Sunday Times Dreams

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This is an article by Rosie Kinchen that I contributed to and which was published in the Sunday Times on July 24 2011. As part of my contribution to the article, I helped put her in touch with Zeo user, Steve Souza. Although Steve implies that too much dreaming is a bad thing, this is not entirely the case.

We dream for as long as we need to and if we are not getting enough good quality sleep or are taking sleep medication, then our dreaming activity will often be supressed. This results in a process known as REM rebound where we try to compensate for our lack of quality REM time by having even more dreams.

REM rebound is experienced by anyone who has been sleep deprived or has has been suffering from chronically poor sleep. Dreaming is a physiological necessity for us and in similar way to our response to dehydration or hunger, we will keep dreaming at a greater frquency than normal until balance is restored.

Dreaming ‘too much’ usually indicates that the dreamer is not getting enough relaxation in waking life and is probably having a lot of late nights and perhaps too many early starts. Their sleeping environment may be quite busy too, with laptops, phones and televisions intruding into their relaxation space. The quieter and more gadget free your bedroom is, the better the sleep you will have.

Here’s Rosie’s article from The Sunday Times.

When Steve Souza gets ready for bed at home in west London, he brushes his teeth, puts on his pyjamas and then places a wireless band around his head.

During the night, a small box attached to the front of the headband monitors minute electrical signals produced by his brain. It transmits the data in real time to a box resembling an alarm clock that sits on his bedside table.

In the morning Souza, 49, who runs a software company, wakes up and looks at the information on the screen beside him. It shows a breakdown of his night’s sleep: a graph detailing how much time he has spent awake, how much in deep sleep and, most important, how much time he has spent dreaming.

A year ago Souza read some research that identified a link between excessive time spent in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when we dream, and depression. “I was feeling anxious and stressed at work,” he says. “I read the research, and the descriptions matched what I was going through.”

Souza had bought the gadget, called the Zeo, to help his fiancée, who was a bad sleeper. He started using it himself and discovered that he dreamt for almost twice as long as the average person.

We usually spend about 20-25% of our total sleep in REM, or about an hour and a half. “I was consistently spending over 40% of the night in REM sleep,” he says. “Once I even reached 50%.”

Since then he has been using the technology to try to reduce the amount of time he spends dreaming. “It’s opened up great possibilities,” he says. “I have the ability to track my REM sleep. I’ve taken up meditation to try to lower my stress levels and reduce the amount of time I spend dreaming every night.”

Souza is one of a growing number of people making use of new scientific research that shines a light on what makes us dream, and why.

A Japanese study published by the American Psychological Association this month found that most people in their sixties dreamt in black and white, while the majority of university students dreamt in rich colour. Researchers surveyed more than 1,000 people, and only one in five of the over-60s recalled having dreams in colour. The researchers suggest this may be because they watched black-and-white television as children, whereas younger participants had grown up watching colour TV.

Ian Wallace, a psychologist and author of The Top 100 Dreams, is doubtful. “Although the dreams of older people tend to be less colourful, it’s not because they watched black-and-white TV,” he says. “A television represents a tiny part of the visual field and old viewers would have spent far less time watching television than we do today.”

There is a growing body of research providing us with solid evidence of what actually happens in the brain when we dream. Neuroimaging technologies show which parts are active during REM sleep. Two of the three main areas are the limbic system, controlling emotion, and the anterior cingulate cortex, with which we carry out decision-making and problem-solving when we are awake.

Robert Hoss, director of the DreamScience Foundation in Arizona, says this explains why we dream: “We use dreams to process unresolved emotional issues and solve problems.” Which could explain why Robert Louis Stevenson came up with the plot for The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in his sleep and Paul McCartney woke up one morning with the tune of Yesterday running through his head.

The other part of the brain that remains active is the visual association cortex. Hoss says: “It isn’t the visual cortex, the part of the brain that actually allows you to see. Instead it allows us to make visual associations of what is going through our brains, so dreams are picture metaphors of what we feel.”

These metaphors reveal some surprising truths. Wallace, who has been analysing dreams for more than 30 years, says many of the notions about dreaming are wrong. One is that older people are more likely to dream about death. “Young people, when they become aware that they will one day die, start to weave death into their dreams,” he says. He believes that death in a dream is a metaphor for transformation: “People use it when they are leaving something behind and starting something new.” For this reason he has found that young people, in particular teenagers, are more prone to morbid dreams, while older people, who are more accustomed to death, dream about it less.

Another misconception is that we stop dreaming about sex as we get older. Wallace says sexual dreams aren’t about our relationship with others but indicate that we are learning something new about ourselves. “As people get older they indulge in sex less,” he says, “but when someone in the latter stages of their life gets really excited about something new, even though they think they’ve seen it all before, they start to have sexual dreams again.

“I have clients in their eighties and nineties who regale me with all sorts of sexual dreams that are actually quite scary. Because they’ve become aware of something new and it’s exciting them.”

In last year’s blockbuster film Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page were able to wander the streets in their own dream world, walking up walls and bending roads using strength of will. This was a very Hollywood expression of lucid dreaming, but it is one of the most exciting areas of dream research.

Brainwave measurements show that lucid dreaming is a stage between REM and being fully awake. In a normal dream the rational part of the brain is turned off. During a lucid dream it is active, so we are conscious and in effect “wake up”.

High brainwave frequencies, up to 40Hz, have been observed in certain parts of the brain during lucid dreams, which suggests a mental alertness not far from that when we are awake.

Stanley Krippner, professor of psychology at Saybrook University in San Francisco, is researching and developing ways that dreams, particularly lucid ones, can be used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in war veterans. Often those who have suffered shocking events relive them in nightmares. Krippner works with lucid dreaming to help them “change the ending” of such dreams and reduce the traumatic feelings.

Some dream research raises intriguing questions about consciousness. This month academics in Germany published a study showing that people born with disabilities dream as though in full health: paraplegics walk and run, and those born deaf or dumb can hear or talk in their sleep. The academics suggest that this supports the theory, first put forward by Carl Jung, that dreams tap into early patterns of our developing consciousness where these sensory and motor patterns exist, whether they become fully realised or not.

For Souza, the more people who monitor their sleep and dream patterns, the greater the chance of finding answers. In the meantime, he and his fiancée wake up every morning, turn off the alarm clock and look at the graph to see how long he has been dreaming. “My fiancée always checks to see if I’ve set a new record,” he says. “It can be fascinating, but above all it’s a lot of fun.”