Theories attempting to explain the origin and functions of REM sleep include: (1) that REM sleep provides stimulation for the development of the brain; (2) that it performs a chemical restoration function, since during REM dreaming neuro-protein synthesis occurs along with the restoration of other depleted brain chemicals; (3) that it provides oculomotor (eye movement) coordination, since during non-REM sleep the eyes move independently of each other; (4) that it provides a vigilance function, since REM sleep (stage I) is characterized by a level of consciousness close to the awakened state; (5) in a ore recent and controversial theory, REM dreaming performs a neurological erasure function, eliminating extraneous information build-up in the memory system; and (6) that, in a more cognitive psychological explanation, REM dreaming enhances memory storage and reorganization.
Contrary to popular belief, dreaming is not caused by eating certain foods before bedtime, nor by environmental stimuli during sleeping. Dreaming is caused by internal biological process. Some researchers have proposed the activation-synthesis hypothesis. Their neurological research indicates that arge brain cells in the primitive brain stem spontaneously fire about every 90 minutes, sending random stimuli to cortical areas of the BRAIN. As a consequence, memory, sensory, muscle-control, and cognitive areas of the brain are randomly stimulated, resulting in the higher cortical brain attempting to make some sense of it. This, according to the research, gives rise to the experience of a dream.
Now, as in the past, the most significant controversy centers on the question of whether dreams have intentional, or actual personal, meaning. Many psychotherapists maintain that while the neurological impulses rom the brain stem may activate the dreaming process, the content or meaningful representations in dreams are caused by nonconscious needs, wishes, desires, and everyday concerns of the dreamer. Thus, such psychotherapists subscribe to the phenomenological-clinical, or “top-down,” explanation, which holds that dreams are intentionally meaningful messages from the unconscious. The neurological, or “bottom-up,” explanation maintains that dreams have no intentional meaning. In between these two positions is an approach called content analysis.
Content nalysis simply describes and classifies the various representations in dreams, such as people, houses, cars, trees, animals, and color, though no deep interpretation is attributed to the content. Differences in content have been discovered between the dreams of males and females, and between dreams and occurring in different developmental stages of life. What these differences mean is under investigation. Some recent research seems to indicate that dream content reflects problems that the dreamer experiences in life, and that the function of such reams is to facilitate the emotional resolution of the problems. Numerous accounts exist of scientific problems being resolved, and literary works being developed in dreams after dreamers had consciously immersed themselves in a problem for an extended time.
Cognitive psychologists are concerned with logic and thought processing during dreaming, and how they are different from mental processes during the waking state. In studies of the developmental cognitive processes of children’s dreams, for instance, it has been found that the increasing complexity of hildren’s dreams parallel waking cognitive development. Many researchers believe that knowledge about dreaming is important for understanding waking imagination. Current and future research issues involve further establishing and extending all of the above areas. Anthropologists are studying cross-culture similarities and differences in dreams. Research into NIGHTMARES and bizarre dreams continues.
In addition, REM research is important for understanding psychobiological abnormalities. Some findings indicate that epileptic seizures are suppressed during REM sleep. Narcoleptics, people who may involuntarily fall asleep at any time, enter REM sleep almost immediately. Research continues on the variations in dream recall. For instance, artists tend to recall more dreams than scientists, and, for the population at large, only a small percentage of dreams are recalled. Lucid dreaming, the ability of dreamers to become aware of and to control their dreams while dreaming, is also the focus of some current research. Some lucid dreamers can learn to communicate with researchers through nonverbal signals.