Everyone dreams, every single night, but almost none of us remember them all. We might remember fragments of them, but generally speaking, 90% of our dreams are lost, but what are they?
Why do we even HAVE dreams?
Shouldn’t we just be sleeping and not thinking anything?
Well, there is more to it than that. A dream is what happens when someone falls asleep, and their brain essentially runs free and links/connects all sorts of thoughts, memories and ideas together in a seemingly random chain of events. They happen mainly during a particular part of your sleep CYCLE (We’ll get to that).
In this post, we’ll go over the science behind WHY we sleep, and WHY we dream. We’ll also look at the sleep stages and explain what the sleep stages ARE.
How does sleep work?
We all sleep, but can you explain exactly WHAT happens during sleep?
Sleep can be confusing, and most people have no idea how their bodies actually work during sleep, or what happens and when. Most people don’t even know there are sleep STAGES and cycles, and just think we sleep in the same fashion for the entire 8 hours.
It’s much more detailed and complex than that, and by understanding how your sleep works, you can better understand things like:
- Why you’re tired on certain days and not others
- Why you can sometimes feel refreshed after just 5 hours or sleep
- How to avoid nightmares and have more lucid dreams
- How to feel more refreshed even sleeping the SAME amount of time
- How to wake up naturally without an alarm
- How to avoid jetlag
- And much more
Knowledge is power, so let’s explore how sleep works, starting with the actual STAGES of sleep.
What are the stages of sleep?
In terms of the actual sleep itself, what we know is that the brain undergoes several changes during the night. These form what are called ‘sleep stages’.
Each sleep CYCLE consists of 4 sleep STAGES. A sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes, and every night we each have about 5-6 sleep cycles. Within each sleep cycle are these 4 stages, which cycle through in order.
Stage 1: Light Sleep (NREM)
You start off with light sleep during which you are still fairly alert and aware.
Any loud or soft noises will wake you and cause you to sit up. during this stage, the brain produces Beta waves, which are small and fast waves, typical of being awake or still alert.
If you’re woken up during this sleep stage, you often won’t actually remember being asleep, and will think that you were awake the whole time. People woken during this stage might say things like ‘I was just closing my eyes’ and not really remember being asleep.
It doesn’t matter too much if you’re woken up during this stage, an you won’t REALLY feel tired or frustrated (Unlike the later stages). This is a dreamless sleep stage (Usually. You CAN technically dream in NREM sleep but it’s much less common). NREM means NON REM or non rapid eye movement, meaning not many dreams.
Stage 2: More light sleep (NREM)
You then enter a short stage of sleep for about 10 minutes in which the brain produces Theta waves. These are very slow brain waves which CAN be used to lucid dream later.
If you’re woken during this stage, you might feel a little tired and annoyed. You’ll feel very tired and be ready to fall asleep again. This stage doesn’t last very long, and in some cases, lasts just a few minutes. It’s more of a transition stage moving you into DEEP sleep.
It’s also actually harder to be woken up during this stage. This is where you might start breathing deeper, and moving your eyes very slowly behind your eyelids. You might also snore in this stage.
Stage 3: Deep sleep (NREM)
After this, there is a stage of sleep called Stage 2 sleep. During this stage, the brain waves are short rapid bursts of rhythm called sleep spindles, and also during this stage, the body temperature decreases and heart rate begins to slow down.
This is the most important (debatable) stage of sleep, as it’s the most restorative. The body releases human growth hormone and repairs and injuries. It also recovers from exercise here, and repairs and grows/builds your muscles.
This stage of sleep is very important for a number of reasons, and it’s important to NOT interrupt this stage of sleep. If you’re woken during this stage, you’ll feel very tired, fatigued and annoyed. If you STAY awake after interrupting this stage, you’ll feel tired most of the day.
This is why it’s important to not cut this sleep stage in half, with an alarm. Most people don’t have a clue about when their sleep cycles occur, and so always interrupt this stage with their alarms. This explains why lots of people feel tired most of the day.
It’s because their bodies are craving just being able to FINISH that last sleep cycle and sleep stage, and the feeling doesn’t really go away until you go back to sleep the next night. However, if you FINISH a sleep cycle on time (wake up naturally) you feel refreshed all day.
This explains why you can sometimes feel more refreshed after 4-5 hours of sleep than 9-10 hours, it all depends on when you finished your sleep cycle, and IF you let yourself finish the last two sleep STAGES.
Stage 4: REM sleep
Now comes the most important to Lucid Dreaming, REM sleep. REM means rapid eye movement, and is where the brain becomes very active, the most likely time to have vivid or lucid dreams is in REM sleep.
It’s an unusual part of sleep because as the mind becomes more active, the muscles become more relaxed and paralyzed.
This means that there are times when someone can wake up during REM sleep, for example if they had a vivid nightmare, and yet still be stuck to their bed and unable to move.
It’s sometimes also known as sleep paralysis, and happens to most of us every night. It’s just you’re more likely to experience and remember it if you try and lucid dream during this stage. This can be quite scary for some people, but sleep paralysis is normal and nothing to be worried about.
Why do we sleep?
