Mental Sleep Activity and Disturbing Dreams in the Lifespan

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Sep 29;16(19):3658. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16193658.


Sleep significantly changes across the lifespan, and several studies underline its crucial role in cognitive functioning. Similarly, mental activity during sleep tends to covary with age. This review aims to analyze the characteristics of dreaming and disturbing dreams at different age brackets. On the one hand, dreams may be considered an expression of brain maturation and cognitive development, showing relations with memory and visuo-spatial abilities. Some investigations reveal that specific electrophysiological patterns, such as frontal theta oscillations, underlie dreams during sleep, as well as episodic memories in the waking state, both in young and older adults. On the other hand, considering the role of dreaming in emotional processing and regulation, the available literature suggests that mental sleep activity could have a beneficial role when stressful events occur at different age ranges. We highlight that nightmares and bad dreams might represent an attempt to cope the adverse events, and the degrees of cognitive-brain maturation could impact on these mechanisms across the lifespan. Future investigations are necessary to clarify these relations. Clinical protocols could be designed to improve cognitive functioning and emotional regulation by modifying the dream contents or the ability to recall/non-recall them.

Keywords: PTSD; children; cognition; dreaming; elderly; lifespan; nightmares; sleep; young adults.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition*
  • Dreams / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Mental Recall*
  • Sleep / physiology*