Dreams, a magical place created by our own masterful mind in order to secede from the day. It is a world to connect to things we thought was impossible during our wakeful hours. They are a time where we all become directors of our own films. These rolls of collected film have fascinated civilizations since civilizations existed. The Greeks and Romans believed that dreams were a time to connect to the Gods! (Linden 2011) Psychologists, the profession dealt with gleaning some sort of meaning from the nightly pictures, have been focused on dreams since Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s. Dream analysis has evolved from the Roman’s interpretation to the ability to map active regions of the brain using imaging technology. Even with that evolution of technology, we still seek the meanings of dreams. The question is still out on why we actually dream.
In order to dream, we must sleep. Humans pass through five stages while sleeping. The first two stages are light sleep. This is where we can get those sensations of falling, random twitches, and begin to lose control of our body. The third and fourth stages are dominated by delta waves which are low frequency but high amplitude waves. At this point in sleep it is difficult to wake the person. We are paralyzed and relaxed. During stage three and four our heart rates drop and our breathing is more relaxed. From this point we enter, briefly, the stage called Rapid Eye Movement. REM sleep is a very interesting phenomena of our body. This is the stage in which we are really dreaming. The brainwaves replicate Alpha waves, similar to what we experience while awake, but we are completely paralyzed. Our brain stem is blocking muscle activation, except for our critical functioning muscles like the heart and diaphragm (Openstax, 2017).
Our bodies enter and exit these sleep states in a cyclical pattern; aptly named the sleep cycle. The sleep cycle time, under normal conditions, averages between 70-120 minutes (Natural Patterns of Sleep). This means during an average night we will go through four to seven cycles, each containing that dream filled REM sleep. This does not mean we will remember every dream of the night. In fact, we can rarely remember one dream we had the night prior! At this point I want to focus on the sleep cycles and how we can measure them, without any advanced laboratory grade technology.
Today’s wearable technology allows us to track our sleep cycles by using heart rate in combination with motion. Sleep tracking technology varies from mattress covers (Eight) to rings (Oura) to wrist wearables (Garmin, Fitbit, Withings). The ability to track sleep is a powerful tool for all humans because sleep correlates with performance. That performance can be in the workplace or on the field but it is known that we, adults, require between seven and nine hours of sleep every night (National Sleep Foundation). In this exercise I utilized a Garmin Vivosmart HR device to monitor sleep cycles. The Garmin Vivoactive HR was released in by the navigation giant Garmin in the middle of 2016. The watch was designed as a full functioning activity tracker. Included with the watch was an optical heart rate monitor, located on the back of the watch. The watch can automatically track when you fall asleep and when you awake. The watch then uses heart rate analysis in conjunction with movement data from the accelerometer to determine what sleep state you are currently in.
Now that I have explained what I use to track sleep the next important thing is to describe my sleep setting and circadian rhythm. My wife and I try to get our room temperature down to around 67-65 degrees Fahrenheit, because of leading sleep recommendations (Ware, 2014). We also have blackout blinds in order to make our room as dark as possible, which tends to be pitch black. In addition, we make sure to turn our cellphones onto airplane mode. We do leave our phones on, in order to play calming white noise. This helps us fall to sleep faster and stay comfortable. Finally, one of our two dogs sleeps in the room with us, always on the floor. Setting a proper environment to sleep in is critical for a healthy sleep cycle.
An interesting observation occurred during consecutive nights of reduced sleep hours and quality. One weekend I joined my friends for some time camping in the mountains of Virginia. At night the temperatures dropped into the mid 30s and my sleeping bag was only rated to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. This caused me to shiver most of the night and drastically affected my sleep. Both nights of camping I was only able to get about five and a half hours of sleep with about half of that time in deep sleep. One of the nights I had a vivid dream that melted into reality. While I was falling asleep I heard Coyotes howling in the distance. I also heard small creatures rustling leaves around the tent. This melted into my dream in which I heard dogs and humans moving around outside of my tent. I became aware that I was sleeping when I looked up, during the dream, and I was in a tent that did not match mine and that it was also daylight. Even knowing this knowledge, I still had a fear reaction when I heard footsteps coming closer to my tent. Eventually, the footsteps stopped over my tent and I looked up and saw two men. This startled me and this is when I woke up. At the moment I woke up one of my friends was walking around the camp with his daylight flashlight. The light from his flashlight would hit my tent which probably led to me waking up from the nightmare. These nights of little sleep sleep led to negative physiological effects, like increased resting heart rate. On the final day, my resting heart rate was 20 beats higher than normal. I believe the sleep debt that I had accrued in combination with the physiological demand of hiking led to the higher resting heart rate. A higher resting heart rate shows inhibited recovery, which sleep is known to be a big part.
Sleep is important for recovery as well as other mental aspects like memory. Without sleep the mind begins to melt away and we begin to die. Science and biology has proven that we need sleep, in fact certain ages need certain amount of sleep to be most effective. But sleep science as well as psychology are relatively new sciences and there is still a lot to learn. Most of the theories behind why we sleep are just that, theories. We are still trying to prove out why we sleep and the function of dreaming. On top of that, we have fringe theories like lucid dreaming. What effects does lucid dreaming have on the quality of sleep? I can tell you that I am extremely interested in what the future holds for dream and sleep analysis.
OpenStax CNX. (2017, August 2). Psychology [5.101]. Retrieved October 8, 2017, from https://cnx.org/contents/Sr8Ev5Og@5.101:F_mjYFfh@15/Preface
Natural Patterns of Sleep. (2007, December 18). Retrieved October 08, 2017, from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/science/what/sleep-patterns-rem-nrem
National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? Retrieved October 08, 2017, from https://sleepfoundation.org/excessivesleepiness/content/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need-0
Ware, A. (2014, November 10). Best Temperature for Sleep. Retrieved October 08, 2017, from https://sleep.org/articles/temperature-for-sleep/