Have you ever awakened from a dream and recalled a memory from years ago? Or have you actually had dreams about a specific memory that created new dream connections from your past? There are reasons for this: there are some fascinating links between our memory and our dreams. These nostalgia and dream connections can serve as a powerful way to understand the role nostalgia plays in your life.
The Link Between Dreams and Memory
Scientific researchers are currently hard at work studying the dreaming brain and the function of dreaming in our lives.1 Many investigators have hypothesized that dreams play a role in memory. This is based on two common experiences. One, called deja vu, is the experience of being in everyday reality and believing that you have experienced this moment previously.
In these moments, we can feel like we have already experienced the same moment either in the past, or perhaps in a dream state. Carl Jung called moments like these synchronicities. Synchronicities represented to Jung the idea that the universe and the way that it functions has a fundamentally mysterious quality to it, allowing for alignments that would be too coincidental to simply happen by chance.2
Another common experience that has caused researchers to link dreams and memories is the concept of repressed memories. This idea was most popular in the late 1980s and 90s, when psychotherapists reported that certain memories were retrieved by patients through their dream experiences.
This drew a connection between our dreams and memory that scientists have been investigating ever since.
Research Into Memory and Dream Connections
Currently, dream research has not been able to say conclusively why we dream, but the theories around the connection between memories and dreams has been well-researched. Recently, the evidence has been mounting that our memories are being processed while we sleep, and even while we dream.
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There are two stages of our sleep cycle that scientists have identified as playing a key role in our memory processing.3 The first stages is the non-REM sleep state, which is known as slow wave sleep, or SWS. The other stage when the memory was processed is REM sleep. REM sleep has been identified as the stage during which the most dreaming happens, although dreams can also occur in the n-REM state.
An interesting recent study demonstrated that there is a connection between significant events in our lives and the events in our dreams. A researcher asked the participants to keep a log of their major concerns (MC), personally significant events (PSE), and major daily activities (MDA).
Then, they asked the participants to keep track of the events in their dreams by coming to a sleep lab or at home. At the lab, the participants were awakened during the night and asked to recall their dreams. At home, they were asked to administer the same protocol to themselves using alarms.
The research showed that personally significant events appeared to be more commonly recognized by the dreamers. This suggests that memory processing does take place during this phase of sleep, which was already indicated, and that our dreams could be reflecting some aspect of this memory recall.
Memory and Dream Connections
Of course, through our own experience of our dreams, we know that individuals don’t only dream of their own personal memories. Our dreams can have a wide range of content. Plus, universal dream themes have been observed, demonstrating that dream content has other sources. Perhaps more often than not, our dreams do not seem to reference any particular memory at all.
This is one of the reasons researchers can’t say conclusively what function dreams play in the overall functioning of our brain. But they can demonstrate a variety of things that are dreams can do, helping us to understand the best way to relate to them.
Dreams and Deep Emotional Experiences
The other part of the sleep cycle where dreaming occurs is during the REM cycle, and this is another area where it is thought that the brain could be doing some memory processing. The interesting feature of dreams during this part of the sleep cycle is their deep emotional content.
A very common experience for dreamers is feeling as if the emotions in their dreams are more “real,” or more deeply felt, than experiences they have when they are awake. This is what can prompt individuals to want to wake up from their dreams, or even want to make them disappear completely.
Scientific research is seeking to determine whether these highly emotional experiences we have in our dreams serve a function. One theory is related to our memories.
Difficult Memories and Experiences in Dreams
Sometimes our dreams seem to indirectly reference our memories rather than directly bring them up.4 You may dream that someone that hurt you from the past arises to hurt you again in a new context. In another dream you may be back in your home from years past where something difficult happened, with totally different people.
These dreams reference our memories while bringing in other elements to create the experience of the dream. Dreams like this can stir up the same emotional content and feelings that we felt in the past. This can be very emotionally disturbing, and can even lead some people to do things to stop their dreams from happening. There are other options, however.
Psychological researchers believe that this may play a function in helping us process emotionally traumatic experiences. Psychologists call this a decoupling function. The idea is that the dream experience allows us to peel apart the difficult experience from the emotions, neutralizing the emotional effect.
Repressed Memories and Dreams
Another phenomenon that has been observed over time is that our dreams can reintroduce repressed memories. While this can be highly disturbing, some therapists believe that it is an opportunity for healing.
If you’ve been disturbed by your dreams and you believe it may be in reference to an experience in your past, it’s a good idea to seek out support. Many psychologists believe that you wouldn’t be re-experiencing the dreams unless you were ready to face them.
Basically, the idea is that if a dream or other trigger is bringing up difficult memories, this could indicate that you are now strong enough to feel vulnerable to the emotions you experienced. Many individuals employ the coping mechanism of memory repression when faced with traumatic experiences.5
This helps to cope with hard situations by protecting the psyche from dwelling on the experience for too long. But tension is created when we work to push away aspects of our experience. Eventually, those emotions rise to the surface once again.
What to Do When Repressed Memories Arise
If you are dealing with a situation where repressed memories are arising in your dreams or in your day dreams, there are certain steps you can take to gain healing and growth from the experience.6
To begin, seek out support, professional support if possible. Working with someone who has understanding of trauma and repressed memories could be invaluable to your process. It’s also important that you recognize that just because these memories and feelings are arising doesn’t mean you are regressing as a person.
The reason it’s so important to call in support while you are going on this process is because the best way to heal from these emotional experiences is by facing them head on. That said, it’s a good idea to take things slow.
Don’t overload your emotional circuits while trying to power through these experiences. Stay focused and remember that this is a process. If you get overwhelmed, just take a pause. Slowly and steadily, you can build your capacity to be present with the difficult emotions in your experience.
Nostalgia and Dream Connections
Another amazing way that you can harness the power dreams have to stimulate our memories is through nostalgia. There are two ways nostalgia can function with our dreams. For one, our dreams can bring us into contact with people, places, and experiences we may not have encountered for a long time.
We can call upon the experiences in our dreams to help us trigger nostalgia. Nostalgia has some truly incredible benefits, including uplifting our mood, increasing our motivation, and helping us feel more connected to ourselves and the people in our lives. When we connect to nostalgic experiences as they occur in our dreams, we can connect to these amazing benefits and see tangible improvements in our lives.
With this new understanding of the role dreams play in our memory formation, emotional memories, and nostalgia, there is more motivation than ever to start paying more attention to our dreams.
Individuals can begin to incorporate a practice of writing their dreams down and see benefits right away. Plus, it’s a great way to begin to make dream connections between one dream and the next, which could illuminate even more links within your short-term or long-term memory. What kind of memory, nostalgia and dream connections to you see in your life? We love to hear your thoughts and feedback!
Scents are some of the most powerful memory triggers that humans can experience. Aromatherapy products like MONQ’s Sleepy R Blend can both bring up pleasant memories and create new associations. Pick a MONQ scent and experiment with the power of scent and memory today!
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