Whereas there is increasing recognition of the importance of sleep, there is less awareness that one of the reasons we need to sleep is that we need to dream.

Even though you may not remember them, you dream several times a night.  In a typical lifetime, we spend about six years dreaming.

Throughout time and across cultures man has ascribed importance to dreams. Recognized for his seminal contribution of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud considered dreams as the royal road to the unconscious. According to him, dreams represented instinctual aggressive and sexual drives pressing for discharge. Disguised by the primary process of symbols, displacements and condensations, the dream was believed to represent hidden instinctual wish fulfillment.

While dreamers still make important use of the metaphors and symbolic representations in their dreams, the royal road has been expanded and repaved.

Evolving psychological theory and research from Brain Science reveal that well beyond wish fulfillment, we need and use dreams in the organization of data, the consolidation of memory, the integration of skills and the regulation of psychological functioning.

Matt Wilson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tells us “ Dreaming is a process, and not only is it useful, it may be essential for making sense of the world.”

Important in understanding the function of dreams are the new findings on sleep cycles:

  • Early dream studies had found that at those times when sleepers were deeply asleep with muscle tone at zero, they were exhibiting rapid eye movement (REM). When awakened, they reported dreaming. This was termed REM Sleep.
  • We now understand that most people sleep in 90 minute cycles in which they descend from light sleep, stage 1, without rapid eye movements (non-REM) to deep non-REM sleep (stages 3 and 4, also known as “slow-wave sleep”), then begin a return journey; but don’t quite make it. Just before waking, we enter REM sleep after which we repeat the cycle four or five times a night.
  • Lab studies reveal that we have dreams in both phases of sleep and that non-REM dreams and REM dreams actually serve different functions.

The Purpose of non-REM Dreams

If you have ever skied for hours, studied for hours, or spent hours reaching a level on a video game, you may have dreamed of moguls, math equations or video images.

These are non-REM dreams, which are generally associated with the consolidation of newly learned facts, skills and experiences.

  • Harvard Neuroscientist Robert Stickgold suggests that it is as if the brain registers what you have been doing and then tries to figure out what to keep and what to dump.
  • In a fascinating study, Stickgold and colleagues asked 99 college students to memorize a computer maze. They then put the students inside a virtual, 3-D version of the maze and asked them to navigate to another spot within it. After doing this, half the students had the opportunity to take a 90-minute nap while the other half stayed awake and watched videos.
  • Five hours later when the students were given the maze test again, those that napped did better than the students who had stayed awake – even if those students had reviewed the maze in their head.
  • Dramatically, those nappers who dreamed about the maze (one reported being lost in a bat cave) performed 10 times better than the nappers who did not dream!
  • Of particular interest is the fact that the students who dreamed about the maze had done poorly on the test the first time around. After napping and dreaming – their score was 10 times better than other nappers who had outscored those who stayed awake.
  • The researchers suggest that if a task is difficult for you- your brain seems to register that and will more likely dream about it – which in turn improves integration and performance.

For students, writers, scientists, artists and anyone who feels compelled to pull “ all-nighters,” it makes sense to work, find some time to sleep and “ perchance to dream”.

The Purpose of REM Dreams

REM dreams are the dreams that lead us to say to ourselves or someone else “ I can’t believe the dream I had last night!

  • REM dreams have a different quality than non-REM dreams. They are typically longer, more vivid, more animated, more emotionally charged. Often a bizarre mix of symbols, metaphor and action, they are less like waking life events than non-REM dreams.
  • Underscoring this, dream researcher, Patrick McNamara, tells us that there are more emotions in REM dreams because the amygdala is very highly activated and the amygdala in our brain specializes in handling unpleasant emotions like intense fear, anger or aggression.
  •  Increased REM dreaming also appears to be associated with the ability to use fantasy effectively and to engage in divergent and creative thinking.

As such, REM dreaming offers the dreamer an opportunity to understand and regulate emotion, adapt to stress, integrate trauma, access creative associations, as well as maintain and restore a sense of self, personally and interpersonally. For example,

A man, conflicted with the decision to leave his job, dreams that is trapped in the elevator at work – the doors won’t open and he can’t reach up to the cables to find a way up and out.

If the dreamer takes note of his feeling in the dream, he may be communicating to himself a feeling that he is having about work that he has not yet consciously articulated to himself.

A man, whose wife was murdered in their home, had the repeated dream of seeing the body bag being carried out the front door between the two front hedges.

Trauma dreams, while frightening and disturbing, reflect our attempt to integrate the images and feelings we registered in a fight/flight state at the time of the trauma. The dreamer above had never actually seen his house from the perspective of the dream, but the dream combined specific images that represened his unspeakable horror. With professional help, he found a way to use and move on from this dream.

A timid women, enraged with the treatment by and attitude of her female boss, dreams that she tells the boss off and looks around to see friends and family smiling.

As a quick rule for considering dreams, a dreamer benefits from asking three questions:

  • How did I feel in this dream?
  • What thoughts and associations do I have to people, places, symbols or setting in the dream?
  • Does this dream have anything to do with my waking life?

The dreamer above might feel elated that she finally expresses anger to her boss. (She may feel better the next day no matter what she does.) Her association to the family and friends may be a feeling of support that is different from and dilutes the treatment of her boss. She might even see in their smiles her own smile (Improved self-esteem). She might dare to consider the dream as a preview of a stronger self in her waking life.

Whether we forget our dreams, write them down or seek help with them, we have a “ night shift” at work as we sleep.

As life presents us with the good, the bad and the unresolved, it  makes sense to not only “ sleep on it,” but to “ dream on it.”