IN The Sandman, the long-awaited Netflix adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s dark and cerebral comic book series, Dreams and Nightmares is designed for Morpheus, the King of Dreams, who rules over a realm in which we spend a third of our lives – The Dreaming. In reality, however, there is no clear explanation as to why you wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, having to take yet another exam you haven’t studied for and – oh no! – where are your pants?! Instead, the nature and purpose of dreams are topics of heated debate.
“We know the mechanics of dreaming,” says Mark Blagrove, professor of psychology at Swansea University, who specializes in the study of sleep and dreams. “We know that you are more likely to have a dream in REM [rapid eye movement] sleep than in non-REM sleep. We know there is evidence for a “hot zone” near the back of the brain, which turns dreaming on and off. But despite knowing all this, we are not clear on why it actually happens.”
One theory, says Blagrove, is that dreaming has no function. Instead, it may be epiphenomenal, the accidental byproduct of the brain’s natural processes while we sleep. But there are many other theories that disagree.
For example, “One theory for why we have nightmares,” Blagrove explains, “is threat simulation theory, which suggests that we simulate threats such as running from wild animals to get practice overcoming danger.” Another is social simulation theory, which means that you simulate your social world while you sleep. “It’s plausible,” says Blagrove, “because dreams usually have at least one character more than the dreamer himself. There are also often emotions in the dream, along with intentions and plots.”
However, the most prominent theory relates to the evidence that during sleep we consolidate memories, transforming recent memories into long-term memories. Blagrove cites a recent study he conducted in which participants were taught a story. “They were then given the choice of spending the next two hours asleep or awake,” he says. “And those who had a period of sleep had better memory of the stories than those who had a period of wakefulness.”
The idea, Blagrove continues, is that during sleep, dreams come from the experience of the brain consolidating memories. “So we dream about what the brain is doing,” he says. “Now that leaves two options: either the dreams are just a byproduct of the memory consolidation process, or the dreams are a necessary part of that consolidation.”
And yet, while it has yet to be proven whether dreams have an intended function, that is not to say that they do not provide insight into the dreamers themselves. IN The Sandman, Morpheus sculpts a myriad of strange creations—such as a man with teeth for eyes—that populate the land of dreams. But in our minds, says Blagrove, the array of strange images and scenarios created from dreams is not the product of a mini David Lynch directing in our skulls, but our natural inclination to think about life through story and metaphor.
“We think metaphorically all the time,” says Blagrove. “So for example, if you’re in a relationship with someone and you can use phrases like ‘we’re going through a bumpy patch’. Similarly, we tend to think of love in terms of being a journey. And so the idea is that we go to bed and then these metaphors that are in the background of our waking lives become environments that are visible. You actually live in the metaphor and experience it. So turning over a new leaf can see you physically turning over a new leaf. »
Blagrove gives the example of children’s author Michael Rosen, whom he once interviewed about the dreams he experienced after COVID-19 caused him to spend 40 days in an induced coma. “In one of the dreams, he goes over a wall at Land’s End, and then he realizes how dangerous it is, so he’s pushed back,” Blagrove explains. “He then goes through this hole to get through this wall. He’s stuck in the hole and his wife is pushing him through and these two men on the other side are pulling him.”
The dream puzzled Rosen, until one of Blagrove’s colleagues came up with a convincing theory. “She realized ‘ah, he’s going through,'” says Blagrove. “The dream is for him to recover from COVID.”
About our expert, Prof Mark Blagrove
Prof Mark Blagrove is a psychologist at the University of Swansea, where he researches the possible functions of sleep and dreams.
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