How Dreams help us face our fears – neuroscience

Do bad dreams serve a purpose? Researchers analyzed the dreams of people and identified which areas of the brain were activated when they experienced fear in their dreams. They found that once the individuals woke up, the brain areas responsible for controlling emotions responded to fear-inducing situations much more effectively. These results demonstrate that dreams help us react better to frightening situations, thereby paving the way for new dream-based therapeutic methods for combating anxiety.

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“Neuroscience has been taking an interest in dreams for a number of years, focusing on the areas of the brain that are active when we dream. The scientists employed high-density electroencephalography (EEG), which uses several electrodes positioned on the skull to measure brain activity. They recently discovered that certain regions of the brain are responsible for the formation of dreams, and that certain other regions are activated depending on the specific content within a dream (such as perceptions, thoughts and emotions). “We were particularly interested in fear: what areas of our brain are activated when we’re having bad dreams?” states Lampros Perogamvros, a researcher in the Sleep and Cognition Laboratory headed by professor Sophie Schwartz in the Department of Basic Neurosciences, Faculty of Medicine, UNIGE, and senior clinical lecturer at HUG’s Sleep Laboratory.”

Brain areas active during frightening dreams
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The scientists from Geneva placed 256 EEG electrodes on 18 subjects whom they woke several times during the night. Each time the participants were woken up, they had to answer a series of questions such as: ‘Did you dream? And, if so, did you feel scared?’

By analysing the brain activity based on participants’ responses, we identified two brain regions implicated in the induction of fear experienced during the dream: the insula and the cingulate cortex,” explains Perogamvros. The insula is also involved in evaluating emotions when awake, and is automatically activated when someone feels afraid. The cingulate cortex, for its part, plays a role in preparing motor and behavioural reactions in the event of a threat. “For the first time, we’ve identified the neural correlates of fear when we dream and have observed that similar regions are activated when experiencing fear in both sleep and wakeful states,” continues the Geneva-based researcher.

Do dreams prepare us for our waking lives?

The research then investigated a possible link between the fear experienced during a dream and the emotions experienced once awake.

“They gave a dream diary to 89 participants for the duration of a week. The subjects were asked that each morning upon waking, they note down whether they remembered the dreams they had during the night and to identify the emotions they felt, including fear. At the end of the week, they were placed in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. “We showed each participant emotionally-negative images, such as assaults or distressful situations, as well as neutral images, to see which areas of the brain were more active for fear, and whether the activated area changed depending on the emotions experienced in the dreams over the previous week,” says Virginie Sterpenich, a researcher in the Department of Basic Neurosciences at UNIGE.”

The researchers were particularly interested in the brain areas traditionally involved in managing emotions, such as the insula, amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex and cingulate cortex. “We found that the longer a someone had felt fear in their dreams, the less the insula, cingulate and amygdala were activated when the same person looked at the negative pictures,” says Sterpenich. “In addition, the activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is known to inhibit the amygdala in the event of fear, increased in proportion to the number of frightening dreams!”

These results demonstrate the very strong link between the emotions we feel in both sleep and wakefulness. They also reinforce a neuroscientific theory about dreams: we simulate frightening situations while dreaming in order to better react to them once we’re awake. “Dreams may be considered as a real training for our future reactions and may potentially prepare us to face real life dangers,” suggests Perogamvros.

Dreams: a new therapeutic?

“Following the revelation of a potential function of dreams, the researchers are now planning to study a new form of dream therapy to treat anxiety disorders. They are also interested in nightmares, because — unlike bad dreams, in which the level of fear is moderate — nightmares are characterised by an excessive level of fear that disrupts sleep and has a negative impact on the individual once awake. “We believe that if a certain threshold of fear is exceeded in a dream, it loses its beneficial role as an emotional regulator,” concludes Perogamvros.”

Story Source: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/11/191125100349.htm

Materials provided by Université de Genève

Neurologists Explain What Goes On In Your Brain When You Have A Recurring Dream

What is the brain doing when it plays the same dream, again and again? The neuroscience of recurring dreams gives us some insight into how they happen.

Dreams are very weird

“THINK ABOUT IT: You’re hallucinating four to six times a night as your brain attempts to synthesize and understand your experiences and memories. Recurring dreams add another layer of mystery. Around 60 to 70% of adults report having at least one recurring dream in their lifetime.”

Brain activity during a recurring dream partly depends on the dream’s content.

Different parts of the brain may be activated by different dreams

  • Dreams which are very visual activate our occipital cortex.
  • Dreams which involve dancing at a disco would activate our auditory cortex.
  • Dreaming of the same thing every night means you’ll activate the same group of structures repeatedly.

Emotions play a role in recurring dreams

“One of the theories regarding the function of dreams is that dreaming permits the emotional content of experiences to be processed,” If a dream keeps coming back, its emotional content is clearly important to you. This is why one of the most important mechanisms for generating dreams is the limbic pathway, an electrical brain circuit that regulates our emotional and behavioral responses when we’re awake. “When a person experiences recurring dreams, the limbic pathway is being activated in the brain .  .  . And it often lights up the amygdala, an almond-shaped area that processes emotions.”

“Along with the amygdala and the limbic system in general, repeating dreams can also involve the reticular activating system, or RAS. It’s a part of the brainstem that filters information to help us focus on important things, like emotional issues.”

 “Research* showed that recurring dreams might occur because of something called psychological need frustration, where you’re not getting what you need from waking life — whether it’s feeling respected, close to others, or in control. They can also be based on memories or traumas from your past. The RAS, the limbic system, and the amygdala combine to make the same dreams resurface again and again as your brain grapples with processing your problems and finding a solution.”

PTSD

“There’s another neurological reason dreams can keep coming back, too. “People with post-traumatic stress disorder will very frequently have recurring dreams or nightmares related to the trauma, and it is proposed that because of the extreme emotion of the experience, people wake up during the dream. This means that the dreaming process is never completed, and the emotional memory is never fully processed.” The brain will keep trying to finish its nocturnal job, and get interrupted every time. This could happen with benign dreams, too.”

Your recurring dreams might be annoying or strange, but they could show that something’s “stuck” in your waking life. And that could be a valuable clue to finding some peace, day and night.

Dreams that come back over and over again are trying to tell you something.

ARE YOU LISTENING?

*Research published in Motivation and Emotion in 2017

https://www.bustle.com/wellness/recurring-dreams-brain-neurologists#:~:text=%22When%20a%20person%20experiences%20recurring,shaped%20area%20that%20processes%20emotions.&text=It’s%20a%20part%20of%20the,important%20things%2C%20like%20emotional%20issues.