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Tomorrow Today

What’s our brain doing while we sleep?

Our studio guest on this week’s show: Dr. Dieter Kunz, a sleep researcher at the Charité hospital in Berlin. He speaks with us about what the brain is actually doing while we sleep.

Watch video 04:00

DW: Do we even dream every night?

Dieter Kunz: Each of us dreams every night. That happens every 90 minutes during REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep) and that is over two hours every night.

So two hours every night I do actually dream regardless of whether I remember it or not. What about lucid dreaming then, is that difficult to do?

During lucid dreaming the brain is not just simply in REM sleep but part of the brain is awake. So you are conscious of your dreams. That is the whole thing about it. Many of us do that when we are young. But when we shorten our sleep as adults, we are not doing that anymore. But we are able to do this lucid dreaming, anyone of us.

So we are able to do it. Is it difficult to do and what is the benefits of doing it anyway?

Whether there is really a benefit we do not know. There is an exception: post traumatic stress disorder. When you are traumatised seriously like you are watching somebody die, sometimes you have these rememberings, you get the visions back - flashbacks in your eyes. That happens during the day and during the dreams as well. And there, this lucid dreaming might work. In other instances there is not really a need for the lucid dreaming as a technique.

You have your own clinic here, you are dealing with people who have sleeping problems. What kind of problems do they have and would you use this technique on them?

There are two basic groups. We are not taking care of apnia and snoring but we do take care of those people with non-restorative sleep. The second big group consists of people who are active during sleep. Sleep walking for example is not a disorder as such but there is a security issue for those people that are wandering around. Those people act out their dreams. When you have your nightmares it is kind of funny that you do not yell and you do not fight. That is because you are paralyzed - you are in REM sleep. And if this paralysis does not work properly anymore you act out your dream. That starts with talking, well things that you might not be proud of talking about. And it could be that you actually fight with your partner, you jump out of bed, you play baseball, you break your bones and whatsoever. These are the things, that are dangerous.

Is there a connection between these dreams and reality? Why do they act out these things in their sleep? Is there any connection to what we are actually thinking?

No. There are tons of studies that have been performed there. Except for those people with post traumatic stress disorder, there seems to be no link between the content of these dreams and reality. Not even the personality behind it. That is kind of funny. But there has lots of research been done in the past and we do not see any connection. So whatever you have there in your nightmares. Forget about it.

Forget about it. There is no actual reality connection there. Would I be right then in saying that dreams are an essential part of our well being. That they help us to deal with daily life.

The dreams as such, most likely no. But we do not know. Dream sleep, yes. That is dramatically important. The brain is most active. It is even more active than during the day time. So it is work that is being done during REM sleep. First of all that's learning. And secondly its the coordination of metabolic processes.

(Interview: Anne O'Donnell)