Dreams in the News

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In late October of this year, The New York Times published a series of articles on sleep and dreaming which are worth checking out. Below are links to each of the four articles, along with highlights, anecdotes, and some commentary. If anyone spots other articles on dreams in the news, I’d love to hear about them.

“In the Dreamscape of Nightmares, Clues to Why We Dream At All” gets the prize for most disturbing graphic images, but if you can get past them the article gives some very interesting statistics on nightmares. Apparently we have more bad dreams than we realize, and the peak seems to come in young adulthood after which it tapers off as we age.

For an overview article it seems reasonably balanced between comments by prominent sleep researchers and dreamworkers. Kelly Bulkeley weighs in by noting that for Augustine in the 4th century, any dream with sexual content was considered a nightmare, as it threatened his faith.

Notions of what constitutes a nightmare vary culturally, then, and I wonder what to make of the fact that dream researchers report 75% of the emotions recorded in dreams are negative. Does that make those dreams nightmares? The article says very little about what to do with our nightmares. In my experience they always have some profound message for us, often of a variety that comes as very good news when the dream symbols are worked with. But it takes facing our fears and confronting the “other,” whatever form it may take in the dream and in our waking life.

“An Active, Purposeful Machine That Comes Out at Night to Play” talks about memory and how sleeping increases our cognition. It is the longest article of the series, and also gets the prize for containing the loveliest phrase, in a quote by Matthew Walker of UC Berkeley: “We think what’s happening during sleep is that you open the aperture of memory and are able to see this bigger picture.”

“The aperture of memory.” That’s a keeper. The article has a good history of dream research from the 1950s to the present, and reports accurately on the recent findings of several neuroscientists and sleep researchers.

So kids, instead of cramming all night for that test you didn’t study enough for, get a really solid night’s sleep. Guaranteed you’ll do better than if you go to class bleary-eyed and firing on just a couple cylinders. (And what will become of all our handy internal combustion metaphors once gas-powered vehicles are a thing of the past?!)

“The Elderly Always Sleep Worse, and Other Myths of Aging” is a fascinating look at sleep, aging, and pain. It turns out that poor sleep does not necessarily accompany aging, and that in general sleep does not change much from age 60 on. Most of the changes in our sleep patterns occur between the ages of 20 and 60. Problems with sleep among older people have more to do with illness and medication than with the aging process itself.

This article also highlights research on sleep and pain. Everyone knows that if you’re in pain it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep. But studies also show that lack of good sleep actually increases pain while decreasing our tolerance for it. I’m no scientist, but that doesn’t strike me as a helpful situation to get into.

“Eyes Wide Shut: Thoughts on Sleep” is a compilation of quotes, poems, and paragraphs about sleep and dreams. Interspersed with passages from Cervantes, Oscar Wilde and Emily Dickenson are a couple quotes from scientists that I particularly liked:

“A friend of mine once dreamed he was an elementary particle. Nothing came of it.” —Gino C. Segre, High-Energy Physicist

“I’ve…asked sleep scientists what happens to your brain in a three-minute nap that restores your ability to drive, teach, think and yell at grad students. They’ve never answered.” —Leon M. Lederman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics

I did my own unintentional dream research a week ago when I was laid up with the flu. It turns out that Sudafed gives me very pleasant dreams. At least it did the first two nights I took it; the third night I didn’t have such pleasant dreams so I figured it was time to stop the Sudafed.

That got me wondering whether anyone has tested different nighttime cold medicines and their effects on dreams. Now that sleep and dream research is once more awash in funding, can such a study be far away?

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