Tag Archives: Dreams

It’s not only us, dogs dream too. But what about?

You’ve probably seen it happen: your sleeping dog suddenly lets out a woof or a sigh as his legs begin to twitch or move as if he’s running. Is he… dreaming? Many scientists say that dogs, in fact, experience dreams and that the type of dream can vary depending on the size, breed, or other features of the dog.

Here’s what the science on dog dreaming says.

Most dog owners have, at some point, observed their dogs doing a peculiar thing: at various times during their sleep, the dogs would quiver, make leg twitches, or may even growl or snap at some sleep-created phantom. It almost seems like the dogs are having intense dreams, or at least that’s what many owners think. And the owners are actually right.

At the structural level, the brains of dogs are fairly similar to those of humans. Also, during sleep, the brain wave patterns of dogs are similar to that of humans and go through the same stages of electrical activity observed in humans, all of which are consistent with the idea that dogs are dreaming.

While science on dreaming is always bound to be scarce, there’s actually some fairly convincing evidence behind the fact that dogs dream.

Doggy dreams

Just like you and I, dogs enjoy a good nap. In fact, it’s not uncommon for dogs to sleep for 12-14 hours a day. Like humans, a dog’s sleep cycles through stages of wakefulness, rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, and non-rapid-eye-movement sleep. Scientists recorded the electrical activity of the brains of six pointer dogs for 24 hours and found that the dogs spent 44 percent of their time alert, 21 percent drowsy, and 12 percent in REM sleep. They also spent 23 percent of their time in the deepest stage of non-REM sleep.

One of the most famous of these dream experiments involved lab rats and was carried out in 2001. These rats spent all day running in a maze, after which scientists monitored the brain activity of the rats in the maze and compared it to the brain activity of the rats during REM sleep. What they found was that the same areas lit up in the rats’ brains, suggesting that the rats were likely to be dreaming of the maze. By comparing the data, the researchers could guess where exactly in the maze the rats had dreamed themselves. The rats were “seeing” what they were dreaming about, the researchers said at the time.

“During dreams, at least, it is likely that animals form mental representations and have conscious experiences very similar to those of humans,” writes psychologist Christopher D. Frith.

This suggested to the researchers that animals tend to dream as we do, which makes a lot of sense. Sleep is a way through which we rest, but also build memories and mental shortcuts, cementing and structuring the information we’ve gathered through the day.

Dreams are also suspected to play a role in this, so it’s not surprising that other animals would also dream (although it’s relatively recent that science was actually able to prove this). The rats dreamed about their day, just like you might find yourself back in the office in your dreams, even if you would rather have dreamed yourself someplace more exciting.

Since a dog’s brain is more complex and shows the same electrical sequences, it is reasonable to assume that dogs are dreaming, as well. Image credits: Sebastiano Piazzi.

Researchers at MIT who carried out the 2001 study concluded that many animals probably have complex dreams, and they can remember and replay long sequences of events when they are asleep. Another 2016 study found that dogs who sleep more are happier, so if you see your furry friend taking a nap, don’t disturb them.

Another recent, 2020 study found that sleep “sleep may contribute to dogs’ memory consolidation”.

What dogs dream about

Much of the dreaming that all of us do at night is associated with the activities that you engaged in that day. Studies showed that this seems to be the case in rats and probably other mammals like dogs and cats too.

The full range of dog dreams is currently impossible to assess. But here’s what we do know.

If rats dream of things they’ve done during the day and humans do too, it’s likely that dogs also do it. There’s even a study suggesting this — so although the evidence is not entirely conclusive, it’s very likely that this type of dream is fairly common among dogs.

There is also evidence that they dream about common dog activities. This kind of research takes advantage of the fact that there is a special structure in the brainstem (the pons) that keeps all of us from acting out our dreams.

When scientists removed or inactivated the part of the brain that suppresses acting out of dreams in dogs, they observed that they began to move around, despite the fact that electrical recordings of their brains indicated that the dogs were still fast asleep. The dogs only started to move when the brain entered that stage of sleep associated with dreaming. During the course of a dream episode, these dogs actually began to execute the actions that they were performing in their dreams.

