We have been fascinated with dreaming for thousands of years and have strived (desperately) to understand the meaning of our dreams. In the Greek and Roman eras, dreams were seen in a religious context and were believed to be messages (and calls for action) from the gods or from the dead.
Greek philosopher, Aristotle, believed that dreams were a result of physiological functions. Dreams were believed to able to diagnose illness and predict the onset of diseases. In 1899 Sigmund Freud published his classic Interpretation of Dreams that suggested that dreams provide a window into the mind and unconscious.
We watch a lot of dreams. It has been estimated that over 1/3 of the night goes dreaming. The current assumption is that most meaningful and symbolic dreams are experienced during the REM-stage.
Researchers have gained more information about dreaming over the past few decades. Using different methods of brain analysis, they have been able to monitor the location, movement and quality of neural activity. This has allowed dream research to move quickly forward. These advancement have led to a greater understanding of the relationship of dreaming and our waking lives. This said, sleep remains a mystery. There is still not a full understanding of what our dreams mean and why we have them.
We believe that dreaming helps us to innovate, solve problems, make decisions and gain more understanding to complex issues – ’Lets sleep on it!’. Several innovators and artists have told that they got their ideas while dreaming.
Importance of dreaming
We can dream at any stage of sleep but dreaming peaks during the REM-stage sleep. REM has also been associated with better quality sleep and health. Those lacking REM stage sleep seem to have more problems during their waking hours. This indicates that REM dreaming is vital for better rest, zest and overall harmony in our lives.
Non-REM (NREM) dreaming does not have the deep structure, quality and vividness that REM sleep dreaming has. During NREM sleep we seem to dream shorter dreams about the past day that organise and summarise the key events. Some researchers have characterized NREM dreaming as more hallucinations than dreams.
Dreams typically don’t tell their messages directly. We need to interpret them. Because every individual has created its own dream script, the right reading comes from listening to ourselves. What does this dream try to tell me? Understanding our dreams and their meanings requires practice and concentration.
Drugs and dreaming
Many drugs impact our sleep and dreaming and what we see and what we remember. Drugs that increase metabolism of acetylcholine and dopamine or drugs that decrease metabolism of noradrenaline and serotonin can cause nightmares.
Various plysomnographical sleep reserach have shown that drugs and alcohol impede REM-stage dreaming and inhibit any chance of lucid dreaming. Cocaine decreases sleep in general. As a consequence cocaine users sleep less and get less REM-stage sleep. In the same way ecstacy also reduces sleep quality and also REM-stage sleep. As both are stimulants, this is expected. However, marijuana is a depressant and it also depresses REM-stage sleep even if the user is getting adequate sleep time. The same applies to alcohol which is also a depressant. This explains the feeling of not waking up ‘refreshed’ after using drugs/alcohol even though the sleep time has been normal.
Withdrawal from drugs and alcohol often results in disturbing dreams, nightmares and disruptive sleep. Because drugs and alcohol are often taken to escape the reality and its various problems, abusing drugs/alcohol means missing out on nature’s own processes that help us to resolve those dilemmas while dreaming. Even the occasional use of alcohol (Saturday binging) can cause so called lizard nights and expose to vicious nightmares.
We see many dreams every night. Some researchers have estimated that we have ~5-8 dreams each night. Most of these dreams we never remember. Remembering dreams doesn’t seem to be the key thing and forcing us to remember more dreams might not even be helpful. However, most of us have experienced the feeling ‘now I know what to do about it (problem)’ after a good night’s sleep even though we don’t have any memory of dreaming about it.
We can’t remember all dreams, but it might be that there is a reason we do remember some of them. It can be that our mind decides for us and leaves the too confusing, traumatic, weird, wild, aggressive and disturbing dreams / nightmares outside of our memory and leaves those that feel of higher importance. Our memory process works all the time. It prioritizes during the day, so most probably it does the same in the night. This said we need to agree that most probably this is a more complicated system that just a prioritization process and most definitely there’s still a lot of unknown information about dreaming.
We are likely to forget dreams very fast. Most dreams we forget in minutes or at least within a few hours. Some dreams, but often only a few, we might remember years to come. Especially if there’s a tendency, the same dreams repeat over and over again. We could then assume that our mind tries to tell us something. It might be even good to record our dreams as we wake up and try to understand what’s going on. We don’t need to record every detail but perhaps the core event and logic of the dream.
When we dream we recollect the events of our day and recent past and ‘bridge’ them to our lives. As we dream we interpret those events and translate them into a visual form and summarize them into a ‘short-movie’. Dreams help to bridge these new events into our understanding of our lives and our concept of the world.
This process gives us an opportunity to learn from our past and our emotions. If dreaming works successfully, we start to handle these new event, link them to our lives and face the related emotions. The power of dreams and nightmares get smaller and gradually they fade away.
Dreams try to reconnect recently happened events to our current view of ourselves and the world. Sometimes this bridging doesn’t happen successfully and the outcome is a nightmare.
We see most of our nightmares in the early hours. If the sleep ‘process’ does not succeed in its task, nightmares become chronic. If, however, the process is successful, nightmares can diminish or vanish or change its path.
We remember nightmares better than other dreams. Nightmares are pretty ordinary. About 1% of people see at least one nightmare a week, about 50% of people see them occasionally and 75% of people remember a nightmare from their childhood. Typical nightmare deals with chasing, attack, abuse and disasters. Or we can’t catch the air plane/train/bus or can’t move ourselves or can’t get a contact or can’t speak. Often also the environment can be disturbing.
Some experts say that people who constantly see nightmares can be sensitive, open and creative. From a psychological perspective this can also mean that the capacity to defend against different stresses can be insufficient. Nightmares can also refer to a need to reorganize experiences in a new way.
Steering our minds
Some experts say that dreaming is a process that enables us to learn from our mistakes and gain wisdom. If we take the opportunity of learning and observing, we can realize that events in our dreams are reflections of our feeling, hopes, desires, goals, worries, anxieties and waking lives.
By making these connections we can also learn to manipulate the dreamscape. This requires some determination, patience and time. Most techniques suggest recording our dreams and then thinking about them (in relation to our lives).
When we learn to become conscious that we are dreaming, we can take a step back while dreaming and distance ourselves. As we go to bed we might ‘instruct our minds’ to take ‘command’. This can be especially helpful with nightmares and to stop certain nightmares to repeat themselves.
We can learn to alter the direction of the nightmares. During the day, preferably in a safe environment and with trusted people/experts, we can go through the nightmare storyboard and consciously create a less frightening twist for it. The new ‘closure’ shouldn’t be totally unrealistic and rosy but rather something believable and a bit less daunting so that we can handle it better. It has to be believable and so our subconscious will believe in it as well.
The Senoi-tribe from Maleysia is teaching its people to stay asleep even when the nightmare is scary and just learn to turn it into more pleasant one. The technique is following: 1) Face your dangers and fight through 2) Move to more pleasant experiences 3) Conclude your dreams always with positive outcome 4) Recognize the creative element of your sleep. As these tribesmen/women have been managing their dreams their whole life they are pretty good at it. Yet this is totally doable for any of us. It’s most important to remember that dreams are our own creations and for that specific reason we have the permission and opportunity we want with them!
Make sense of your dreams