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You Really Need to Be Tracking Your Dreams

Attention to your dreams produces gold over time.

Source: Volha_R/Shutterstock

Most people still hold prescientific views of dreams as mildly bizarre experiences that occur during the night and are meaningless froth of the sleeping brain. But scientific investigation demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that dreaming is associated with consistent brain activation and deactivation patterns that reliably produce the cognitive products we know as dreams. The brain produces dreams for a reason, or a whole host of reasons. You need your dreams, and you need to reflect on them and work with them.

Here’s why:

1. Tracking one’s dreams is the evolutionary default for human beings.

Dream recall and sharing was and is a common practice in pre-modern groups. Up until about 150 to 200 years ago, virtually all people in all cultures kept track of their dreams and shared their dreams with others. Carefully documented ethnographies on aboriginal peoples across the planet demonstrate that dreams were almost universally considered to be sources of all kinds of personal knowledge and cultural innovations. In his study of the Plains Indian cultures of North America, Irwin (1994) noted, “Dreaming is a creative basis for what might be called higher knowledge in the Native American context ... Dreams and visions constantly revealed new applications of many types such as: inventive technologies, hunting methods, warfare strategies, healing practices and herbal formulations, along with other innovations in culture. For example, the origin of fire making was attributed to visionary experience by the Lakota ...” (Irwin, 1994, p. 191). Among the Iroquois, sharing a dream with the tribe could lead to that dreamer being given extra food, being danced over, fussed over, rubbed with ashes, given presents, sung to, and accepted into a special society or club. Dreams were considered privileged sources of information and had to be taken seriously. A similar story could be told about the centrality of the dream among Australian aboriginals (Spencer and Gillen, 1899), African aboriginals and tribal peoples (Jedrej & Shaw, 1992), the peoples of Oceania (Lohmann, 2003), and many other cultures. A fair-minded appraisal of the existing ethnographic literature on the role of dreams in aboriginal societies would have to conclude that dream recall and sharing was a vitally important social act that carried major consequences for the social organization, moral customs, and beliefs of the tribe.

Although dream recall and sharing has lost some of its social power, scientific findings may be giving us a new appreciation of the role of dreams in the life of “tribe.” Even today, young adults recall one to two dreams per week, with 37 percent of these reporting that they recall a dream “every night” or “very frequently.” In representative samples of the general population, between 40 and 75 percent recall one-to-five intense and “impactful” dreams per month (Kuiken & Sikora, 1993; Stepansky et al., 1998). Once recalled, a dream is typically shared with another person (Vann & Alperstein, 2000). For example, Vann and Alperstein reported that 98 percent of the 241 individuals they interviewed reported telling dreams to others, particularly friends and intimates.

2. Dreams more accurately track your emotions and thoughts than waking reflection.

Because the dreaming brain demonstrates very high activation levels in the limbic emotional brain as well as lower activation levels in dorsal prefrontal regions (that normally inhibit impulses and emotions), it is reasonable to suppose that dreams will more transparently exhibit your emotions than the waking state. Dream content studies suggest that that is indeed the case.

For example, Mota et al. used network and graph analysis to analyze dream reports and wake reports derived from clinical oral interviews of schizophrenic, bipolar type I, and healthy control subjects. They quantified emotions and mental content in dreams using pre-written algorithms to capture a number of speech graph attributes (SGA) that characterize thought patterns in the reports. SGA analyses of the dream reports, but not the waking reports or standard clinical tools, led to better identification of subjects, i.e. whether they were bipolar, schizophrenic, or a healthy control subject.

3. Dreams can predict physical and mental illness.

Repeated dream imagery of body wounds, pain, or dramatic bodily changes can herald an oncoming illness. Violent nightmares and dream enactment behaviors can predict onset of neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s Disease 10 years later. Recurrent nightmares in late childhood significantly predict psychotic illness during young adulthood.

4. Dreams promote creativity.

We all know of anecdotal reports of creative inspiration deriving from dreams. An entire school of art—surrealism—was born out of the dream imagery of its practitioners. Similar stories can be culled from the testimonies of numerous artists working in virtually all domains from painting (e.g., Salvador Dali) to music (e.g., the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and several others).