Does the breed affect a dog’s dreams?

Image credits: Paweł Czerwiński.

People vary as to how often they dream and what they dream about, and researchers believe that the same is true of dogs. Researchers reported that small dogs seem to have more frequent dreams than large dogs, but those small dog dreams are shorter in duration. Large dogs, on the other hand, have fewer, but longer dreams.

Research by psychologist Stanley Coren suggests that the length and frequency of dreams may be related to the animals’ size entirely. For example, a poodle may dream every 10 minutes, while a big labrador retriever may only dream once every 60 minutes. However, the length of the poodle’s dreams may only last a minute, while the labradors’ dreams may last 10 minutes long.

We can also chance a guess that what your dog does all day determines his dreams. While we can’t yet be sure, the fact that Pointers point and Dobermans display guard behavior implies that breed-specific activities may take place during dreams, too. Your labrador retriever, for instance, is more likely to dream about chasing tennis balls than a pug is.

Do dogs have nightmares?

Not all human dreams are good. We can infer that dogs can have nightmares, too. These nightmares are hard to watch as we all want the best for our doggie friends. But while it can be tempting to wake your dog to comfort her, as you would a child, there are some risks associated with doggy nightmares that you should know (and share with your family).

If you’ve ever been woken from a scary dream, you know that it can take a minute to remember where you are and who you are with. Like some people, dogs can react aggressively toward the person waking them. This can be dangerous, especially for children. The best thing that you can do for a dog you think is having a bad dream is to wait for your dog to wake up and be there to comfort him, following the old saying “let sleeping dogs lie.”

Dogs can also get narcolepsy, a disorder that causes the brain to fall into sudden sleep. In fact, research into a line of narcoleptic dogs at Stanford University helped unravel the biochemistry behind the human form of the condition.

The best way to give your dog pleasant dreams? Keep them happy

The best way to give ourselves or our children better dreams is to have happy daytime experiences and to get plenty of sleep in a safe and comfortable environment. This is also the best thing you can do. Nightmares may creep in from time to time, but a healthy, happy dog will have nice dreams.

The more your pup’s day is filled with fun and excitement, the more likely their dreams will be too. This can also include treat training that will stimulate your dog’s brain and provide them with plenty of fun mental challenges. Ensuring they enjoy their daily dog walk will also make a big difference.

Dream falling.

Recurring nightmares likely stem from unfulfilled basic psychological needs

People who are having difficulty satisfying their basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence are more likely to experience recurring, distressing dreams. They also tend to describe or interpret them in more negative terms.

Dream falling.

Image via Pexels.

Dreams and their meaning have been a subject of human curiosity since times immemorial. There is a trove of material out there on the subject, some scientific, some more esoteric. Great minds like Carl Gustav Jung and Sigmund Freud worked on the subject. Adding to that latter category is a new paper published by UK researchers: people who are frustrated because their basic psychological needs aren’t met are more likely to have recurring bad dreams, they report.

We dream to cope

The researchers base their findings on two studies. The first involved 200 participants aged 18 to 33 years, who were asked to reflect on their most common recurring dream and fill out a short survey assessing their general psychological need satisfaction and psychological need frustration. The second one involved 110 people (18 to 61 years). Participants first completed an initial survey assessing person-level variables (i.e., general psychological need satisfaction and frustration), and then completed dream surveys (similar to dream diaries) on three evenings and the three mornings following, on days Monday to Thursday.

What the team wanted to identify whether there were any links between the psychological needs of these people (while awake) and the deeper processing that occurs in the context of dreams — in other words, if bad dreams are “left-overs” of poorly processed or unprocessed daily experiences that our subconscious mind tries to grapple with.

The results of both studies suggest that frustration and other emotions associated with specific psychological needs shape the “themes” and overall feel of dreams. Participants whose psychological needs weren’t met, be it on a day-to-day or in a more prolonged fashion, understandably reported higher levels of frustration. They also reported having more negative themes play out during their sleep, with dreams involving emotions related to fear, sadness, and anger. Finally, when asked to interpret their own dreams, they were more likely to describe them negatively than positively.

