We spend a third of our lives sleeping. Sleeping and dreaming are therefore essential for our health and well-being, but also to build our identity. Professor Giulio Maira, senior consultant at the Unit of Neurosurgery in Humanitas and president of the Atena Onlus Foundation, spoke to the host of Heart and Coins on Radio 24 .


“Sleeping and dreaming that accompanies it are among the most mysterious aspects of neuroscience and still not fully understood. We do know that sleep plays an essential role in the acquisition of knowledge, the development of ideas and especially for the consolidation of our memory. Memory is fundamental for our lives, we are made of our memories, our identity identifies us with situations, people and things that we have experienced and have settled in our brain. Memory helps us pass on knowledge and constitutes our culture. Sleep is fundamental for our identity and helps us to consolidate it.”


What is the function of sleeping and dreaming? And what are dreams?

“Dreaming has extremely important functions. We study what happens while we dream using EEG, a method that allows us to evaluate the functionality of brain neurons. While we dream, EEG is profoundly modified. A brain scan of a person awake and active looks like a ruffled sea. When we sleep the brain scan shows increasingly synchronized activity with even deeper waves. This is deep sleep in which we reorder the recent experiences had during the day. During deep sleep we dream very little.

Then suddenly the slow waves are muffled and our brain returns to a rapid pace similar to what we see when a person is awake. This is the phase of REM sleep with rapid eye movements. We monitor eye movement using adjustable electrodes placed close to the eyeball. At this stage we have the most complex and richest dreams. We can see moving images, we recognize ourselves, but we lose the rules of time and space. This is an extremely important step, this is when our mind compares and integrates the facts which are setting into memory with those of the past and somehow refresh our memory and our experiences, modifying them.”


What are lucid dreams?

“We talk about lucid dreams when we dream but somehow remain conscious. While you sleep, the frontal area of the brain that characterizes consciousness and distinguishes us from animals, is disabled and you are not conscious. Some people can sleep despite having an activation of the prefrontal area. There are sleep times when we are still asleep but we have a partial consciousness, like half-sleeping in the morning. It is seen that in these moments our creativity is really activated. Think of the time when you wake up and magically have the solution to a problem you could not solve the night before.”


Why don’t we remember dreams?

Not remembering dreams that you have is very common. In order to remember dreams we must wake up when we are in the REM stage of sleep. Dreams are fleeting, we can remember them as soon as we wake up but they gradually fade away. It is one of the mysteries of our lives. We spend about six years of our lives dreaming but do not remember anything. It is as if we are living two parallel lives. As if every night our brains take us on an extraordinary journey that despite not entering our consciousness, has a vital role in characterizing our identity, settling our dreams and allowing the development of the brain.

In this regard, I wish to emphasize that our brain is constantly changing, especially during childhood and adolescence. This is especially true in children. A childs brain is like a blackboard on which to write. For this reason, it is important to observe childrens sleep stages. The smaller they are, the more they need to sleep.  These sleep stages are critical to the brains comprehensive developments “.