Post No.: 0494
Dreams frequently seem bizarre and like utter nonsense, but when you wake people up through the night in laboratory experiments – as in wake them up fully whenever they’re exhibiting REM sleep brainwave patterns to ask them what they’ve just been dreaming of – most dreams are reported to be quite dull and are very much about routine everyday life. They involve fairly ordinary scenarios like in your typical waking day and so are normally forgotten because they lack anything remarkable. Most rate about a middle score when self-rated – neither terrible nor delightful. But in more natural settings, we normally tend to only wake up fully from and remember the more freaky, and bad or scary rather than good or neutral, dreams or nightmares because of their noteworthiness and our negativity bias.
Still, the vast majority of dreams are quickly forgotten – they don’t transfer into long-term memories unless revised soon and then revised frequently, which one probably won’t do unless a dream was particularly salient or emotionally negative. (If you want to remember more dreams – keep a dream diary next to your bed and record them as soon as you’re next awake.)
Bizarre nightmares are more likely to jolt us fully awake and make us immediately consciously revise what we had just experienced. Meanwhile, we might not even remember waking up from the pretty mundane dreams in the middle of the night precisely because they were so mundane. Since many dreams feel like ordinary life (even if not accurate to our current life e.g. the buildings aren’t quite right or we’re back in school or something), we’ll not immediately suspect that we’re having a dream – it’ll even sometimes feel like we’ve experienced a ‘false awakening’ if the events feel accurate to our present morning routines. It’s only if and when something feels strange in these dreams or nightmares do we start to feel agitated and wake up from them with a relative jolt and realise that we were just dreaming. Our suddenly heightened, heart-thumping physiological state is why we typically wake up a split-second before something major – whether exciting, frightening or violent – is just about to happen.
Do or can we truly have dreams within dreams? Or is it like watching a movie within a movie? So if we were to watch Home Alone on a VHS tape and we arrive at the scene where Kevin is watching Angels with Filthy Souls on a VHS tape – are we just watching one movie or two? Is it just one layer or two layers of existence or experience? I’d say that it’s just one true layer because within the true VHS tape of Home Alone that we’d be watching, there isn’t physically another VHS player and VHS tape playing within it i.e. it’s all on the same layer of magnetic tape. So when we have a false awakening from a dream, we’re still in the same dream but in a different scene – it’s just that we falsely thought we had awoken from the first one. The two dream scenes are side-by-side rather than layered one on top of the other.
You almost always cast yourself in the starring role from a first-person perspective. They tend to be populated with people you know or knew. Celebrities only usually make a fleeting appearance and don’t normally play a major part. If you try to get close to others or anything, things typically get blurry and lack fine features or detail. Words aren’t resolved and faces can be indistinct. Yet when we dream, we use the same parts of our brains for visualisation as we do for visualising the external world with our eyes, so they can feel as equally vivid as real sights while we’re experiencing them. (This also highlights how fallible our memories can be, because if we can imagine something then the memory of that imagination might become hard to distinguish from memories of real sights and sounds, especially if we want to believe a particular ‘memory’ to be true. So are we remembering a dream/imagination or a real event?)
Some theorise that nightmares that induce a bit, but not too much, fear prepare us for the dangers we might face during our waking lives. Being chased is one of the most common dreams that people can remember. ‘Out-of-body experiences’, if we have them, occur when we are dreaming.
Many nightmares possibly centre around what’s making us feel anxious. Regardless of how you feel about your waking life, ~80% of naturally recallable dreams involve a negative emotion such as fear, stress or anxiety (the murder or violence rate in dreams beats any soap opera!) This negativity is amplified if your waking life is also stressful too, or if you hear about a stressful event in the news. The dreams early on in the night tend to be quite negative but those just before you wake up in the mornings tend to be far more positive though – a possible hypothesis for this is that dreams act as a ‘nocturnal therapist’. When dreaming, we’re working through our anxieties and our concerns during the night, knocking off the emotional edges and trying to search for solutions, so that when we wake up we’re ready to face the next day. Since negative events can lose their emotional impact the more they’re experienced, dreaming about difficult life events might make them less traumatic over time, and this might perhaps explain why dreams later on in the bedtime tend to be more emotionally positive?
So dreaming might be important to help us to cope with the stresses and strains of everyday life. Post No.: 0427 looked at some other benefits of dreaming, such as improving our creativity. However, dreaming too much can be bad too because both deep sleep and REM sleep are important to rejuvenate the body and mind respectively – too little deep sleep and one can feel lethargic during the day, and too little REM sleep and one can struggle with whatever’s on one’s mind. Deep sleep is important for bodily healing and restoration.