The body and mind need to repair themselves and rest during every 24 hour cycle (day). This happens to most animals actually, but there’s surprisingly little we know about why we need it.
It seems that lots of repair functions happen during sleep, and the body releases human growth hormone. We also consolidate memories (theoretically), and reorganise our thoughts. Our bodies are WIRED to need sleep, with our circadian rhythm.
The way it works is simple:
When the sun is in the sky, the light enters our retinas and causes our bodies to secrete the hormone serotonin. This makes us feel awake but after it’s been in our system for a certain length of time, it makes us tired.
This combines with the effects of melatonin. When the sun goes down and it’s DARK, our bodies created a hormone called melatonin which makes us feel tired. It’s one of the most effective sleep aids, but our bodies produce it naturally when it’s dark.
These hormones ensure we always start feeling tired when it’s dark and need to sleep. But it’s surprising that we don’t KNOW why we need sleep, we just know that we need it.
We actually DIE if we don’t get enough sleep. If you deprive yourself of sleep for more than about 1-2 weeks, you’ll become seriously ill, delusional, start hallucinating vividly, vomiting and experiencing incredibly painful headaches. Eventually, you’ll die.
What does sleep actually do?
The act of sleeping ensures your body and mind get a rest. The body repairs injuries, heals from exercise and strengthens your immune system.
This all happens every night for most of us and it’s an incredible process. It’s amazing that we do all of this without TRYING to do it. The human body is a really incredible bit of machinery, but the actual REASON we need sleep is still largely unknown.
It’s been theorised that the body was designed in line with most other things in the world, to operate in a binary yin yang sort of fashion. The body becomes energetic and moves around in the day, and then calm and slow during the night.
Much like cycles in nature between light and dark, our bodies operate in a wake and sleeping on/off fashion. It’s been said that this is part of the divine design of the universe, and of the balancing of the two types of energy which occurs in all things.
How much REM and deep sleep do we need?
Well, it’s actually not clear exactly how much you should get, but as a rule of thumb, you should aim to go to sleep when the sun goes down and wake up for sunrise.
This ensures you follow the natural patterns of the sun, and get the right amount of sleep.
It’s been shown that if you get too little sleep or too MUCH sleep, you an feel tired and depressed. Surprisingly, you can feel just as bad sleeping too MUCH as you can when sleeping too little. This means it’s very important to get just the right amount of sleep every night.
Luckily for most of us, the sun does most of the hard work for you. If you just go out into the sunshine or daylight every day for most of the day, you’ll feel naturally tired at exactly the right time in the evening.
It’s no wonder most people get the wrong amount of sleep though. Most people wake themselves up un naturally with a sharp alarm tone in the morning, and then guzzle a coffee first thing. Then they sit in a chair all day in a dimly lit office room.
Then they get home and keep themselves up late into the night with artificial lights and phones screens. This stops the body being able to produce the sleep hormone melatonin. This in turn makes it harder to fall asleep, and makes your sleep quality SUFFER.
It it ok to sleep for 12 hours a day?
No it isn’t. By sleeping for so long, you cause an excess of REM sleep which can lead to depression. This has been proven. You also probably know from experience that on the days where you lay in for hours and wake up really late, you RARELY feel good.
In fact, you probably feel sluggish, lazy and tired for most of the day. This happens most commonly for most people when they’re hungover. Hungover Sundays for example, where you’re just dragging yourself round the house, not really doing much.
It’s better to sleep for the SAME amount of time every single day even on weekends. This will ensure that you feel energetic and the best the whole week. Don’t fall into the trap of laying in on weekends. This makes you feel WORSE every time Monday rolls around.
Is 5 hours of sleep enough?
In most cases, it’s not enough, no. It’s true that you need less sleep as you get older, but you’ll still need at least 7 hours or more. This applies to everyone, so make sure you get enough sleep.
Now one grain of truth here is that if you sleep for a set of 4 COMPLETE sleep cycles, you won’t feel as tired and you might even feel pretty good. But that doesn’t mean you should regularly only sleep for 5 hours. In fact over time you’ll build up what’s called a ‘sleep debt’.
This is where your body CRAVES more sleep (Specifically REM and sleep sleep) and will force you to sleep for much longer the next time you lay in. This makes you feel bad long term.
In general, you don’t want a sleep debt. The ONLY time you’d need to create a sleep debt is if you’re trying the 90ILd technique and that should only be done 1-3 times a month.
Can you die from lack of sleep?
Yes you can. By depriving yourself of sleep you can experience the following things:
- Crushing pain in your chest
- Massive increase in blood pressure and cortisol levels
- And finally, death
So lack of sleep is no joke. In fact, it was literally used as a very effective torture method for many years by several civilisations. It’s important to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, every single night.
How to sleep better
Sleep is IMPORTANT. It’s well worth reading a few articles on how to improve your sleep quality. We’re literally asleep for more than a third of our lives, so we might as well do it properly. Here are some posts you might find useful:
- How to fall asleep faster: A post I wrote about falling asleep really quickly, even if you’re not tired
- How to avoid insomnia: A guide on removing and avoiding this common sleep disorder
- How to sleep better: A guide on getting better quality sleep