is more effective, peaceful, and restorative. It is also essential when related to memorization and retaining information.

While we transition into REM sleep, our eyes dart underneath closed lids as our brain waves are comparable to those when we are awake and our breathing becomes faster, and our body will be in a temporarily-paralyzed state when we dream.

Following a repetitive cycle, as we go through each one, we begin to spend less time in stages three and four, where our deep sleep may be easily disturbed.

Our bodies will continue to rotate through this cycle anywhere from four to five times.

Like cars, our bodies have a programmed control system allowing us to regulate and control our sleep.

These two primary processes are the circadian rhythm and our sleep drive.

Closely related to a clock, a biological clock controls the circadian rhythm in our brain designed to help us wake up.

Dependent on light cues, one of the circadian rhythm’s primary functions is to increase the production of the hormone melatonin.

Known as the pineal gland found in the brain’s two hemispheres, it receives data from the SCN (suprachiasmatic nucleus) that controls our sleep cycle and the creation of melatonin.

Playing another critical role in our sleep schedule is our sleep drive. Similar to how our body craves food when we are hungry, our body has an instinctive desire to sleep when we’re tired.

Throughout the day, whether we finish a full day of class or work, our desire for sleep begins to grow until it reaches a maximum point where we need to sleep.

One distinct difference between sleep and hunger is that when you are not hungry, you can decide not to eat, but when it comes to sleep, when you are exhausted, you can’t delay or ignore the feeling.

While faced with absolute exhaustion, our bodies can sneak in a bit of sleep for one or two seconds while our eyes are open.

However in reality, napping for over 30 minutes can mess up your night’s sleep routine by reducing your body’s overall sleep drive.

Have you ever woken up with drowsiness after an unsound night’s sleep? Then it won’t shock you when you experience its effect on your brain throughout the day. Getting a healthy amount of sleep is essential for “brain plasticity,” also known as our brain’s capacity to rewire itself and adapt to input.

Along with the benefits of a good night’s rest, researchers recently observed our brain’s capability to remove toxins in our brains that rapidly produce while we are awake. While still puzzling, scientists’ dreams still have a substantial mysterious repertoire in REM sleep, our most memorable dreams run by our forebrain mechanism, which is in charge of our
speech and thought process.

Controlled by our brain stem, the REM stage is in charge of keeping both our heartbeat and breathing in check. Like a domino effect, our brain stems can stimulate our forebrain resulting in dreams.

With more intensive research, scientists found that the amygdala, which produces emotion, a part of our brain, is more engaged while we are asleep than awake as we dream.

There is still no definite answer to why we dream. Researchers have articulated numerous theories believing that our dreams.

Research suggests that our dreams are a way to respond to external stimuli occurring when we are asleep.

We experience different types of dreams, from nightmares to repetitive dreams.

So why are they so important? Have you ever had a crazy dream and thought, “What did I just see?” Researchers and scientists have been thinking about the same questions for years.

Why is it that when we fall asleep, we can imagine ourselves as a celebrity or even a superhero?

How is it possible for us to experience such adventures when we are sleeping without knowing what they mean and their significance?

Considering four of the most influential models providing different perspectives and answers of what dreams mean, there are so many more out there, none of which is definite.

However, one thing is for sure; our brains display their creativity when we dream-so who knows what else we can learn from them?

Use the time to reflect on your dreams; maybe you’ll find a new perspective you were unaware existed.