Why You Need to be Dreaming

woman falls on purple surface

Did you know that dreaming is a little like defragmenting your brain?

I don’t have to defragment my computer anymore (does anyone? or is it just a Mac thing that my computer does it for me when I’m not looking?) but I used to like doing it because I liked watching everything get consolidated on the progress screen.

This is how my friend Mart explained computer defragmentation to me. I don’t know if this is his metaphor or not but it’s a good one.

Let’s say you wrote a 500 page paper. It takes up a tidy little space on your desk in your office, it’s all consolidated and in order and you can read through it quickly to find exactly the information that you need.

Now let’s say that you take those 500 pages and you head out to a football field. You toss all of the paper up into the air and the wind catches it and blows it all over the field. Now can you read it easily? Can you find the information you need quickly and easily?

When you defrag your hard drive, you re-consolidate all of the information so your computer runs more quickly and more smoothly.

I listened to this old show from Radiolab awhile back on Sleep and they describe dreaming a little bit like Mart described defragging your hard drive. At least that’s the way I heard it.

See, you only have so much room for memory in your brain and you are like a little PacMan during the day, eating up events and storing them in your head. At the end of the day you sleep and your brain defrags your brain to make room for the things you need. It discards little things (the name of your server at the restaurant you ate at that morning, the color of socks your co-worker was wearing) and consolidates the things you paid more attention to. The more attention you pay to something, the stronger the signal that this is something for your brain to hold onto.

Radiolab explains that this is why a musician can practice a song all day, trying to get it right, and then wake up the next morning and play it perfectly. It’s why sometimes you might go to bed at night fretting about a project you’re working on and wake up knowing exactly how to tackle it.

As our brain quietly re-organizes itself, it puts the pieces back together so that the thoughts that persevered through our day — through chit-chat with the server whose name you forgot, through your overview of your co-worker’s outfit right down to the socks — are finally reunited and you are better able to tackle the things that matter to you and that you’ve been working on and thinking on.

When you think of dreams this way they make more sense, too. It’s your dream mind rummaging through your day’s events — every little thing you did or said or thought — and rearranging them. No wonder your sixth-grade crush might show up sitting next to the canned ham you put aside for the food bank on the boat you’re thinking of renting for next year’s vacation.

Now isn’t that interesting? And see why you need to make sure you’re getting that all important REM sleep?