How Sleep Works

Dreams and Improving Sleep Habits

Why do we have such crazy, kooky dreams? Why do we dream at all for that matter? According to Joel Achenbach in his book Why Things Are:

­The brain creates dreams through random electrical activity. Random is the key word here. About every 90 minutes the brain stem sends electrical impulses throughout the brain, in no particular order or fashion. The analytic portion of the brain -- the forebrain -- then desperately tries to make sense of these signals. It is like looking at a Rorschach test, a random splash of ink on paper. The only way of comprehending it is by viewing the dream (or the inkblot) metaphorically, symbolically, since there's no literal message.

This doesn't mean that dreams are meaningless or should be ignored. How our forebrains choose to "analyze" the random and discontinuous images may tell us something about ourselves, just as what we see in an inkblot can be revelatory. And perhaps there is a purpose to the craziness: Our minds may be working on deep-seated problems through these circuitous and less threatening metaphorical dreams.

Here are some other things you may have noticed about your dreams:

  • Dreams tell a story. They are like a TV show, with scenes, characters and props.
  • Dreams are egocentric. They almost always involve you.
  • Dreams incorporate things that have happened to you recently. They can also incorporate deep wishes and fears.
  • A noise in the environment is often worked in to a dream in some way, giving some credibility to the idea that dreams are simply the brain's response to random impulses.
  • You usually cannot control a dream -- in fact, many dreams emphasize your lack of control by making it impossible to run or yell. (However, proponents of lucid dreaming try to help you gain control.)

Dreaming is important. In sleep experiments where a person is woken up every time he/she enters REM sleep, the person becomes increasingly impatient and uncomfortable over time.

To learn more, check out How Dreams Work.

How Much Sleep Do I Need?

Most adult people seem to need seven to nine hours of sleep a night. This is an average, and it is also subjective. You, for example, probably know how much sleep you need in an average night to feel your best.

The amount of sleep you need decreases with age. A newborn baby might sleep 20 hours a day. By age four, the average is 12 hours a day. By age 10, the average falls to 10 hours a day. Senior citizens can often get by with six or seven hours a day.

Tips to Improve Your Sleep

  • Exercise regularly. Exercise helps tire and relax your body.
  • Don't consume caffeine after 4:00 p.m. or so. Avoid other stimulants like cigarettes as well.
  • Avoid alcohol before bedtime. Alcohol disrupts the brain's normal patterns during sleep.
  • Try to stay in a pattern with a regular bedtime and wakeup time, even on weekends.

For more information on sleep and related topics, check out the links below.

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