Bad dreams help people train their emotions to overcome fear

Researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and University Hospitals Geneva (HUG), Switzerland in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin (USA) analyzed the dreams of several people and determined which areas of the ministry The brain was activated when they experienced fear in a dream.

They found that once individuals awoke, the brain regions responsible for emotional control responded to fear-inducing situations much more effectively. These results, published in the journal Human Brain Mapping , demonstrate that dreams help us respond better to frightening situations, thereby opening the way for dream-based therapies. new to combat anxiety.

Neuroscience has been interested in dreams for a few years now, focusing on the areas of the brain that are active when we are dreaming. The scientists used high-density electroencephalography (EEG) , which uses several electrodes placed on the skull to measure brain activity. Recently, they discovered that certain regions of the brain are responsible for dream formation and that others are activated depending on specific content in the dream such as perceptions, thoughts, and emotions.

Bad dreams help people train their emotions to overcome fear
The cingulate cortex plays a role in the preparation of motor and behavioral responses in the event of a threat.

“We are particularly interested in fear, what area of our brain is activated when we have bad dreams?” , Lampros Perogamvros, a researcher at the Sleep and Cognitive Laboratory led by Professor Sophie Schwartz, head of the Department of Basic Neuroscience and Cognitive Medicine, UNIGE, and a principal clinical instructor at the Laboratory of Cognitive Medicine. HUG’s sleep said.

Scientists from Geneva placed 256 EEG electrodes on 18 subjects who woke up several times during the night. Each time the participants woke up, they had to answer a series of questions such as: “Are you dreaming? And, if you dream, do you feel fear?”

“By analyzing brain activity based on the participants’ responses, we identified two brain regions associated with feelings of fear in dreams , the insula. ) and the cingulate cortex ,” explains Perogamvros, a researcher at Geneva. The insula is also involved in emotional assessment upon waking and is automatically activated when someone feels fear.

The cingulate cortex plays a role in the preparation of motor and behavioral responses in the event of a threat. “For the first time, we have identified the neural correlates of fear as we dream and have observed that the same areas are activated during the experience of fear in both sleep and sleep states. awake”.

The researchers then investigated a possible link between the fear experienced in dreams and the emotions experienced upon awakening. They gave a dream diary to 89 participants for a period of one week. Subjects were asked that each morning when they woke up, they recorded whether they remembered the dreams they experienced during the night to identify the emotions they felt, including fear.

At the end of the week, they were put in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. “We showed each participant negative images of emotions, such as assault or distressing situations, as well as normal images, to see which brain regions were more active when scared and whether the trigger region changes depends on the emotion in the dream compared to the past week,” said Virginie Sterpenich, a researcher in the Department of Neuroscience at UNIGE.

The researchers are particularly interested in areas of the brain traditionally involved in managing emotions. “We found that the longer people felt fear in their dreams, the less stimulated regions of the brain such as the insula, cingulate, and amygdala (the almond-shaped gray matter located in each part of the brain) were less stimulated. more active with the same person while looking at negative pictures ,” says Sterpenich. “Additionally, activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is known to inhibit the amygdala in the event of fear, increases proportionally to the number of fearful dreams!”

These results demonstrate a very strong link between the emotions we feel during both sleep and wakefulness. They also reinforce a neuroscientific theory about dreams: we simulate frightening situations while dreaming in order to better react to them when we wake up. “Dreams can be seen as a real training for our future reactions and potentially help us face dangers in real life,” Perogamvros hypothesized.

Following the discovery of a potential function of dreams, researchers are now planning to study a new form of dream therapy to treat anxiety disorders. They were also interested in nightmares, because unlike bad dreams, in which the level of fear is moderate, nightmares are characterized by an excessive level of fear that disrupts sleep. and negative impact on the individual upon waking.

“We believe that if a certain threshold of fear is exceeded in a dream, it loses its beneficial role as an emotional regulator ,” concludes Perogamvros.