Why can't you remember dreams? The science of sleep

- We all do it every night whether we’re aware of it.   We're talking about dreaming.

What does it mean? And what happens to our brains when we’re in a dream state? At the Center for Sleep Medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital – I dared to dream.  Technicians hooked me up to about 40 different wires – all over my body.

It was a way for Doctor Steven Feinsilver to track my brain waves and monitor my sleep cycles while I spent the night in his lab. 

"People have the idea that sleep is a time where we just turn our brains off for 7 or 8 hours, turn it back on," Dr. Feinsilver says.  "It's much more complicated than that."

Feinsilver says there’s a reason our brains create dream periods, also called Rapid Eye Movement or REM periods throughout the night.

"It's bad for your brain to be turned off for a long period of time and sleep is like turning your brain off..ordinary sleep is," Dr. Feinsilver says. "So, because it’s bad, your brain kind of re-charges batteries by turning itself on. Doing something fairly random for maybe 15-20 minutes, then going back to a normal sleep."

Doctor Philip Watson is a senior Neuropsychologist at Northwell Health. He says there’s a reason our dreams sometimes seem so real.

"What happens to your brain during dreaming is that a lot of the areas in your brain become activated," Dr. Watson says.  "Specifically, areas involved in sensory processing, like visual processing, and areas involved in motor processing and that helps to create the realism that we experience during dreams."

Scientists and researchers from around the world are now trying to bring that realism to a whole new level. 

Daniel Oldis is an independent dream researcher who wrote a book in the 1970s called "The Lucid Dream Manifesto."  Since then, he’s worked with the University of Texas to create technology that would record dreams. He and his partners use Electromyography, or EMG sensors, to measure speech and movement in dreams. 

Oldis says, "What we did is we basically took the data stream from the sensors on your arms, legs, under your chin and and basically fed those into a computer program."

Back at Lenox Hill, I woke up with all my wires intact, ready to hear my data that was fed into a computer program.  

Dr. Feinsilver says, "You slept for about 5 and a half hours."

Over the course of the night, I snored lightly at times and had irregular breathing. That means I have mild sleep apnea – but nothing to worry about.

"About 5 times an hour, you stop or slow down your breathing, but not total stopping. It happened almost entirely in dreaming sleep," Dr. Feinsilver says.

During my overnight stay at Lenox Hill, I didn’t remember any of my dreams. That’s because Doctor Feinsilver says the only way to remember is if you wake up in the middle of or very close to a REM cycle. That’s not easy to do because REM cycles usually take up only about only about a quarter of your sleep. 

"When you go from dreaming, back into non-dreaming sleep, you're very likely to forget the whole dream," Dr. Feinsilver says.

As for Daniel Oldis, he’s restless in his research. In just 10 to 20 years from now, he thinks dreamers will have a whole lot to look forward to. 

"They'll go to sleep with a headband on and a chin strap. The chin strap will measure the speech, the headband will measure the images in the brain. They'll sleep in pajamas that have built-in sensors to capture muscle movement and all this will be streamed to your computer or your phone or your iPad or whatever and converted into a movie," Oldis says. "And then you can upload that to YouTube and see if you'll get a whole bunch of likes."

So make sure you know how to edit video, because when the time comes, you might not want your strangest thoughts and images shared with the world.

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