Emotional Health

While You Are Sleeping and Dreaming

There’s a lot that goes on in bed. While sex may be crucial to the survival of our species, it turns out that sleep and dreaming may be almost as important. Human beings spend a third of their lives sleeping, and lately we have learned more about how the amount and quality of our sleep can affect our lives and health. Research has been advanced by the use of brain imaging, allowing more opportunities for insight into the sleeping brain. And doctors are emphasizing that getting adequate and quality sleep is essential to maintaining wellness.

It’s not just doctors: media titan Arianna Huffington has written a book called The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time. She has a TED  Talk on it as well.

Too little sleep can lead to a suppressed immune system, hypertension, and even obesity (sleep deprivation causes craving for carbohydrates and sugars).

In addition to benefits to health, Huffington says quality zzz’s can help you succeed. She argues that while many justify their poor sleep habits, claiming the need to be productive, we would actually be much more successful, efficient, and productive when adequately rested.

Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience and author of a book called Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (2017), says “What we have discovered is that high-level brain regions required for complex judgments and decisions become blunted by a lack of sleep, while more primal brain structures that control motivation and desire are amplified.”

Walker has also done experiments that demonstrate that dreams are therapeutic. He designed a study in which he showed subjects upsetting photographs on two separate occasions, and then measured their emotional response to what they saw. Both groups had the same level of reaction the first time they saw the photos. But the second time was different: one group saw them twice in the same day, while the other saw the pictures the second time after a night’s sleep. They reacted with demonstrably less emotion than the other group. The research indicates, Walker says, that some kind of therapeutic process occurs overnight that helped the subject process their emotions.

We all dream, and if you are like most people, you only remember them sporadically. While dreams are thought to have “meanings,” there is considerable confusion about dream interpretation, even among professional sleep researchers.

Some don’t think they mean anything at all. For example, while Walker sees dreaming as a therapeutic tool, he rejects Freud’s landmark insights into the understanding of dreams. Walker explains that, contrary to the laws of scientific discovery, dream meanings cannot be proved or disproved. He also says the theory has no internal validity or consistency—another measure of scientific rigor.

In the study Walker cites, different professionals each gave their own interpretation of the same dream. “The psychoanalysts all gave remarkably different interpretations of the same dream,” he reports. He uses this outcome to conclude that Freud’s dream theory has no internal consistency or predictive logic. The meaning of dream symbols cannot be consistently interpreted.

But Freud knew that, and like Walker, many people share the misunderstanding that dream symbols are fixed. I am often asked about the meaning of a particular dream symbol, like losing teeth or flying, but Freud’s answer was “it depends.” Dream interpretation depends entirely on an individual’s associations or thoughts about the symbols, and that can vary widely between people. It can even vary within the same individual, depending on what is going on with him her at the moment.

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