9th May, 2022

The Value of Dreams

By Max Kirsten
The Value of Dreams

Dreams are a uniquely personal and highly subjective experience. Most dreams occur in the rapid-eye-movement or REM sleep stage, increasing in duration within each of our repeating 4-5 sleep cycles throughout the night.

A new study published in JAMA Neurology looked at the relationship between REM sleep and earlier death in 2 large study groups. Studies have shown that lower amounts of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep were associated with increased mortality rates or premature death. As we age, REM deprivation could independently contribute to the development of many other diseases, particularly in adults in later life from middle age.

There are basically two schools of thought regarding the value of sleep and dreaming. 

Sleep scientists mostly consider that what people dream about has little or no real value. They are more interested in REM sleep from a purely scientific point of view and for its obvious health benefits. 

Psychologists believe that dreaming has great psychological significance, drawing attention to the conscious mind through an unconscious reflection of adventures, messages and ideas that the subconscious may wish us to become aware of, such as internal anxieties and fears and desires, hopes and dreams.

It’s also believed that dreams can help us rehearse ways to get through situations and give clues to areas of our lives that may require attention. 

Leading neuroscientist Matthew Walker has said, “The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life span. Sleep is the most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day.

He’s also one of the few in his field it seems to be interested in both points of view. 

Dreaming in our REM sleep may be crucial to mental health and emotional wellbeing, helping us solve problems and deal with thoughts and emotions. Dreams can be a form of psychological threat simulation – and may even be a process of REM sleep dream therapy, a form of emotional first aid, offering a deep state of psychological resolution when you finally awaken each morning.

Historically Freud and Jung believed that dreams had meaning. Other dream researchers, such as the psychologist Calvin S.Hall, considered dreams were part of the cognition process or a type of thinking that happens as you sleep.

Most sleep experts, regardless of whether dreams can be understood in a scientific-analytical or understand the meaning of dreams, agree that dreams are an essential part of the human experience for mental health and emotional wellbeing. 

We can improve our REM sleep quality by taking frequent exercise, keeping a regular sleep pattern, and allowing at least 7-9 hours of sleep.

However, certain medications such as prescribed antidepressants, sleeping pills, and stimulants such as alcohol, nicotine, and cannabis can dramatically reduce REM dream sleep quality and damage our sleep architecture. 

People who experience vivid dreams or have frequent nightmares are usually caused by unusual amounts of stress or anxiety, loss of a loved one, PTSD, jetlag, or sleep disorders like insomnia and narcolepsy. 

However, some medications, such as beta-blockers, blood pressure medications, Parkinson’s disease drugs, and drugs to stop smoking, can cause vivid dreams or nightmares. 

Withdrawals from substance abuse from prescribed or even recreational drugs and alcohol can cause vivid dreams or nightmares.

Medical conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, heart disease and cancer are all known for experiencing vivid dreams.

A recent discovery is a new drug called Prazosin. This medication lowers blood pressure and acts as a blocker of the brain stress chemical, noradrenaline — first used on soldiers with PTSD, who found they had more REM sleep, fewer nightmares and while awake, fewer PTSD symptoms than those given a placebo. 

Newer studies suggest this effect has also been shown in children and adolescents with nightmares. This research, however, is still in its infancy.

From the scientific point of view, what you dream about is considered less important or relevant than the fact that sleep must have the required rapid eye movement or REM sleep stage in the 4-5 sleep cycles each night for optimal health and longevity.

As a sleep coach, I hope that the fields of both Sleep Neuroscience and Psychology can begin to find greater understanding and a shared value of both the scientific process of the REM sleep, and the remarkable value of our dream’s content and it’s extraordinarily unpredictable variety each night.

Some of our most important innovations were inspired by our subconscious, from classic songs, famous novels to scientific breakthroughs to box-office blockbusters. 

Paul McCartney of the Beatles famously woke up from a dream to write the lyrics to one of the greatest hits after the melody for “Yesterday” came to him. As he woke, he feverishly scribbled down some wild lyrics that started with the title “scrambled eggs! “However, as he said, he couldn’t get the tune out of his mind.

Then one morning, Paul woke up from another dream, and the song and its new title were both there and completed. 

The rest is history.

Paul McCartney’s song and lyrics for “Yesterday”, in 2012, it was reported by the BBC that “Yesterday “remains the fourth most successful song of all time in terms of royalties paid, having amassed a total of £19.5 million in payments. It has also continued to generate revenues and endorses the idea that dreams are the essential inner process where original ideas seem to come to us from the unconscious mind. 

The Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev tried to classify the 56 elements of the Periodic Table. When he decided to sleep on it, he said, “I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper,” Mendeleev wrote in his diary, “Only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.”

The Danish physicist Niels Bohr received the Nobel Peace Prize in Physics for conceiving the model of the atom in 1922He was sleeping when he had a vision of the planets attached to pieces of string circling the sun in a dream. When he woke up, he found that he could visualise the actual movement of electrons.

I believe that conscious daydreaming and unconscious dreaming in REM sleep is essential to our creativity, finding new ideas, and possibly even our ongoing human evolutionary leap. 

Albert Einstein famously said, “the person with big dreams is more powerful than the one with all the facts.”

I wish you a great night’s sleep.

Max Kirsten 

The Sleep Coach

(Photo by Ajay Karpur on Unsplash)