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Published March 07, 2012, 11:30 PM

Mathison: Researchers delve into world of dreams

My son, Grant, has been talking to me about his dreams lately. Monsters are a frequent theme, but other interesting things pop up like a waterslide adventure.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices.com, INFORUM

My son, Grant, has been talking to me about his dreams lately.

Monsters are a frequent theme, but other interesting things pop up like a waterslide adventure. He clearly distinguishes his dreams from things that actually happened. I know I have certainly had times when I awoke thinking that my dream event had been very real, so I’m glad that he is able to tell the difference.

Have you ever wondered about your dreams? Lots of mental activity occurs during our sleep in the form of dreams, and they can vary from simple thoughts to elaborate events.

We used to think that dreams occurred only during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, but we now know that dreams can occur during all sleep stages. REM dreams seem to be the vivid, active and intense. Dreams can last from seconds up to 20 minutes.

Only 5 percent of our dreams are recalled. The ones that are remembered tend to be more intense, or if we wake up during or immediately after the dream.

Dream recall seems to be better if you are motivated to write them down or tell someone about them as soon as you wake up. Some people think that déjà-vu may be a form of dream recall that happens randomly, with a sense of having previously seen or experienced a similar situation or place.

Dreams seem to reflect real-life troubles and joys, but the experiences tend to be very distorted so that usually only the dreamer can see the relationship. Children tend to dream more often about animals. Women tend to have more verbal interactions in their dreams, while men’s dreams have more physical action.

Unfortunately, most dreams are unpleasant for the dreamer, representing situations in a more negative light compared the awake state. Anxiety is the most common emotion recalled. Perhaps it’s why some people “wake up on the wrong side of the bed” if they have a dream that negatively affects their mood.

Other emotions described are abandonment, anger, fear, joy and happiness. But the negative ones surface much more commonly than positive ones.

Most dreams happen only once, but some people have recurring themes. My mother frequently dreams of a murderous intruder. This dream started in the early 1960s when she was a young nurse. There was an attacker in Chicago who killed several nursing students living in a campus house, and my mom was so scared and moved by the event that she continues to have a dream related to this 50 years later.

I still have a dream about being in the school bus in my underwear. Embarrassing!

What about nightmares? Nightmares are well-elaborated dreams that have dangerous, horrifying or painful content. They tend to occur late in the night and come during episodes of rapid eye movement sleep. People awaken in a state of distress and can have difficulty sleeping because of them.

Nightmares are a normal occurrence in children. Twenty to 50 percent of children between the ages of 5 to 10 years experience occasional nightmares. They then decrease with age, but may persist through adulthood.

Night terrors also affect children, but are characterized by sudden awakening early in the night with intense fear, though the source of the fear is not remembered.

Little is known about why we dream and what dreams really mean. Dr. William Dement of Stanford University, considered the “father of sleep medicine,” believes that dreams contain personal messages linked to our emotions and our moods. But a few scientists believed that dreams were just meaningless, random events caused by shifting neurotransmitters in our brains during sleep.

Only 1 percent of sleep research focuses on dreams, but that may change as PET scans and other new imaging allows researchers to “watch” the brain during sleep and dreaming, suggesting brain activity in our emotional, sensory and long-term memory centers.

Dreams may be a source for creative images and inspiration, and are sometimes used in psychotherapy as a technique for self-awareness. Dreams are a natural phenomenon, and there is no harm in recalling them.

We all search for meaning in our lives, and wonder if dreams provide a clue. Studies find that we focus more on dreams when good things take place, as most of us are inherently optimistic. Universal dream symbols can be found in popular books, and it will be interesting to see if research can help us make sense of these symbols.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com.