Dreams and Nightmares
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Dreams are the activities that take place inside the brain during sleep. A dream might contain several simple short stories or a single long story. It is difficult to differentiate these stories from the real ones, but dreams are characterized by increased physical movements.

Before going in detail about dreams, we should understand the concept of a normal sleep. Sleep does not mean loss of conscious or going into coma, but it is a special state experienced by humans, wherein various activities take place.

When a person is awake, there is a special kind of electro-activity in the mind. This activity changes when he sleeps. Let us understand sleep so that we can define dreams accurately.

The person who is asleep passes through many stages of sleep. The third and fourth stages are called deep sleep. These two stages are very important for the body to restore its activity. The lack of these two sleeping stages results in an uncomfortable and light sleep causes fatigue and stress during the daytime. Going through all these stages of sleep once implies the completion of one sleep cycle. During normal sleep (of 6-8 hours); a person passes through 4-6 such sleep cycles.

The Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage starts after about 90 minute of sleep (the eye moves rapidly - this can be noticed among newborns). This stage may be called the dream stage because most dreams occur during this stage and some specialists believe that this stage is important for the mind to restore its activity.

Usually the dreams take place throughout the night. Earlier it was known that the dreams take place during the REM only, but it has been recently proved that dreams could take place during all sleep stages. The nature of REM dreams varies from dreams in other stages. The REM dreams stage is usually more detailed, close to reality and could be better recalled, particularly the dreams at the end of the night (before waking up).

Some people claim that they never dream during sleep. Is that correct or they are unaware?

It is worth mentioning that, REM stage usually increases during the last few hours of sleep, thus there are more number of dreams in the morning. So people who do not sleep as per body's need may not spend adequate time in this stage, as a result they feel that they do not have dreams or do not remember them.

Many people do not recall their dreams, however this does not necessary mean that they do not dream. Research proves that nearly all people dream, and there could be many reasons for their incapability to recall their dreams. Those who do not think about their dreams may not remember them; moreover, a person who sleeps just for few hours may not pass through the last stage of sleep where the longer dreams take place.

An Islamic prophet has said that, ‘Good dreams are true and are an evidence of faith.’ The prophet (peace be upon him) considered it as a part of the forty four parts of the prophecy as narrated in Hadith: "The most truthful of you have the most truthful thoughts, and the Muslim thoughts are a part of the forty four parts of the prophecy. Thoughts are of three kinds: good thoughts are those that are from Allah, the second are from Satan, used to upset people, and the third ones from oneself. If anyone has had bad thoughts, we will pray to avoid its reoccurrence."

The subject of what dreams consists is still disputed between scientific, medical and experimental specialists. However, it is clear that dreams are mostly a reflection of the person’s daily experiences, as it contains events of the previous day.

Keeping the scientific or practical aspect in mind, studies suggested that the person age, gender, and environment affect the content of dreams. The older age group, for example, may have dreams about events that have taken place about 50 year ago. The young children usually have dreams about animals. Dreams of women are characterized by dialogues and speech, whereas a man's dreams mostly show anxiety and physical violence.

Studies also suggest that, the number of women and men, in a woman's dreams are mostly equal, but in a man’s dream, the number of men is usually twice the number of women.

Dreams are usually a mirror to a person's reality. The dream’s connection with the dreamer’s real life might not be direct and obvious, but the dreamer often realizes the link with the reality. In addition, most dreams may not be happy ones, as it a reflection of their daily life in a negative light. Unlike men, women are more interested in what the dream consists of.

Muslims have talked about the interpretation of dreams and considered it as an independent science. Commentators such as Ibn Sirin and other Arab intellectuals such as Ibn Arabi and Ibn Khaldoun have tried to interpret and classify dreams as well as its sources.

Muslims scholars have studied dreams before the Western scholars - who have only recently, started following Muslims' science about dreams, and started comparing their new ideas with the Muslim’s age-old theories. Some of them have also studies the mentions of dreams in the Holy Qura'n and Sunnah, while comparing it mentions in Torah and Bible.

Are Dreams Helpful?

Dreams are one of the basic stages during sleep. It is medically known that the brain activity during the REM stage where dreams take place; is higher than its activity during the awake stage. An adult spends about 15-25% in this stage during his sleep.

Many theories and hypotheses have risen relating to the significance of dreams for the brain. Newborns spend 50% of their sleep in this stage. Another theory claims that dreams are important for the newborn to maintain their brain temperature as the brain temperature increases during the dreams stage.

Some others believe that the dream stage is very important to support memory and concentration. One of the studies suggested that the students who do not reach this stage have a weak academic performance, while some others believe that dreams are important to remove negative feelings and emotions that may affect the daily life.

However, it must be mentioned that there is no accurate scientific evidences that support the aforementioned and the topic requires more discussion.

Dreams and Nightmares

Are there any diseases associated with dreams?

Yes, many disorders may be associated with dreams; like Al-Jathoom and others, but prior to discussing that, it will be ideal to understand the dream mechanisms.

Long dreams take place usually during REM (as mentioned above). Allah (glory be to Him) has created a mechanism inside us to protect us from implementing our dreams, this mechanism is called muscle relaxant. This means that except the diaphragm and eyes muscles, all other muscles of the body are paralyzed during dreams. Even if a person has a dream about considerable muscle effort, the muscle relaxant ensures that there is no actual movement and the person stays on the bed.

This mechanism stops while moving from one stage of the sleep to another. Sometimes the sleeper wakes up during REM while this mechanism (muscle relaxant) still keep working, as a result, the person may be fully conscious and aware of the surrounding but cannot move completely. However, since the brain was in the dream process, it may lead to hallucinations, known as Jathoom or sleep paralysis in medical parlance.

Since the diaphragm is not paralyzed, the oxygen level in blood is normal and hence most patients need no treatment.

Sleep paralysis is the only symptom for some patients. In other cases, disorders such as sleepiness seizures or compulsive-sleep disorder might occur. Compulsive-sleep disorder is a sleep disorder characterized by irresistible and uncontrollable seizures of sleepiness. Patients with sleep paralysis along with compulsive-sleep disorder need medical therapy and medical advice.

Apart from sleep paralysis, another rare neurological central disease that affects the older age group is the Parkinson's disease. This disease is known to act with behavioral disorders associated with the dreams' stage. Here the paralysis mechanism that usually takes place during the dreams' stage disappears, resulting in physical movements by the patient with a potential of causing serious injuries because of falling, hitting solid objects, or injuring people around them.


Ahmed BaHammam, FACP, FCCP
Professor of Medicine
Director, University Sleep Disorders Center
College ofMedicine, King Saud University