The following article appeared in PARADE of October 28, 2007.
With new research, scientists are learning the importance of Waking Up To Our Dreams
By Robert Moss
HERE'S AN OPEN SECRET: Dreaming isn't really about sleeping; it's about waking up. Dreams wake us up to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. They can tell us what we need to know and alert us to actions we need to take.
Throughout history—from ancient shamans to the Bible to Freud—men and women have been fascinated by dreams and have pondered their meaning. Current research indicates that dreaming has a real, practical function but also that it can spark our imaginations in unexpected ways. Best of all, one doesn't have to be especially "adept" at dreaming: The power of dreams is accessible to everyone.
New studies confirm that all of us have dreams—even those who never recall them—every night for 90 minutes to three hours, in four or five cycles. MRI images and PET scans show that specific areas of the brain are triggered at regular intervals, giving us dream imagery.
Until recently, many scientists dismissed the idea that there was rich meaning in dreams, believing instead that dreams were initiated by random firings of the brainstem during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
But evidence has been accumulating that dreams also can originate during other phases of sleep, when the higher visual and emotional centers of the brain are activated. This suggests that our dreams are not strange results of meaningless biological processes. Rather, they are produced by the part of the brain tied to motivation, goals and desires.
Dreams may even be related to survival itself. Antti Revonsuo, a psychology professor in Finland, theorizes that dreaming is central to human evolution. "A dream's biological function is to simulate threatening events and to rehearse threat perception and threat avoidance," he explains. That is, our dreams can warn us of challenges ahead and give us a chance to rehearse efficient responses—including getting out of the way.
I once dreamed of a car accident on a hill east of Troy, N.Y. Several weeks later, driving on the same hill, I found my view of a curve in the road obscured by a delivery truck ahead. I remembered my dream and slowed almost to a stop—avoiding a head-on collision with an 18-wheeler.
DREAMS ALSO CAN ALERT us to dangers that are internal. They may tell us what is going on inside our bodies and what we need to do to stay healthy. Mary Agnes Twomey, a registered nurse in Baltimore, dreamed she'd traveled inside her body and found it was like a boiler room in danger of blowing up. Upon waking, she made a doctor's appointment and learned she had an ulcer that needed treatment. Other people have reported dreams that alerted them to illnesses ranging from breast cancer to heart disease.
Whether or not you believe that dreams serve as warnings, studies suggest that they play a critical role in learning and memory.
"Dreams allow us to play and experiment with new conditions or find novel solutions," says Richard C. Wilkerson, operations director of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. "They allow us to explore unusual areas of life and practice new behaviors."
One fertile source of creativity is the ability to make new and unexpected connections — something we do all the time when we dream. In dreams, "connections are made more easily than in waking, more broadly and loosely," says Dr. Ernest Hartmann, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University who has written widely on sleep and dreaming. But he adds, "The connections are not random. They are guided by the emotional concerns of the dreamer." In dreams you may gain new insights about personal relationships or develop exciting new ideas.
Many artists have experienced this phenomenon: Paul McCartney awoke with the music for the Beatles' hit "Yesterday" in his mind. Architect Frank Gehry has said that his building designs were influenced by his dreams.
"The waking mind is thinking inside the box; the dreaming mind is thinking outside the
box," explains David Kahn, a professor at Harvard Medical School.
This may be why solutions to nagging problems often come to us in dreams. Robyn Johnson, a consultant for nonprofit organizations in Washington state, needed to produce a fund-raiser for a city park. She dreamed that Annie Oakley rode into the park on her horse, urging her to produce a children's storybook to be given to every guest. She followed Oakley's advice, to great success.
Not least, dreams can help us deal with emotional hurdles. Marlene Cantor at the May Institute in Massachusetts has discovered recurring themes in the dreams of middle-aged women. One woman dreamed night after night of going to a house that was falling into disrepair. It began to crumble around her, and one night she saw the roof falling in. In another dream, she saw a beautiful young girl run out of the house and into the path of a speeding car. She wept as the girl died in her arms. In sharing these dreams, the woman reflected that the first symbolic dreamscape might express her fears about her aging body. And perhaps in weeping over the young girl's death, she was mourning the death of her younger self.
"Most of these women had never really talked to anyone—not family, not even therapists—about what they were feeling," Cantor recalls. "Telling their dreams brought them a tremendous sense of relief, of coming out of silence and solitude."
Whether we share our dreams or reflect on them privately, we'd all do well to wake up to their power. Amid the stress and clutter of everyday life, our dreams can help us discover what's most important.
Robert Moss is the author of "The Three 'Only' Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence & Imagination."
In my own dealings with dissociated Essences (Inner Self Helpers of MPD patients), they have described to me that they, the ISH, goes during non-dream sleep time into Thoughtspace to confer with their supervisors, the CIE. Then they return to the mind of their charge to give instructions in dreams which the person has just before awakening.
Over time, I developed the completely unscientific idea that there are three types of dreams we may have every night. The first dream is left over garbage from the day’s activities, whatever we have been thinking and worrying about. The first dreams after going to sleep are to let us discharge the feelings about those events and “clean out our minds” of them, so we can leave them behind.
The second set of dreams happen next, and they are about the older conflicts we may have, the stuff that the Freudian and Jungian analysts love to hear about during psychoanalysis. These can them bubble up to the surface and allow the person to bring them to consciousness and work on their resolution.
The third set of dreams are created by the Essence/ISH and they are the instructions for the day ahead. Here is where the answer to some intellectual puzzle will come into consciousness, or a new relationship which was not seen before. Here is where we feel we need to do some specific action after we get up and we are not happy until we get it done and out of the way.
When I came out of psychiatric training, both Freudian and Jungian therapist put a great deal of importance in the nature of the dreams of their patients. I was never one who could remember my dreams, so I have not been one to study my own. But they did seem important to many in the field of psychiatry.
So I was unhappy when I saw reports that modern students of sleep, those running university sleep labs, had concluded that dreams had no psychological importance, that they were just random firings of the brain. This they determined by waking up sleeping subjects in their labs when they showed signs of dreaming. Now that seemed like the scientific method, go in and break apart the system to see how it really works. But maybe they only saw a few pieces, and not the whole system as it was designed to operate. So I was pleased to see someone coming up with a resurgence in psychological importance of dreams. At least that agrees with what the ISHs have told me time and again.