It’s easy to resent our dreams; the troubling, the inappropriate, the downright terrifying ones we have when we just want a restful night, but is it possible to gain any insight from them which can help with waking life? Psychologist and dream expert Ian Wallace believes so. He’s been fascinated by dreams ever since he was a small child and now helps clients use the imagery they create in their dreams to access opportunities in their lives.
Why do we dream?
For years, experts struggled to pin down the physiological purpose of dreams. People used to think that dreams were messages from God or the spirits and while neuroscientists rebuffed this, they were mostly stumped. But recent research has given us some clearer answers as to why we dream: it was shown in the 1990s by neuroscientist Professor Mark Solms that when we dream, we’re the ones creating the experience; it’s not just passively happening to us. Ian says:
“Dreaming isn’t some airy-fairy annoying thing: it’s a fundamental human process to make sense of all the paradoxical stressful, emotional experiences that we’ve encountered in waking life. It’s a way of integrating all our past experiences with what we aspire to do in the future.”
Prof Solms and his team found that there are three main areas of the brain that become activated when dreaming: the parts to do with storytelling, fulfilling needs and resolving emotional tension. The brain is incredibly active in this state. And Ian reckons what we can conclude from the science is that we dream to make sense of our waking life. He says:
“There’s no true consensus about the biological function of dreaming, but recent research from my laboratory suggests dreaming actually serves to preserve sleep. When we dream we process and deflect stimuli which would otherwise wake us up.”
Can we learn anything from our dreams?
But when dreams are bizarre or seemingly unrelated to our real lives, can we really learn anything from them? Ian believes we can.
“Gaining insight into dreams, by understanding that a dream is not happening to you, and you’re the one creating everything in it, you realise that the dream is the ultimate selfie.”
His catchphrase is “A dream is just a dream until you put it into action”. He believes dreams, particularly recurring ones, can give you a decent insight into waking life. He adds:
“There’s no such thing as a bad dream. And although it can be a really scary experience, the dream isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just some information from yourself. When you continually create dreams that are quite disturbing for you, it doesn’t mean you’re disturbed in waking life. All it means is you’re trying to get through to yourself.”
Dreams of being chased
An incredibly common dream is one where you’re being chased, and Ian thinks he knows why it’s such a popular theme, particularly for those looking to make changes in their professional life.
“When you dream someone’s chasing you, you’re pursuing some ambition in your waking life and you’re encountering some tension around that.”
He reckons if you’re constantly dreaming that someone’s chasing you, it’s worth having a good think about what you want to achieve and what’s getting in the way of your pursuing those ambitions.
It’s similar with dreams where people try to run away from something and realise they can’t move, he says.
“Working with language or imagery, it’s showing they feel blocked from taking a step that they need to in waking life, and that first step to get them out of the mud or marsh is always the hardest one but once you get some momentum going, you look back and laugh, and wonder what the problem was.”
When we dream of illness
Can dreams predict our health though? The Ancient Greeks certainly thought they could and that they could tell us what’s going on in our bodies before symptoms even appear. They called these ‘prodromal dreams’. So if you dream about illness, should you worry? Ian isn’t so sure:
“A common dream I get asked about on my website is a cancer dream. People dream they have cancer and they write and ask me if it means they’re going to get it. I just think: ‘You’re asking the wrong man!'”
But he says he uses the imagery in the dream to come to a different conclusion. After all, cancer is an uncontrollable growth – so perhaps Ian’s clients feel there’s something in their lives that they don’t have much control over.
Ian also reveals that a lot of really healthy people dream they have a heart condition, but it often turns out that in waking life, their lovelife isn’t going to plan.
“Quite a common one with people who are experiencing cancer in real life is that someone is building without permission on their land or is extending their house in some way without permission. There are other reasons – if you create the dream, it doesn’t mean you have cancer. But there’s this idea that there’s something uncontrollable and intrusive.”
Neuroscientists have recently discovered that violent and aggressive dreams or those who find they physically act out their dreams can predict Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s 10 years before any other symptoms emerge. But more research is needed to confirm this phenomenon.
As for other factors that can affect our dreaming, alcohol is a key one and it might make you have more disturbing dreams. Ian says:
“It’s very tempting to have a couple of glasses of wine before you go to bed because it makes you sleep. But although alcohol starts off as a sedative, as your body starts to process it, it turns into an aldehyde which is actually a stimulant. So once you’ve put yourself to sleep while drinking, about four hours later, you’re wide awake.”
It’s a similar story with cheese and other fatty foods. Cheese itself probably won’t cause nightmares, like the old wives’ tale goes, but it will make you restless during the night and you’ll create more disturbing dream content.
For better dreaming, the usual advice applies:
- Don’t drink alcohol before bed
- Limit caffeine consumption in the afternoon
- Make your room a quiet, clutterless haven
- Banish technology from the bedroom and ensure your room is dark, clean and not too warm.
- Keep a dream diary – you might be able to see patterns emerging and use these to help process real life