Hello there, SEL fans! I’m your friendly new blogger, Katie Cameroneil. I became part of AISD’s Social and Emotional Learning team this past July, and boy am I glad to be here! I’ll be posting weekly, usually on Fridays, and I’ll be keeping my eyes out for the most interesting, useful, smart and tasty tidbits the world has to offer related to Social and Emotional Learning. I give you my first blog offering (bloffering?)…I hope you find it dreamy.
We talk a lot in SEL about the amygdala. The amygdala is our primal brain, and the center of strong emotions and self-preservation. When we are really angry or afraid, or so happy we get choked up, our amygdala is firing all over the place.
Luckily, when we’re awake and doing day-to-day things, we have our frontal cortex—our rational, logical brain—to keep us from doing anything crazy! We may have really strong feelings sometimes, but we generally don’t hurl ourselves on the
floor screaming, or attempt to fly, or run howling through the streets. Good thing we have our frontal cortex to keep society (mostly) civilized!
That’s when we’re awake…but what about when we’re asleep?
Excuse me…Your Amygdala is Showing
Research shows that the amygdala is highly active when we’re dreaming, while the frontal cortex is basically turned off (Nir & Tononi, 2010). The amygdala can run wild with feelings and emotions, with no interference from the logical cortex (Big Think Editors, 2014)! This is why dreams can seem so vivid, colorful, intense and even really scary (Big Think Editors, 2014). Dreams can even stick with us, the emotional experiences coloring our day. The amygdala is a powerful influence in our brain, and unchecked, it can come up with some pretty wild scenarios. Often the activity from the amygdala during dreaming radiates into other parts of the brain, including the frontal cortex, which could explain why dreams sometimes seem to have a linear or logical story structure (Nir & Tononi, 2010). But, for the most part, dreaming is the amygdala’s time to shine!
Luckily, our brains are also usually equipped with mechanisms that prevent our physical bodies from acting out the events of our dreams. So, dreams are very complex brain functions (Cromie, 1996). Why do we have them? Why do we appear to need sleep and dreams? Guess what—scientists don’t know yet (Nir & Tononi, 2010). All they really know is, good sleep appears to be vital to having a high quality of life, and that extreme sleep deprivation can be fatal (Cromie, 1996). So what could this mean?
Could it be that sleeping gives the frontal cortex a time to rest and rejuvenate, at the same time allowing the amygdala to get some unfettered free time to explore feelings and fears (Big Think Editors, 2014)? Neuroscientists have also shown that tell-tale signs of learning occur in the brain during sleep and dreaming (Nir & Tononi, 2010), perhaps demonstrating that the wandering amygdala can present scenarios to our brains, however crazy, that help us become more functional humans during our waking hours (Cromie, 1996). Could dreams allow us to deepen our empathy and perspective-taking skills? The latest sleep and brain research is seeking the answers to these questions.
In conclusion, thank your amygdala for creating our dreams, and thank your brain for being such an amazing tool. And next time you have a dream, keep in mind that it has possibly enhanced and enriched your brain’s experience. Even though they are ‘just dreams,’ they affect the brain in a very real way. So sleep well, and keep on dreaming! Happy weekend!
Big Think Editors. (2014, October 14). Big Think. Retrieved October 17, 2014, from This is Your Brain on Dreams, with Michio Kaku: http://bigthink.com/think-tank/this-is-your-brain-on-dreams-with-michio-kaku
Cromie, W. J. (1996, February 8). Research Links Sleep, Dreams and Learning. Retrieved 10 17, 2014, from The Harvard University Gazette: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/1996/02.08/ResearchLinksSl.html
Nir, Y., & Tononi, G. (2010, January 10). Dreaming and the brain: from phenomenology to neurophysiology. Retrieved 10 17, 2014, from National Institute of Health Public Access Author Manuscript: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2814941/