When I was at school, I was fascinated by psychology. If my life had taken a different turn, I would have liked to have studied to become something in the field of psychology. I think it’s the reason I don’t much care for science fiction or fantasy- people themselves are so endlessly, endlessly fascinating, I don’t really have time for it.
We looked at a variety of psychological studies as part of my A Level in Psychology and the one I found the most fascinating was the study of dreams. A most basic premise of this study is that when we are sleep deprived, it is not only the deprivation of sleep that affects our physical and mental state (as humans need rest and recharge, in the form of sleeping and eating) but the deprivation of dreams that causes us damage.
Dreams occur when we enter a sleep stage called REM (Rapid Eye Movement.) The most dream-rich stage of this is the time before we wake up. Most people will sleep for around 8 hours a night and therefore spend a quarter of their sleep time in REM. Those who are sleep deprived will fall into this REM state rapidly and this is why when you only have around 2 hours sleep a night, your dreams are more vivid and unusual than normal. I personally think that the conclusion to this study is really quite beautiful and poignant. Put simply, we need to dream. The human brain has a vast and untapped subconscious and when we hit REM sleep cycles, we delve in to this subconscious. The human brain needs this, craves the freedom from our usually rather mundane and often repetitive lives. We need escapism, and the brain is allowed this during our dreams.
I really like this theory. The study of dreams is approached from a variety of angles. Some look at it on a purely neurological basis, some psychological and some physiological. I’m quite lucky because I usually remember my dreams and my nightmares, although this doesn’t necessarily mean I understand them. There are in the most basic form three types of how people learn. An aural learner learns best when told how to do something, a practical learner learns best when shown how to do something, and a visual learner likes text and/or pictures.
I am a visual learner. I like to read at my own pace and re-visit passages as and when necessary. This means that I am also a visual person. If you tell me something, I am highly likely to forget we ever talked about it. If you show me something, like an object, I am also very likely to forget you did. However, if I read something, I don’t usually forget. I have a ridiculously visual memory for faces- and it is often quite embarrassing when I say hello to people I met once 9 years ago and they have absolutely no idea who I am. I often joke with my other half that I do not have a standard memory, I have random access memory. This is frustratingly true because I don’t often get to pick what I do and don’t remember. I’m pretty hopeless at remembering factual and important things but song lyrics or a useless scrap of information (such as Baxter’s soup is cooked in the can. All ingredients are added raw and they cook them as they pass through the factory) is forever entrenched in my head. I also have frustrating “memory scraps”. This is a fragment of a past memory that can be triggered by something- for me a visual clue as I am a visual learner. I’m quite good with voices and music but visual clues are my biggest hint. I am sure a lot of people have this- for example, have you ever seen a little girl pushing a little yellow pram and had a weird memory trigger? Did you have one? Did you see one in a shop and ask your Mum for it? Try as you might, the memory won’t come back, but it has triggered something.
These memory scraps are important because the subconscious builds on these and makes them solid during your dreams. If you have a vague memory of your Granddad having a certain type of car when you were very young, your subconscious will use this memory scrap in a dream and build upon it, fleshing it whole, often substituting something else you have seen for the gaps in your memory. It is simply amazing to ponder the human brain and the power that we have. My short term memory is extremely poor but my long term memory is very good. I remember what rooms that we stayed in on holiday looked like- I can even remember down to colour of socks what every member of my family was wearing one holiday when I was about 6. I remember my first day at school- I can literally map the whole classroom out in my head. I remember the way fields and parks looked before houses were built on them, and it sometimes does scare people when I can tell them things they have long forgotten. However, it is mostly useless knowledge, and people don’t half get cross when they ask you to put the kettle on and by the time you walk to the kitchen you have forgotten.
Dreams are very important, for the mind, for the body and for the soul. If you are having trouble sleeping, it is really wise to get help if it continues. I am something of a dreadful insomniac myself and it really does take its toll on you after a while. If you feel your memory is poor and this is concerning, please do and see your Doctor. Your brain needs the escapism and the fantasy of your dreams. If, like me, you’re a bit of a day dreamer and can fantasise a whole conversation with someone you have never met, also do not be alarmed or ashamed of this. Fantasy is healthy, normal, and if some psychological studies are to be believed, actually very good for you. Dreams are very important, no matter your age. Do you still close your eyes and dream you can fly through the stars? I do.
If you’d like to find out more about memory, the subconscious and dreams, there is a huge amount of information available on the internet.