We all know how important sleep is to health. Insufficient amounts of it can contribute to a host of physical and psychological issues, from depression to heart disease to obesity.
But science journalist Alice Robb argues that the PSAs about sleep miss something essential. Quantity isn’t enough. Quality counts even more — we have to dream, too.
“Dreams play a crucial role in some of our most important emotional and cognitive systems, helping us form memories, solve problems and maintain our psychological health,” writes Robb in “Why We Dream” (HMH Books), out now.
The number of labs devoted to sleep in the United States has ballooned from 400 in 1998 to 2,500 today, meaning we have more research than ever on what dreams can do for us. Dreaming about a traumatic life experience can help us move beyond it; dreaming makes us more creative, helps cement new memories and regulates our emotions.
But thanks to increasing use of alcohol, marijuana, opioids and antidepressants, which stifle REM sleep when the bulk of our dreams occur, we live in a dream-deprived world that University of Arizona psychologist Rubin Naiman calls an “unrecognized public-health hazard.”
No wonder Robb feels so passionately about our nighttime hours. She makes a convincing case for cherishing our dream worlds. If we don’t “it’s as though we are throwing away a gift from our brains without bothering to open it.”
Some of our best innovations came from dreamscapes. Elias Howe invented a lock-stitch sewing machine after dreaming about cannibals who threatened him with spears with holes at the tip, sparking the idea for needle holes. Dmitri Mendeleev put the elements of the periodic table into a logical order after a nap.
Yet scientists have long pooh-poohed dreams, dismissing them as mere Freudian hogwash. And while dream interpreters who make wild claims about our nighttime visions — such as the theory that teeth falling out represents a wish to be castrated — should be taken with a grain of salt, we would be wrong to ignore our dreams completely.
Exciting things are happening inside our skulls when we doze. About 90 to 95 percent of our dreams occur in REM sleep — which begins about 90 minutes after you drop off and accounts for a quarter of your total night’s slumber. REM activates areas in our brain responsible for personality, social behavior and memory recall, while neurochemicals involved with memory formation are also released.
But it’s what isn’t engaged during our dream state that’s most exciting. Robb writes that the frontal lobes, the seat of our decision-making and higher executive functioning, essentially “go dark.” We also lose access to our hippocampus, where new memories are formed and stored. This forces the brain, as Robb writes, to go “back into the memory storage system, where it’s apt to land on far-flung places.”
Sometimes these places are uncomfortable, even terrifying. These are the times when those of us who remember our sleep envy the 3 percent of people who never do. Other times our brains land in transformative spaces.
In 1999, researchers showed that people tend to make looser connections between words after having been awakened from a dream. When alert, we are more likely to identify words in a string of letters that are primed by a related word. For example, we will more quickly identify the word “right” when preceded by the word “wrong.” But when emerging from dreams, we are quicker at identifying loosely associated words, like “wrong” and “thief” than when we’re fully awake. The ability to make looser word associations facilitates greater out-of-the box thinking and is “a precursor to creativity,” writes dream researcher Robert Stickgold.
A series of studies have shown that dreaming can improve our daytime skills, too.
One study, published in 2000, tracked the sleep behavior of 27 college students who played “Tetris” for hours each day. Three-fifths of the students, who were awakened at various points in their REM cycles, reported seeing falling blocks and bricks in their nighttime visions. The researchers found that the less skilled participants had greater numbers of “Tetris”-themed visions.
The researchers then incorporated five amnesiacs into the “Tetris” study. Although the five participants could not retain even the most basic memories (if they met you and you left the room, five minutes later they would forget you), they, like the students, had “Tetris”-inspired dreams at night.
“They would describe blocks floating, or they would be trying to line things up but wouldn’t know what they were trying to line up,” according to the study, “Replaying the Game.”
This had an effect during the day, too. While the amnesiacs couldn’t remember anything about the game, their scores improved over the three-day study. “Towards the end of the experiment, one amnesiac woman sat down at the computer and spontaneously arranged her fingers on the three keys she would need to use,” according to the study.
