Every night you venture from this world into an entirely different one where the rules of physics, time, and mortality may not apply. It sometimes doesn't help that while you're inhabiting this world, you are unable to exercise any control over your dream land. However, that can be part of the fun. Where does this all occur? In the mind, of course.
Dreams as a Means of Memory Processing
Sleep and dreaming helps your mind process, sort, and store each day's events. Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in integrative sleep and dream medicine at the University of Arizona, likens dreaming to being a digestive system for your brain. "At night, the brain metaphorically swallows, digests, and sifts through information, and, just like the gut, eliminates," he says. "What the brain keeps becomes a part of who we are. Dreaming, is like the brain's digestive system."
Dreams are often said to occur only during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) cycles of sleep. But according to Dr. Naiman, dreams actually happen all night long; it's just that you're more tuned in to them during the REM cycles. Interestingly, mammals, reptiles, and birds are the only animals that experience REM sleep.
The process of sleep also helps the brain rid itself of toxic proteins that may potentially affect neurological function. The brain has its own plumbing system—known as the glymphatic system—that carries waste material out of the brain nightly. During sleep, brain cells shrink, allowing fluids to wash out the brain.
Want to Remember Your Dreams?
Trying to remember some dreams can be like catching smoke with a butterfly net. Sometimes the more you chase after it the more elusive it can become. The best way to try and remember your dream is to wake up slowly, lying in bed for a few moments and staying with your grogginess. By contrast, getting jolted awake by your alarm or any sudden sound can cause you to immediately forget what you were just doing in your dream. The shock of going from one state of mind to the next can leave you with only the vague residual memory of your night's adventures.
People who tend to remember their dreams have been found to have more spontaneous brain activity in a part of the brain called the temporo-parietal junction, when compared to those who more easily forget their dreams. These differences in recalling dreams don't just occur during sleep; people who remember dreams also seem to be more sensitive to sounds while they're asleep, too.
The Connection from Dream Land to the Waking World
Your body reacts the same way in your dreams biologically as it does to reality, says Dr. Naiman. "The experience we have in the dream registers in the body and in the brain in almost exactly the same way," he says. "Your blood pressure or heart rate might spike, for example, like in a real-life stressful scenario, helping to cement those emotional experiences of the dream." Contrary to popular belief, dreams also register in real time and can span anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour.
The realistic feel of dreams can extend to your awake self. A 2014 study found that many bad dreams elicited feelings of worry, confusion, and guilt. However, dreams never feel "weird" no matter how preposterous the situation you're in. "It's only after you wake up and step into the waking world and look at the dream that it seems weird," Dr. Naiman says.
A Good Night's Rest for a Multitude of Benefits
A good night's sleep will take you to imaginative realms but also gives your brain time to digest, sift and sort through information, while leaving you well rested for the morning. Sleep is also connected to other bodily functions such as your immune system, blood pressure, and even weight. Getting the proper amount of sleep, and enjoying the fantastical world of your dreams can keep you living healthy and happy during the day.