It has to do with the way our brain processes emotional experiences.
Dreams are a huge part of the human experience — not only do we spend about a third of our lives asleep, but our dreams are often filled with nonsensical visions that we spend our waking lives trying to figure out.
Researchers have investigated the mechanisms behind regular dreams as well as lucid dreams — which occur when you become aware that you’re dreaming and gain the ability to control what happens in your dream — but Dr. Gary Fireman decided to investigate a more frightening area of dream research: our nightmares.
Fireman, nightmare researcher and Chair of Suffolk University’s Department of Psychology, believes we have chilling dreams as a result of the brain struggling to process emotional experiences.
First and foremost, Fireman explains the difference between “nightmares” and “disturbed dreams.”
Disturbed dreams are a bit broader than nightmares. Fireman says that nightmares are frightening enough to actually wake you up, but disturbed dreams are vivid, emotional, and powerful, and although the dreamer typically remembers them as distressing, disturbed dreams don’t cause an individual to wake up.
So contrary to popular belief, nightmares and bad dreams don’t signify the same thing. In fact, a study by researchers at the University of Montreal found that nightmares have a greater emotional impact than bad dreams do, and that fear isn’t always the driving emotion. Instead, nightmares often involve emotions like sadness, guilt, disgust, and confusion.
Fireman says that dreams are particularly hard to study because, by definition, they’re memories. Researchers can study REM sleep and observe the physiological changes during REM sleep, but a lot of the data on dreams is self-reported by study participants when they wake up.
Many researchers believe that our dreams serve an evolutionary purpose, and nightmares are no exception.
“I think the function of dreams and disturbed dreaming is to process emotion and help us make sense of it, to integrate emotion into organized memory and meaning,” Fireman told Van Winkle’s.
“Emotion is what helps us know what’s important and relevant, how to prioritize experience — it’s critical to our sense of personhood. And so I think the function of dreaming is that is it allows us to work on emotion and emotional memories in very creative ways.”
When we dream, the frontal cortex, which is a region of the brain associated with logical thought, loosens up. Therefore, we can form different thoughts and make different connections between experiences in a more creative way than we can when we’re awake, according to Fireman.
This helps us self-evolve and see our lives and experiences in a new light — disturbed dreaming and nightmares too.
“Particularly with recurring nightmares,” says Fireman. “Think of it like a skip in a record. It keeps replaying over and over again because you’re unable to sufficiently process an emotional experience. So you have recurring nightmares until you are able to organize it.”
So although nightmares may not be a particularly enjoyable experience, they may very well serve a critical purpose in our emotional processing and personal growth.