Dreams & Sleep – How They Affect Our Brains and Health

Dr. Sanjay Singh, of the CHI Health Neurological Institute, tells us why sleep is so important to our health and what research is being done in dreams.

What happens in the brain while we sleep and why is it important to sleep?
It's a mystery, because until a few years ago we had no idea why we were sleeping. In addition, we sleep with a third of our lifespan. We knew that if you kept the animals awake and did not let them sleep, they did not live. Now in the last three or five years we have learned a little more. So, we've learned that during sleep, your brain actually removes all the toxins from your brain. That is why, if there are sleep disorders, there are many neurological problems that can occur such as a stroke or dementia and other things. We also know that your memory is consolidated during your sleep.

What are the stages of the dream? What is REM sleep?
When you sleep, your brain is still very active and there are four stages of sleep through which your brain passes. There is stage 1 and stage 2, which is considered light sleep, stage 3 which is deep sleep, and then stage 4, which is called REM sleep. REM, or fast eye movement, is the most interesting dream. During this stage, the eyes are shaken under your eyelids, and that is usually the dream phase of your dream.

How much sleep do we need and what happens if we do not?
Each adult needs between seven and nine hours of sleep. What happens if you do not sleep enough? We know from studies that you may then be at high risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, neurological diseases, psychiatric illnesses and obesity. That's why it's very important that we sleep enough.

Do you all dream? What happens when we dream?
We have no idea why someone would dream. But, it has to grant some biological advantage, otherwise it would not be happening. The other question that often asks me is: "Do you all dream?" Yes, everyone dreams. Each and every one of you had three or four dreams last night, but you will not remember them all. The reason for this is that as you move away from REM sleep, you forget your dreams.
The other interesting thing that happens when you are dreaming is that your whole body, your arms, your legs are paralyzed. This is really important so that you do not act your dreams! This phenomenon is fascinating by itself, since each night, each human being is paralyzed three or four times, and then you recover all your power and your strength when you leave that phase of the dream. In some people who may not be paralyzed, they actually have a disorder, called REM behavior disorder, in which their dreams act. Some people can make holes in the walls or hurt their spouses if they are sleeping with them. So it's a kind of unfortunate but fascinating mess that happens to some people, although it's very rare.

How do you study your dreams more and what do you hope to discover?
The question remains: "Why do we dream?" That is a research topic that we have undertaken here. One way we investigate this is that we allow people to sleep and monitor their brain waves. After they have fallen asleep, we awaken them during their first sleep phase the first night, the second sleep phase the second night, the third sleep phase the third night to discover what they dreamed. On the fourth night, we try to see if we can influence their dreams. Interestingly, most theories now say that you can not influence dreams, and that when people are dreaming they are completely isolated from the environment. BUT, we think it may not be true. For example, it is possible that some of us have had that experience when you wake up in the morning and you are not sure if this is happening in your dream or in real life. That right there tells us that their brains are not totally isolated from the environment.
How do we test the influence of sleep? When we have people sleeping, we can tell by their brain waves that they are dreaming. Then we can ring a bell, and if the person (when he wakes up) says something like: "I was walking down the street and suddenly I heard the bells of a church ringing", they have internalized what we did. Similarly, if we sprinkle a few drops of water on them and say: "I was walking down the street and it suddenly started to rain." Therefore, we are trying to study dreams in a way that has never been studied before. Our goal is to discover why we dream, what we dream about and how we can influence dreams. In addition, a long-term goal in neurology is to see if dreams change in those who have certain diseases and disorders; and changing your dreams, can we reverse those diseases and disorders? It is a new way of seeing health and disease.

Video credits to CHI Health YouTube channel

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    Dreams & Sleep – How They Affect Our Brains and Health

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