These anecdotal reports of a link between dreams and creativity can now be supplemented with experimental data. Semantic priming techniques have revealed that we are faster in accessing disparate associations after a bout of REM dream sleep than we are in accessing strong associations. Something about REM enhances our abilities to access more distant semantic associations to a given stimulus. For example, after REM sleep, we are better at making associations between animals not typically associated, such as dog/elephant, than we are in making more typical associations, such as dog/cat (Stickgold, Scott, Rittenhouse, & Hobson, 1999). This enhanced ability to cognitively reach for the more distant association is fundamental to thinking outside the box and arriving at novel insights. Indeed, it now seems clear that after a good night’s dream-rich sleep, we have improved ability to solve anagram problems, or to suddenly “see” the solution to a difficult problem that eluded us before we engaged in the sleep (Walker & van der Helm, 2009). The available data suggest that the kind of sleep we need to enhance our creative abilities is dream-rich REM sleep. For example, subjects who had engaged in REM sleep during a daytime nap did better on a remote associates task than those who had engaged in NREM during the nap, or those who did not sleep at all during the nap period (Cai, Mednick, Harrison, Kanady, & Mednick, 2009).

5. Dreams contain a knowledge base separate from waking consciousness.

The dreaming mind constitutes a knowledge-producing system. People who have kept records of their dreams over many years have repeatedly noted that dreams often reference one another—that a theme or image from one dream gets repeated in another dream, and so forth. Those repeat images and themes are sometimes not traceable to daytime residues or events. Instead, they find their source in previous dreams. The images were born in dreams, and reappear in later dreams suitably changed due to the passage of time. These dream images do not reflect waking emotional life. Instead the dream images have a life or logic and rationale of their own and are linked to insight and creativity.

6. Dreams facilitate memory processing, especially emotional memory processing.

Cartwright (2010) has shown that REM and its associated dreams directly aid in the working-through of stressful life events and serve a protective, mood regulatory role with regard to potential psychiatric sequelae of experiences of stress and loss. Levin and Nielsen (2009) suggest that nightmares result from the dysfunction in a network of cortical and subcortical limbic structures that, during normal dreaming, serve an adaptive, mood regulatory function of fear memory extinction.

Tore Nielsen and Mark Blagrove (Blagrove et al., 2011) have demonstrated the so-called "dream lag effect," which refers to the empirical finding that items being encoded into long-term memory sometimes appear in one’s dreams, usually the night after the event was experienced and then subsequently five to seven days later. Recording and tracking your dreams, particularly this dream-lag effect would allow you to identify images you wanted stored in long-term memory and images you did not want stored.

7. Dreams facilitate emotional attachment to romantic and other significant others.

McNamara et al. (2001) documented significant positive associations between attachment orientation, dream recall rates, and image intensity in dreams. McNamara, Pace-Schott, Johnson, Harris, and Auerbach (2011) found that people classified as anxiously attached evidenced reduced REM latencies and were more likely to have dreams containing themes of aggression and self-denigration compared to people with other attachment styles. Mikulincer, Shaver, and Avihou-Kanza (2011) reported similar findings regarding associations between insecure attachment and negative self-concept in dreams. Mikulincer, Shaver, Sapir-Lavid, and Avihou-Kanza (2009) found that both attachment-related avoidance and anxiety correlated with less dream content denoting secure attachment such as less support seeking, less support availability, and less distress relief in dreams. Most important, Selterman, Apetroaia, Riela, and Aron, (2014) demonstrated that attachment-related dream content influenced daytime attachment behaviors. Specifically, they found that the frequency with which participants reported dreams about their romantic partners was positively associated with the extent to which they interacted with their partners and felt more love/closeness on days subsequent to dreaming about them. When people high in attachment avoidance had greater negative affect in dreams of their partners, they reported interacting less with their partners on subsequent days. For those high in interdependence, having a dream containing sexual behavior with one’s partner was associated with increased love/closeness on subsequent days.

People are still dreaming and sharing their dreams, but they need to begin tracking or recording them and working with them on a daily basis as well.


Some References

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Cai, D. J., Mednick, S. A., Harrison, E. M., Kanady, J. C., & Mednick, S. C. (2009). REM, not incubation improves creativity by priming associative networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, 106(205), 10130–10134. doi: 10130–10134 10.1073/pnas.0900271106

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