Similar studies have backed this up. A 2009 experiment replaced “Tetris” with “Doom” and found that of the 22 volunteers, “players who dwelled on ‘Doom’ in their dreams were more likely to skillfully slaughter their virtual enemies” during the day, writes Robb.
A study of French-language immersion students at the University of Ottawa reported similar data, showing that those “who spent a high proportion of the night in REM sleep tended to make better progress: More time in dreaming sleep went hand in hand with mastery.”
There’s more to dreams than mastering video games — they also seem to prep us for trials in real life.
Researchers in 2014 contacted 700 hopeful medical students on the eve of their exams to inquire about their dreams. The study found that 60 percent of students dreamt about the exam the night before and 70 percent of their dreams involved some kind of impediment — like forgetting the answers or being late. No matter the obstacle, the more people dreamt about their exams, the better they did.
The study’s author, Isabelle Arnulf, wrote, “Negative anticipation may serve to optimize daytime performance, as in how a chess player imagines all possible moves, particularly the moves leading to a loss, before selecting and playing the better move.”
Dreams, in effect, offer a way to worry defensively that can make us stronger and more prepared.
This preparation goes beyond test-taking. A study of 60 divorcees found that the third who dreamt of their exes immediately after their split reported better moods, more intact finances and even more satisfying sex lives a year later. The content of their dreams was important, too. Surprisingly, those who were more aggressive with or dismissive of their exes in dreams did better in real life. “Dreaming about the divorce, it seemed, had helped them get over it,” writes Robb.
Dreams can also help us navigate through grief. A 2014 study of mourners at a hospice center in upstate New York found that 58 percent who dreamt about their departed loved ones reported “heightened feelings of spirituality and an overall sense of well-being.”
Sometimes our issues are less obvious than divorce and grief — and dreams can provide insight. A dream world populated by strangers may be a sign of social isolation. Preteens with trouble sleeping and people over 65 with periods of poor sleep, i.e., fewer dreams, have higher risks for suicide, according to Robb.
Dreaming can also indicate silent threats within our bodies. People with sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder that can increase rates of heart attacks and strokes, often report dreams of being choked before they’ve been diagnosed.
So how do we tighten our hold on those slippery nighttime visions?
Some of your ability to recall is out of your hands: Men have a harder time recalling dreams, and so do older people.
But Robb writes that there are ways to tip the scales.
Just wanting to remember can actually help you hold on to your dreams. “Reminding yourself of your intention as you fall asleep can yield a bounty of memories in the morning,” she writes.
Robb also suggests keeping a dream journal — and keeping it close. Pausing even just a few seconds upon waking before noting a dream can reduce your ability to recall it.
Though dreams may have an unconscious effect on us, their powers seem to be amplified the more we engage with them, Robb argues.
We can also hack our lives in subtle ways to improve the quality of sleep — avoid drinking alcohol close to bedtime, exercise regularly, try to wake up naturally without the aid of alarms and cut back on screen time. Meditating before bed and keeping your room cool (between 60 and 68 degrees) can also help keep you in deep-sleep mode.
But in the end, just maintaining a curiosity about our night visions can provide a window into our selves.
We should treat dreams “like the real and profound experiences they are,” Robb writes. “Let’s give them their rightful place in the world.”
EIGHT STATS ABOUT SLEEP
- 25% of our total dream time is spent in REM sleep.
- 3% of people never remember their dreams.
- 10 to 20% of people have regular lucid dreams, meaning they are aware they’re dreaming and have a level of control in their dream world.
- Sex appears in men’s dreams four times as often as in women’s.
- 20 to 25% of our lives are spent asleep.
- One out of five adults had at least one nightmare last year.
- 1 to 2% of people suffer from “frequent nightmares” — and women are twice as likely to suffer from this condition.
- 60 to 70% of adults experience recurrent dreams, a majority of them are unpleasant. The most common recurrent dream is being chased by “burglars, strangers, mobs and shadowy figures,” writes Robb.
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