Depressed people dream about five times as much as non-depressed people thus they feel more tired because their unconscious mind is constantly trying to work through problems. Because they’re spending more time in REM sleep and not as much in deep sleep, their bodies aren’t repairing themselves as well and so they’ll wake up still shattered. The thoughts and dreams may not be progressing or finding any solutions either as the mind is stuck repeating at dead-end searches for answers or unhelpful thoughts, like a stuck record. People suffering from depression may therefore suffer from a vicious cycle, where they have negative or unhelpful thoughts, and then have more negative or unhelpful nightmares and less deep sleep than usual, which reinforces their negative mood and low energy levels, and so forth.
One of the best treatments for depression in the very short-term is therefore dream deprivation. The moment a depressed person enters REM sleep, you wake them up. The feelings of depression can actually go away after a couple of days. However, this exercise is difficult to sustain outside of a sleep laboratory because depriving one of dreaming quickly produces a rebound effect – causing one to almost immediately dream the moment one falls asleep again. (The first dream of the night usually comes after ~90 minutes of sleep, but if it comes only after several minutes then it can be a sign of severe sleep deprivation.) And even in a laboratory, it’s very hard to sustain for extended periods of time.
Many recurring unpleasant dreams or fuzzy nightmares are a form of nocturnal habit, but it’s possible to retrain the brain to view an episode in a different way. If you’re having bad thoughts or nightmares then trying to forget or not think about them will just make you want to remember or think about them even more – so don’t encourage these negative thoughts but let them wash over you. Don’t focus on trying to ignore them but don’t explore them if they happen to cross your mind either.
Children can sometimes have recurring nightmares but these can be stopped – in the daytime, get them to mentally rehearse the nightmare but rewrite it to change how it pans out to give it a much more positive ending. Avoid anything violent though (e.g. no slaying the monster, but maybe instead discuss why the monster is the way it is and decide that perhaps it is lonely and just wants to be friends). If the child can rehearse this revised story in their mind a few times (‘imagery rehearsal therapy’) then the nightmares will go away in ~90% of kids. Use a first-person and present tense and make the positive changes as vivid as the rest of the dream. When rehearsing this re-scripted dream, if any unwanted elements enter your head then open your eyes, take some deep breaths and recognise the intrusion, then go back to rehearsing the version you want. Dreams or nightmares may seem totally unconscious but your conscious mind can affect them – in this case to break a habit. This technique can work with adults too – such as those who have PTSD, anxiety problems, stressful thoughts or nightmares – but it’s particularly effective with kids. Night terrors are usually never remembered.
Because sleeping helps us to consolidate memories, if one has just experienced a traumatic event, it perhaps might be better to not sleep on the night of a major harrowing incident? Whenever the temperature is hot and sleep is more likely to be disturbed because of this – this can also lead to more nightmares. Some drugs can increase the risk of hallucinations and nightmares too.
When dreaming, the sounds, smells, physical sensations on your body, and light levels in the real world penetrating your eyelids, can potentially enter into and be incorporated as something inside your dreams. A nice scent can therefore lead to nice dreams, and vice versa. Now if a sound or scent is specifically associated with a particular event then if you hear that sound or smell that scent while you’re dreaming, it might trigger a dream about that event. Light stimuli is rarely incorporated, sounds or tones sometimes, but physical touches (e.g. liquids) have the most chance of all.
…I’m frequently waking up because the drool dribbling from the side of my mouth feels funny in my dreams – why is dream food always the most salivatingly delicious, wonderfully textured and amazing imaginable?! Woof!
So stimuli to the senses while you’re dreaming may end up being incorporated into your dreams in some way, or if the stimuli is associated with a particular memory then it may cause you to dream about that memory, or if the stimuli causes particular emotions (e.g. a good or bad scent) then you may feel those emotions as you dream. This doesn’t always work though. Yet you could try this – in the early afternoon, choose a piece of relatively soft and pleasant repetitive instrumental music and play it quietly in the background while you spend 20 minutes studying, revising, rehearsing something (a mental or physical task), brainstorming or trying to solve a problem. Then turn off the music and take a break for 10 minutes. Now turn on the same piece of music again, lie down, close your eyes and take a nap – the music will now hopefully be associated with the task and may encourage your unconscious mind to continue working away on the exercise as you sleep. And when you wake up, you should hopefully discover a significant improvement in your mind and/or body. This association effect can also work with smells too.
Woof. If you experience nightmares, I hope you can find a way to reframe or rewrite them into positive messages or with positive endings. I’m fine with waking up to pools of drool over fantasy food, illusory edibles and chimerical comestibles!