Brain Waves for Angry Dreams Discovered by Sleep Scientists

Scientists have discovered the brain activity that takes place when people are having angry dreams. Researchers found that people who had angry dreams had more activity in the alpha band in the right frontal cortex, compared with the left, a pattern that is also found in the brains of people who are feeling anger during wakefulness.

"We experience emotions not only in our waking life but also in our dreams. Although there is a lot of research on the neural basis of waking emotions, we know very little about the neural basis of dream emotions," Pilleriin Sikka, lead author of the study, which was published in The Journal of Neuroscience, told Newsweek.

"There are different theories regarding why people experience emotions, including anger, in their dreams," Sikka said. "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.

Previous research has shown a specific neural marker is involved in emotional processing and anger-related states. The team wanted to find out if the same marker was found in the brains of people who were asleep. They recorded the brain activity of 17 study participants over two nights. Before this, the participants had been asked to keep a dream diary for a week, allowing the team to establish dream recall for each person.

After participants had spent five minutes in the REM, or rapid eye movement, stage of sleep—the stage when dreaming is most likely to occur—they were woken up and asked to rate the emotions they had been experiencing in the dream.

The findings showed that people who had more alpha-band brain activity in the right frontal cortex, compared with the left one, experienced more anger than those without this pattern. This pattern, known as frontal alpha asymmetry, shows brain activity differs between the two frontal areas of the brain. Having evidence that this pattern relates to anger during sleep as well as wakefulness suggests it plays an important role in emotion processing.

"Our findings show that anger in dreams has the same neural correlates as anger in wakefulness," Sikka said. "This means that there seem to be shared brain processes for emotions across wakefulness and dreaming. This helps us better understand the neural basis of both dream and waking emotions."

This is important because it could have implications for a range of conditions—from helping people who experience nightmares regularly to treating mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. Sikka said one potential avenue of this research could be trying to modulate dream emotions with brain simulation techniques. By altering these emotions, it may be possible to help people deal with nightmares, as well as improving well-being during waking hours.

Sikka said the next step will be to replicate the results in a bigger and more diverse group. "Then we should find out whether we get similar results across different wakefulness periods and sleep stages," she said.

sleep, brain
Scientists have discovered the brain waves that occur when people are having angry dreams. iStock