Are your nights filled with tossing and turning, dreaming of ghoul-filled corridors and arguments with those closest to you? Scientists might just have figured out what’s going on inside your brain as these bad dreams unfold.
A new study, published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience, has identified a pattern of brain activity that predicts anger states during dreaming. Feelings of anger in dreams may not be totally synonymous with nightmares, but the researchers note that it "is frequently experienced during nightmares."
A team of scientists from the University of Turku in Finland and the University of Skövde in Sweden put the brains of 17 healthy people under the watchful eye of an electroencephalogram (EEG) brain scan during two separate nights of sleep. After 5 minutes of REM sleep, the participants were woken up and asked to fill out a questionnaire that quizzed them about the experience of the dream.
When humans, as well as other mammals and birds, fall asleep, they drift through cycles of rapid eye moment (REM) sleep and different stages of non-REM sleep. Each phase comes with its own characteristics, as well as specific brain waves and neuron activity, but REM sleep is the most closely associated with vivid dreaming.
The team noted that people who reported more negative feelings – anger, hate, distrust, suspicion – in the dreams generally had more alpha-band brain activity in the right frontal cortex, as opposed to the left, during REM sleep. More specifically, they noted a neural signature – called frontal alpha asymmetry – that has previously been linked to anger in an awake state.
"Previous studies have shown that frontal alpha asymmetry is related to anger and self-regulation during wakefulness. We show that this asymmetrical brain activity is also related to anger experienced in dreams. Frontal alpha asymmetry may thus reflect our ability to regulate anger not only in the waking but also in the dreaming state," Pilleriin Sikka, lead author of the study from the University of Skövde, said in a press release.
Granted, this is a limited study in some respects. The sample size was very small and the participants had to sleep in a lab, which isn't necessarily representative of normal sleep. However, it provides interesting insight into the relatively understudied field of the neurological basis of anger dreams and, more generally, the nature of negative emotions in dreams.
Speaking to Newsweek, Sikka added: “Some theories argue that dreams may simply reflect our waking emotions and experiences. From this perspective, people who experience more anger and anger-related experiences in their waking life also experience more anger in dreams."
“Other theories argue that processing negative emotions in dreams may be beneficial for our waking well-being. From this perspective, individuals who experience anger in dreams may be better able to cope with such emotions and related situations in their daily waking life,” she said.