There's been a lot of talk about sleep lately. When I wrote Insomniac, I felt like a lone voice decrying the dangers of sleep-deprivation, the toll sleep loss takes on our minds, bodies, moods. As any insomniac will tell you (and I interviewed dozens), there's nothing so crucial as sleep for our mental, physical, and social well being. It seems those of us who have the hardest time sleeping are the ones who most appreciate how sleep keeps us glued together.
So it's terrific sleep is getting this long overdue attention. But I'm wondering, what about dreams? I haven't heard much about dreams in the discussion.
When you wake to an early alarm, cutting off the last hour or two of sleep, the sleep you sacrifice is mainly REM, "rapid eye movement," the most dream-rich stage of sleep. We dream in all stages of sleep, not just REM, but our most vivid and memorable and emotionally resonant dreams, those wild, phantasmagoric images and stories that play through our heads like films, occur mainly in the stretch of REM just before we wake up in the morning.
What does it mean, to lose our dreams? A normal sleeper, a good sleeper, spends about a quarter of sleep time in REM, so a person who lives 90 years will spend 6 or 7 years in REM. And when researchers deprive people of REM, there is REM rebound, an increase in amount and intensity of REM equivalent to the duration of the deprivation. So it seems dreams are there for something, have some purpose.
When researchers discovered REM in 1953, they were ecstatic to find that the eye movements were associated with dream recall. Most researchers studying the mind those days were Freudians, and Freud saw dreams as "the royal road to the unconscious"-so researchers thought they'd found the route to the innermost recesses of the self.
It wasn't that simple, of course. Subsequent findings about the workings of the brain did not bear out Freud's ideas, and the focus of dream study shifted to the neurological bases of dreams, their physiological rather than psychological origins, the ebb and flow of neurotransmitters. At present, there is "precious little on which dream researchers agree," says Harvard sleep scientist Robert Stickgold, whose work suggests an association of dreaming with learning and the consolidation of memory.
I've been attending annual meetings of the Associated Professional Sleep Society (APSS) since 2002. These are conferences where sleep scientists, physicians, psychotherapists, and pharmaceutical researchers gather to share the latest in research and treatments. In the years I've been attending, I've heard breakthrough discoveries about sleep and the brain that have brought researchers closer to understanding disorders such as narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome, even insomnia. But I've heard few presentations about dreams.
At the 2009 meeting in Seattle, dreams were discussed in relation to post-traumatic stress syndrome, but- except for a talk by P.F. Pagel, University of Colorado Medical School-that was about all. Pagel commented wryly that he seemed to have moved into the study of dreams just as everybody else moved out, since his was the only presentation on dreams at this conference. He described a study he did with the Filmaking and Screenwriter Labs in Sundance that found a much higher recall and use of dreams among actors, writers, and directors than among participants from his sleep center: dream use increases, he concludes, in proportion to a person's interest in the creative process or product.
It figures that filmmakers have this kind of generative conversation with their dreams, since film is, of all human creations, probably the most dream-like. But I came away from Pagel's talk thinking, wait a minute: artistic types are the only ones who have use for their dreams? Doesn't everybody-teachers and software designers and politicians and psychotherapists- need to think creatively? Would you want a sleep-starved surgeon wielding a scalpel (and doctors are the most sleepstarved of professionals): what if something goes wrong? When sleep-deprived subjects are given tests that require flexibility, the ability to change strategy and generate new ideas and approaches, they respond poorly, tending to fall back on rote, rigid thinking.
Robert Stickgold finds that when people are awakened out of REM and given a word to associate to, their associations are more novel, more original than in other stages of sleep; they "ignore the obvious and put together things that make a kind of crazy unexpected kind of sense." Dreams, Stickgold says, are where we bring things together in fresh, often startling ways, drawing on stores of knowledge from the past, the present, the possible, to find new associations. Dreams may help us find new patterns and create combinations that break through well-worn ruts. "This is what creativity is," says Stickgold. Dreams, far from being idle fancies, are enablers of "the most sophisticated human cognitive functions."
There are, of course, highly creative and productive people who have little or no dream recall. But dreaming may still work behind the scenes. I swear, I write better when I awake out of one of those intense, thrashing-it-through dreams. Even a troubling dream, a dream that churns up stuff I'd rather shove under the carpet, even a dream barely remembered, much less understood, seems to provide some kind of fluency, dream energy, fuel for thought. Those are the days that the words and images come, tumble out so fast that my fingers on the keys can barely keep up. I don't know how it works, but it does seem to work.
And creativity isn't just for writers or artists, it's about basic survival, about finding new paths, figuring out what to do when something goes drastically wrong on the highway, in a marriage, in a work situation. We live in a complex world. We need our brains to be firing on all cylinders; we need to think creatively, flexibly, as we negotiate relationships with colleagues, co-workers, family, friends.
Are we a society that's losing its dreams, that's cutting short dreaming with "alarms"? Are we dumbing ourselves down with overwork, sleeping too little and working too much, undercutting the very efforts we make by working so hard? When you get up to an early alarm, you gotta ask, are you really gaining productivity with that time, or dulling the creative edge that might make you far more productive? Sleep has survival value not only for you as an individual but for a society whose vitality depends on individuals' thinking outside the box.
So, yes, let's sleep to get healthy, to get thin, to feel better, to get smarter- and remember that that extra hour of sleep is dreamtime that brings incalculable benefits.
actors use their dreams
Sarah Kershaw, "The role of their dreams," NYT, May 7, 2009
Robert Stickgold on dreams
Rebecca Cathcart, "Winding through ‘big dreams' are the threads of our lives,"