Research Shows Bad Dreams Help Us Face Fear

By Amelia Harris

Staff Writer for Wake Up World

Dreams are an ongoing enigma that people have been attempting to interpret since ancient times. Some are pleasurable, some are terrifying, and others are downright surreal. But can nightmares actually serve a purpose? New research explores how bad dreams help us deal with fear.

A research team composed of scientists from the University of Geneva and University Hospitals of Geneva, Switzerland, collaborated with the University of Wisconsin to complete this research. They studied the dreams of several individuals and analyzed which areas of the brain were most active during the dreams. When the participants woke up, they tested changes in the effectiveness of the brain areas that control emotions when experiencing fear

“We were particularly interested in fear: what areas of our brain are activated when we’re having bad dreams?” says Lampros Perogamvros. Perogamvros is a researcher in the Sleep and Cognition Laboratory at the University of Geneva, as well as a senior clinical lecturer at the University Hospitals of Geneva’s Sleep Laboratory. 

There were 18 participants in the study. The scientists used high-density electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity during sleep. Participants had 256 EEG electrodes attached to their skulls. The scientists woke them up several times during the night and asked them a series of questions. The questions included, “Did you dream? And, if so, did you feel scared?” 

The Brain During Bad Dreams

“By analyzing the brain activity based on participants’ responses, we identified two brain regions implicated in the induction of fear experienced during the dream: the insula and the cingulate cortex,” reports Science Daily.  

When people are awake, the insula assesses emotions and turns on right away when someone experiences fear. The cingulate cortex gets motor and behavioral reactions ready in case of a threat.  

“For the first time, we’ve identified the neural correlates of fear when we dream and have observed that similar regions are activated when experiencing fear in both sleep and wakeful states,” Perogamvros continued.  

Dreams Prepare Us to React to Fear

The team considered their research with the question of whether or not there is a connection between the fear people encounter during a bad dream and when they are awake. This leg of the study involved 89 participants who all received a dream diary. They wrote in it every morning for one week, recording the dreams they had and the emotions they experienced. After that week, the participants were studied in an MRI machine while being shown emotionally negative images. Researchers wanted to see which areas of the brain activated during fear, as well as if there was a change in the activated area depending on the emotions participants encountered in dreams the week before.  

“We found that the longer someone had felt fear in their dreams, the less the insula, cingulate and amygdala were activated when the same person looked at the negative pictures,” says Virginie Sterpenich, a researcher in the Department of Basic Neurosciences at the University of Geneva. “In addition, the activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is known to inhibit the amygdala in the event of fear, increased in proportion to the number of frightening dreams.”  

This means that there is a strong connection between the emotions we experience in dreams and the ones we feel while awake. Additionally, experiencing fear during bad dreams may make us more prepared to react to fear in our waking hours. Researchers believe that dream therapy may help in treating anxiety disorders.  

“Dreams may be considered as a real training for our future reactions and may potentially prepare us to face real-life dangers,” suggests Perogamvros.  

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About the author:

Amelia Harris is a writer and eco-activist, interested in health and all things esoteric, with a passion for sharing good news and inspiring stories. She is a staff writer for Wake Up World.

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