One Secret Side Effect of Having Weird Dreams, Says Study
Everyone knows what it's like to have a really weird dream—ones that are so jaw-droppingly vivid and surreal that they stick with you for days, or even years, after waking up. According to some reports, you probably had more than a few in the last year. The New York Times recently reported on a curious rise in weird dreams, noting that the Google query, "why am I having weird dreams lately?" experienced a mysteriously massive spike in April.
Now, it's no secret that weird dreams could be a reflection of some strange or negative things happening in your life. "Your dreams may be more vivid for different reasons, including lifestyle changes like a disruption in normal daily activities, exercise routine, eating habits and sleep pattern," notes one Mayo Clinic-affiliated hospital. "Increased levels of stress or anxiety—especially with the constant COVID-19 news cycle—can cause your brain to keep you alert, making it difficult to fall asleep or have more intense dreams."
But according to a new study published in the academic journal Cell Press, your totally bonkers dreams could potentially be a sign that your brain is up to something truly interesting. Read on to learn what it is, and for more sleep news, know that Here's How Long You Need to Walk Daily to Sleep Better.
Had a Weird Dream? Your Brain May Have Just Gotten Smarter
As study author Erik Hoel, Ph.D, a neuroscientist at Tufts University, explained to WebMD, having a super weird dream is actually a good thing, and he argues that there's a larger purpose to ultra-vivid dreams that extend far beyond waking up and feeling like you've just starred in the craziest movie in your own head.
In the study, Hoel explains that there are two main parts to sleep: Your dreamless sleep, when your spinal fluid clears away toxins and the brain repairs itself, and "some form of unknown contribution to improvements in performance and learning on tasks [that] occurs during dreaming."
To boil it down, Hoel argues that "by hallucinating" during the weird dreams, "the brain is able to rescue the generalizability of its perceptual and cognitive abilities and increase task performance." I'll explain further, but what he's saying is this: your brain uses these dreams to better process information and to actually get smarter.
Looking to Artificial Intelligence for Guidance
In the study, Hoel notes that many neuroscientists now are turning turn to artificial intelligence systems to help them better understand the brain.
"In the past decade it has become apparent that there are many lessons for neuroscience to be taken from brain-inspired deep neural nets (DNNs), which offer a different framework for thinking about learning than standard computer architectures," he writes. "DNNs are far and away the only successful analog to human intelligence on complex tasks, and they tend to develop brain-like connectivity and representational properties, like grid-cells, shape-tuning, and visual illusions."
When these DNNs become "too familiar with data, it can oversimplify its analysis, becoming an 'overfitted brain' that assumes what it sees is a perfect representation of what it will encounter in the future," explains WebMD. "To counter that problem, scientists introduce a degree of chaos and randomization into their data to deepen machine learning and improve the accurate of AI systems."
According to Hoel, your brain is doing the same thing. Those crazy dreams? They're random agents of chaos. "Our brains are so good at learning that we're always in danger of being overfitted," he warns. "Life is boring sometimes. Dreams are there to keep you from becoming too fitted to the model of the world." And for some great ways to get better sleep, see here for the Secret Side Effects of Walking Before Breakfast, Says Science.