Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

21-14. Dreams

Do you have dreams? 

Or maybe I should be more careful of my wording, do you dream?

Or even more accurately, do you dream while sleeping, as opposed to while waking?

We should all have dreams, even though the nature of one’s dreams may have changed with age – our dreams today may be quite different from those of 30 years ago. Time has a way of forcing you to revise your dreams. Certainly mine have.

It is said, not sure who said it, maybe Bertrand Russell, the formula for happiness is having someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. ‘Something to look forward to’ may seem somewhat modest compared to ‘Dreams’ but may have the advantage of being relatively immediate and likely to happen. They hold the prospect of immediate happiness, and happiness is nothing if not now. Big Dreams are too far off for happiness (though the striving itself may provide the happiness). Unfulfilled dreams, like unrequited love, can be mighty disappointing.

But I’m not talking about those kinds of dreams

Nor am I talking about day dreams, or even free imagination.

I’m talking about night dreams (or even nightmares[1]), that neurological experience we have while sleeping. 

Neuroscientists are still trying to figure out why fauna need sleep; evidently our bodies only need rest to repair damaged or dirty cells but why does the brain need sleep to accomplish whatever goes on up there during sleep? And most of the time that’s very little of anything. Think dogs. Trying to explain sleep is one thing but explaining dreaming is quite another. Evidently they are connected – you need to be asleep to dream, but you don’t need dreaming to sleep. 

We’re told that everybody dreams, that dreaming accomplishes some very important housekeeping in your brain. Without dreaming, and access to permanent memory, you might be suffering other mental or physical ailments.

Dreaming appears be the brain’s way of processing the day’s events and filing the ‘relevant information’ away in permanent memory (‘who’ decides what is relevant?) in order for it to be retrieved at some future time. If we can understand what goes on in the brain during dreaming we might come closer to understanding what goes on in ‘consciousness’.

Everybody may dream but most don’t seem to realize it: in sleep studies 14% of people report dreaming every night, 25% report dreaming frequently and 6% never. So what about the remaining 55%? 

I dream. A lot. I’m not sure I dream any more than anybody else but I seem to remember my dreams more than the average person. 

My mother claimed never to dream, which might put proof to the argument that failure to dream is symptomatic of other health issues. My mother suffered from depression (and various forms of anxiety) and at times in her life this was fairly acute. The only time in her life (late) she experienced and reported dreaming was when she was on some anti-depressant drug. She didn’t much like it! She always worried her life would end in dementia and it did, though probably not of the Alzheimer’s variety she feared most.

Regardless, my mother claimed never to dream. More likely she did dream but was a sufficiently deep sleeper that she was never aware of her dreams.  Or maybe it was the opposite – she was a very light sleeper and never got into extended alpha sleep and so never emerged into REM sleep either. Anyway, most people don’t recall their dreams. Dreams are not coded in memory. Even when we wake up and recall the dream the details are fleeting, and unless we write down as much of the dream as we can recall, as soon after waking as we can, the dream disappears from memory altogether. 

Okay, Doktor Freud, my mother is not the only woman of consequence in my life but I must report that I don’t recall ever discussing dreaming with Marlene. She must have dreamed but she didn’t report on them, nor nightmares either. Carmen reports that she does dream but not often. I suppose that is because she is of good conscience and a sound sleeper. And besides, she’s awake at 4:00 a.m. and up and at ‘em. Dreams have to fight for her attention.

Most dreaming occurs during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. During REM our brains are emitting high levels of electrical activity, our heart rates and blood pressure can become highly elevated, I mean HIGHLY Elevated[2], we can have ‘night sweats’, all the symptoms of a high stress experience. Curiously, while our eyes are highly animated the rest of our bodies are rigid. During sleep the brain emits a hormone that intercepts signals at the brainstem arresting all bodily movement. This appears to be an evolutionary advantage, preventing our dreaming ancestor monkeys from falling out of trees while dreaming. All well and good for the monkeys, but some people waking from an active dream have had the horrifying experience of not being able to move.