“Waking-life psychological need experiences are indeed reflected in our dreams,” says lead author Netta Weinstein of the University of Cardiff. “Negative dream emotions may directly result from distressing dream events, and might represent the psyche’s attempt to process and make sense of particularly psychologically challenging waking experiences.”

The most common ‘bad’ recurring themes of the group were falling, being attacked, or failure. Weinstein believes that recurring dreams may be more sensitive to distressing psychological experiences that a person still needs to process.

“Researchers and theorists have argued that recurring dreams challenge people to process the most pressing problems in their lives, and these may be thought to result from their failure to adapt to challenging experiences. As such, dream content may be more affected by enduring need-based experiences,” says Weinstein.

So if you’re looking for a restful sleep and an enjoyable in-your-head adventure, make sure all your psychological needs are properly tended to. If you just can’t seem to escape unpleasant dreams, the odds are that some of your needs aren’t being tended to.

The paper “Linking psychological need experiences to daily and recurring dreams” has been published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

Sea slugs can’t remember their dreams — and here’s why you can’t, either

Scientists identified a seemingly counterintuitive process in the brain that prevents stimuli from forming memories. This system also springs into action as you are waking up to prevent corruption of previous memories — which might explain why it’s so hard to remember what you dreamed about.

Image credits Karolina / Pexels.

Without any prior training or a handbook handy when you wake up, it’s incredibly hard (and frustrating) to try and remember what you dreamed about a few moments before. It’s like you’re grasping at a shape in the fog — you know something was there and you have a rough idea of what it was like but every time you reach out you’re met with a handful of nothing. But why is it so hard to remember?

It all comes down to how our brain forms memories. Some of the stimuli that bombards you each and every day are deemed important enough to be memorized, which our neurons do by forming connections between each other — known as “trace memories”. This, however, is only a temporary measure, since these initial connections (and so the memories they maintain) are pretty fragile. To turn them into long-term memories, the brain has to go through a process called consolidation.

This involves synthesizing proteins to strengthen trace memories. However, if new stimuli are recorded while this process takes place, they could disrupt the process or overwrite the memory trace. So you might run into all sorts of problems if your brain started consolidating willy-nilly in the middle of the day. Thankfully, it evolved to only do so at night while you’re sleeping. But just in case you wake up during consolidation, the brain has mechanisms in place to prevent you from interrupting the process.

Slugging it out for memory space

A new study by Prof. Abraham Susswein of the Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences and The Leslie and Susan Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University has identified this mechanism. He and his colleagues studied the sea hare Aplysia who are surprisingly convenient subjects for neuroscientific studies — they have simple nervous systems made up of large neurons, and have also shown basic learning abilities.

They found that after training the slugs’ brains started producing low levels of consolidating proteins, levels which spiked when the sea slugs went to sleep. But by blocking the production of these proteins in sleeping slugs, they were able to prevent them from forming long-term memories — confirming that they too consolidate memories during sleep.

They also found that exposing the animals to stimuli as they were waking up didn’t trigger the formation of new memories — they tried training the animals after awakening them from sleep, but the slugs couldn’t learn. On awakening, their brain blocked any interaction between the stimuli and long-term memory. When treating the slugs with a drug that inhibits protein production prior to training, the slugs could generate long-term memories however.

Removing the protein block allows the formation of long-term memories of experience just after waking up — even experiences that are too brief to trigger memories in fully awake slugs.

“The major insight from this research is that there is an active process in the brain which inhibits the ability to learn new things and protects the consolidation of memories,” Susswein says.

The team also found that training sea slugs in social isolation seems to inhibit their learning abilities, and identified a similar process active in this state.

“Our next step following on from this work is to identify these memory blocking proteins and to fathom how they prevent the formation of new memories,” says Susswein,

“We may also find that the blocking process accounts for why we cannot remember our dreams when we wake up.”

One exciting possibility is that is these proteins can inhibit memory formation, they could potentially be used to block unwanted or traumatic memories such as those of PTSD patients.

The full paper “New learning while consolidating memory during sleep is actively blocked by a protein synthesis dependent process” has been published in the journal eLife.