The Science of Dreams

The Science of Dreams

Dreams, safety, and schedules. Those three topics are actually really connected, and if you haven’t ever thought about how those three things might be connected, this blog post is for you. At our downtown Orlando chiropractic office, we often get asked about sleep-related topics like dreams, so we’re here to offer a research-backed perspective on the topic.

What Happens When We Dream

First, we have to talk about dreams a little bit. A lot of this information will come from the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, Ph.D. It’s a fantastic resource, I highly recommend you read this book. In the past, we’ve discussed the sleep side of things, how important sleep is, and why it’s so important to get sleep, but we haven’t talked about dreams specifically. Basically, when you’re dreaming, your brain moves from NREM sleep, non-REM sleep. That is where your brain is cataloging all the information and learning you got done during that day, so it starts off the night with processing.

Then, as your brain moves into REM sleep your brain is actually making new connections; taking the old information it had and the new information it got and then running through all these weird scenarios where logic does not need to take place. Your brain is putting things together faster than you can consciously put things together. So dreaming is really important, it’s your brain’s way of coming up with new ideas. This is highlighted in a couple of different ways in this book.

Mendeleev, the guy who invented the periodic table of elements in chemistry, swears that it came to him in a dream. He’d been stewing on it, trying to figure it out for months and months, and then in his sleep, the little index cards he had all just kind of organized themselves, and we had the periodic table. Thomas Edison was so enamored by the idea of learning from your sleep, that he would fall asleep with some metal balls in his hand over a metal frying pan, so that as he fell asleep and lost muscle control, his hand would drop the ball into the pan and it would wake him. He called these genius naps, where according to him he got some of his best ideas.

So dreaming can be a very powerful tool for learning, but what we heard from patients during COVID lockdowns was that they were not learning much from their dreams. If you’re having weird dreams, it may have to do with new information that your brain has maybe never had to process before, and one of those things is safety. Now, I don’t care how cavalier you are towards this idea of Coronavirus, how safe you feel around it, or how unsafe you feel around it. What goes on is that your brain is asking new questions and imagining new scenarios, and a lot of them dwell on safety. Is it safe to go out? I see masks, my brain has never had to process masks before. Is it safe for me to be out and about? I’m told I’m not supposed to leave my house, is that safe or is that not safe? Now consciously you get to make those decisions. But the reality is that, subconsciously, your brain is making new choices without you.

Safety and Your Brain

So this is an ideal time to talk about another book called The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory, The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe by Stephen Porges. It’s a fantastic read as long as you can understand all of the words that are used, and for a pocket guide, it’s actually really difficult, but it’s fantastic because he applies the vagus nerve to safety. You’ve got this vagus nerve, and all of your nerves come out of your brain and into your spinal cord, and then exit out to the different parts of your body, except for a handful. Your cranial nerves are separate from your spinal cord and your brain stem, and they come out of your brain, exclusively separate from the rest of those nerves. They go down to different parts of your body, and they do different things.

The vagus nerve, the 10th cranial nerve, comes out of your brain and it goes down to your ears, face, heart, and lungs. This nerve is your measure of safety. It’s like your handbrake for your parasympathetic tone. It’s telling your body not to freak out. When it gets stimuli to go ahead and let go, you’re basically turning down your vagus nerve and your body gets agitated. You get anxious, your heart rate goes up, your respirations go up, and your eardrums are tightened so that they’re on high alert. Basically, your body can subconsciously figure out when there’s danger, and it doesn’t even have to make you aware of it. Your body just naturally tunes to it. So dealing with some of this anxiety that is subconscious sends different signals to your brain, which in turn allows your dreams to be different.

Different isn’t necessarily bad—I don’t want you to think that because you’re having weird dreams that there’s something medically wrong and you need to rush out to your doctor. Absolutely not, quite the contrary. Some of these dreams are your brain trying to take the new information that it has and apply it to old situations, which can be a great thing. It can be your brain working through some of these new challenges and situations. So don’t think of it as a bad thing, but understand that some of this could be coming from subconsciously feeling unsafe, as in the book here. You need to make sure that you are applying the best techniques for your body to overcome that. If your heart rate and respirations are constantly up, because your body is always subconsciously ready to push you into this fight or flight mode, that’s not a good thing.

So we’ve talked about this a little bit before, but your brain has three different layers. You’ve got this reptilian layer, which consists of things like breathing and eating—super basic stuff. Above that, you have this mammalian layer that consists of things like emotion, pain, pleasure, and some learning. Finally, there’s the human brain, which is the very top layer, the cortex. It’s higher thinking. That deepest layer, the reptilian one, is the one your vagus nerve is going into. It’s hard to kind of hijack that—you’d have to use other things in that deep reptilian brain to feel more safe.

Schedule and Safety

This is where that schedule comes in. When it comes to subconscious safety, there’s what we know is dangerous, what we don’t know is dangerous, and what we have never even conceived of as dangerous. In the context of tonight’s conversation, we’ll focus on things we know are dangerous. One of the things that affected us all during COVID lockdowns was the uncertainty of our schedule.

Dreams are affected by safety, and safety is affected by our subconscious, which is affected by our schedule. It’s an amazing concept if you think about it. If your routine is to wake up at seven o’clock in the morning, take a shower, eat breakfast, wait in your traffic, go to work, eat lunch, finish work, go home, eat dinner, watch TV, and start over the next day, there’s consistency to that, which is incredibly safe to your brain. Your brain starts to say, everything is as it was, there’s no reason to be upset or afraid, and my routine tells me everything is safe. Even if you are still working, your weekends are not like they were. Your evenings are not like they were, and your social interaction is not like it was.

So what we need is to go back to a schedule. It doesn’t have to be this rigid structure like you had before, but you need a schedule that is a little bit rigid. It has to be rigid enough that you are going to follow through on it. You have to give yourself some kind of ammunition or way to hold yourself to it. However, it needs to be flexible enough that as things start to change a little bit, it’s not just going to be gone, as there’s still going to be a lot of uncertainty as the world is rolled back out to the general public. If your schedule is just to raid the pantry and watch Netflix, that’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for time that is specifically carved out that creates a routine for you that then your brain adapts as normal to allow you to feel safe again. Not only could it help you have better dreams, but it also affects your health in a hundred other ways. If you look back at some of our old videos, we definitely talk about lots of tips and tricks to get better sleep. Some of those same tips and tricks can actually help you to get into lucid dreaming. I hope these tips will help you improve the quality of your sleep and of your dreams!


About Dr. Merrill

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Dr. Andrew Merrill is a passionate active clinician and owner of Nightlight Chiropractic Orlando where him and his team treat hundreds of patients each month. With a strong background in exercise science from Stetson University, clinical skills from Palmer College of Chiropractic, and continued postdoctoral training in spinal disc injuries and clinical nutrition, Dr. Merrill is very well versed in the healthcare landscape. With topics ranging from "what to do for common ailments" to "why the medical system is failing you" Dr. Merrill and this blog in particular aim to keep readers up to date on what the research shows and how you can put it into practice NOW to keep yourself healthy for a lifetime.