Want To Know How To Explain Dreams To Kids? Ask A Harvard Psych Professor

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Why Is The Sky Blue is a regular series, in which experts who normally explain complicated scientific phenomenon to doctoral candidates try to explain the same stuff to your kids. Since it’s hard enough to wrap your own brain around dreams, let Dr. Edward Pace-Schott try to explain what’s going on in their noggin while you kid sleeps. Dr. Pace-Schott is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who specializes in how sleep regulates emotions, and he wants you to know it’s perfectly normal that you keep dreaming about driving to work naked.

Your Kid’s Questions

What is a dream?
“Your brain is very busy even when you’re sleeping,” says Dr. Pace-Schott. “It has lots of jobs to do, like helping you remember things and sorting out what’s important and what isn’t.” The way your brain is designed to make sense of things is by telling you stories, and the stories it tells when you’re asleep are your dreams. It can’t do this while you’re awake, because it’s too busy making sure you don’t walk into walls or pour water on your head when you meant to pour it in your mouth.

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If my brain is telling me a story, then why can’t I remember it when I wake up?
When you’re asleep, your brain has different “juices” flowing through it than when you’re awake. The juices when you’re awake are good at holding on to information and storing it as memories; the juices when you’re asleep aren’t so good at that. As for why, “One reason is that a dream might be a distraction from paying attention to what’s important when we’re awake,” says Dr. Pace-Schott, but he admits that scientists don’t really know. If you really want to remember your dreams, try repeating them in your mind as soon as you wake up, so the memory juice can catch and hang on to them.

So dream juice is bad for remembering things … then why does my brain remember people like mom and dad when I’m asleep and put them into my dreams?
Dreams come from the same place in your brain that your feelings come from, so they often star people you feel really strongly about. They’re also usually about something you feel really strongly about — something you’re nervous, confused or excited about. Like, before the first day of school you might have more dreams or really clear, active ones. “They’re not random or meaningless,” says Dr. Pace-Schott. “They’re colored by concerns you have when you’re awake.”

Why does my brain sometimes tell me stories that scare the crap out of me?
A nightmare is just a really intense dream, and scientists don’t know for sure why they happen. It’s probably just your brain trying to make sense of something that scared you while you were awake, or something that you’re particularly worried about, like forgetting to put your pants on before going to school. This is when forgetting your dreams is a good thing, since even if you wake up freaked out, the nightmare goes away quickly. Also, your parents will always make sure you put on pants before going to school.

Your Question

I get why my kid has dreams or even nightmares, but why do they sleepwalk?
While researchers like Dr. Pace-Schott now think dreaming happens at every stage of sleep, the really intense dreams and nightmares happen during REM sleep, which is important because the body is paralyzed in that stage. That’s a good thing, since otherwise “sleepwalking” might mean “acting out a nightmare,” which would be pretty hard to deal with.

But sleepwalking is sort of the opposite; it happens during non-REM sleep, when your motor system is still able to do all sorts of things — walk, talk, even eat — without the help of the conscious mind. This is way more common in kids than adults, but Dr. Pace-Schott can’t say exactly why. “It’s possible that a child’s nervous system is not as developed,” he says. “People used to think you were completely cooked by the time you were a teenager, but the brain continues to change into your 20s. One of the things that may still be changing is the way your brain keeps you from turning on your walking ‘program’ while asleep.”

If you find your kid wandering around the house in a zombi-fied state, you should avoid waking them. While not medically dangerous, disrupting a sleepwalker is extremely confusing for them, and not at all necessary — you should be able to gently guide them back to bed. Unless they’re in actual zombie, in which case you’ll probably need weapons.

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