I haven’t had that experience, exactly, but I have had night terrors in which I am desperately trying to scream and yell a warning but can’t get a sound out. In reality, as testified by my awakened sleep partner, I have been emitting incomprehensible shouts and moans.

Normally, we have 3 – 5 sleep cycles per night, at frequencies of 1.5 to 2.5 hours. If you follow proper preparing-for-sleep rituals you should drop off to sleep in about 10 minutes. You then fairly rapidly fall into deep alpha sleep. (Neuro-scientists still have little understanding of what is going on in the brain during alpha sleep, possibly nothing as the electrical signals would indicate, but more likely chemical cleansing – your brain lives on glucose and all that excess oxidized carbon has to be evacuated.) Assuming you are aiming for the recommended 7 – 8 hours of [preferably uninterrupted] sleep per night, you should expect to have at least 3 rounds of REM, like an Olympic boxing match, except that you should be refreshed at the end of it. If your schedule has you asleep by 11:10 you should be into your first REM round around 1:30 a.m., your second round around 4:00 a.m. and your last one around 6:30 a.m. If you recall your dreams it is usually this last one you will become aware of because you are nearing the end of your sleep cycle and in REM we are very close to actual consciousness/wakefulness, and you wake up wondering where she went. If you wake up with a dream around 1:30, it suggests your brain was highly aroused with that dream and you emerged into wakefulness rather than return to alpha sleep. Usually this middle of the night dream reflects highly stressful events in your actual life. And the worst of it is, once awake, it is often hard to get back to sleep and you end up dragging your ass all the next day.

And here’s a thought, do you wake up at 2:00 a.m. to pee? Or are you emerging from a REM dream and then you have to pee.

I used to wake a lot with dreams at 1:30 – 2:30 a.m. Most of those dreams depicted some bizarre stressful event. I guess I was living a stressful life and trying to sort out where to file the stressors. For that matter, most of my remembered dreams were unsatisfactory in some way or other. I rarely have pleasant dreams, even the one’s in dawn’s early light.

I know I’m not alone in this but it sure feels lonely at 2:00 a.m. 

Modern neuroscientists have pretty much dismissed dream interpretation psychologists (amateur or otherwise), and Freud and Jung’s theories have no scientific basis. Despite this, wondering what that dream meant continues to fascinate. Most western world people seem to have a lot of similarity in their dream patterns, especially their stress dreams about ego and adequacy. (Notice I said ‘western world’ – African and Asian cultures don’t seem to have the same dreams as occidentals; maybe that’s because they haven’t been exposed to the same cultural norms and memes, yet.) Who among you have not had some form or other of the failure dream (you’ve skipped class all year and now exams loom); the public nudity dream (sitting on a bus wearing only a shirt); the irrelevancy dream (you’ve been away from the office for ages, you’re welcomed back but you have nothing to do); the coitus interruptus dream (speaks for itself don’t you think? But to be clear, you’re reaching that critical point and someone barges into the room.).

Okay, maybe it’s just me. Maybe I should be glad those Jungian archetypes are just that, types. Maybe I should get a new therapist and stop blaming my mother for my fears, failings and faults. 

I have more to say about dreaming, but I am out of space (or more accurately, you are out of time). So I shall continue in next post in a fortnight.

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata Ontario

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing

All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 

[1] Now that’s an interesting word. Funny how we use words every day and assume we know their derivation but when we actually investigate we are often in for a surprise.  Why would a mare actually visit us at night and scare the be-jesus out of you? (Luckily, it’s mostly children who have nightmares, for adults it’s called life.) Well, it’s not I that sort of mare. Maere is a female evil spirit; the male version is incubus, which you should look up for yourself!

[2] I once participated in a drug trial for a anti- hypertension drug. A baseline measure of my average and sleeping BP was taken, then a six week trial of the drug, or placebo (it was a double blind trial) followed by a second round of BP measurements. During my sleepover in the hospital with my bp being automatically measured every 30 minutes my BP measurements peaked at 210/150. I wonder what I was dreaming about?

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