Why do we sleep? In an increasingly complex and busy world, lying in bed seems like an awful waste of time. Further, why do we dream? If sleep is time for us to “turn off,” why do our brains stay on?
Related to this subject (and quite apropos of my recent vacation) I picked up Richard Restak, M.D.’s ‘Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving your Brain’s Performance.’ Restak doesn’t have all the answers, but key to his thesis is the idea of brain plasticity – that the brain can actually change structure as a result of learning and experience. When do these structural changes take place? When we sleep. It may even be the case that dreams are simply a side effect to our brains changing shape and forming more connections (synapses) between brain cells (neurons).
There is something distinctly appealing to me about the idea of my brain changing structure (creating more and stronger connections), however if dreams are indeed related to this process, is there deeper meaning to the content of our dreams? When I dream about driving am I actually becoming a better driver? When I dream of eating am I becoming a better eater? How about when I dream of falling? If dreams are indeed related to how our brains are changing, what is happening to my brain when I have nightmares?
I find this whole area of study very interesting, but also quite puzzling. If advanced brain function is (arguably) the single greatest feature that makes humans unique – then why are so many components still a mystery?