The Secret Life of Dreams

Your nighttime revelries could hold the key to your health.
By Jeanne Ricci

It has happened to all of us: You sit up in bed after a doozy of a dream and wonder What did that mean? Mankind’s fascination with dreams has a long history. In fact, one of the world’s oldest surviving documents, an Egyptian papyrus, contains dream interpretations. Most ancient cultures believed dreams were communications from deities or departed souls. More recently, psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung paved the way for using dream analysis when treating patients, believing dreams could shed light on the workings of the unconscious mind. Today, many medical and psychiatric professionals believe dreaming can help us move beyond depression and grief and even identify underlying health issues.

As long as you are sleeping, you are dreaming. That’s right, everyone dreams—even if you don’t remember your nightly adventures. “Most dreams occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which replenishes certain neurotransmitters,” writes Deirdre Barrett, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, in her book The Committee of Sleep (Crown, 2001). Since you enter the light sleep stage characterized by REM every 90 minutes, you’ll likely have four to five dreams a night, assuming you sleep for eight hours. “Interfering with REM, and thus dreaming, interferes with creativity, problem-solving capability, memory, and, in extreme situations, even immune function and body temperature,” says Barrett. You don’t have to remember your dreams to reap some of the benefits, but if you can recall them, your dreams could tell you a lot. (For tips to enhance dream recall, see “To Dream, Perchance to Remember” on page 73.) “But stay away from dream dictionaries that would have you believe that one symbol means one thing,” Barrett warns. Instead, she recommends Our Dreaming Mind by Robert L. Van de Castle (Ballantine Books, 1995), which focuses on dream theory and learning to work with your dreams. If you really dive deeply into your dream life, the payoff is multifold. You can tap into more clarity and creativity, feel less depressed and stressed, and maybe even be able to predict disease.

Tap into your dream tank
With a little effort, you can draw creative inspiration for both your professional and personal life from dreams. Need help solving a problem at work or making a decision for your household? Dreams can shed light on information stored in your brain and also help you think outside the box. “If you are stuck in your waking life on any sort of issue, then dreams can help you come to a resolution,” says Barrett. In fact, artists, writers, and philosophers such as René Descartes and Samuel Taylor Coleridge have used a method called dream incubation to nurture their creative processes.

To get started incubating dreams, write a question such as Which apartment should I rent? or How can I increase productivity at work? on a piece of paper and place it by your bed. Review the question before going to sleep and tell yourself you want to dream about it. Keep a pen and paper on the nightstand. For the next several nights, every time you wake up, lie quietly and try to recall your dreams. Write down anything you remember—events, places, characters, and feelings. The answer to your question may appear obvious after one night, or it could come to you over time as you piece together recurring ideas and themes. As with anything, the more you practice incubating and analyzing dreams, the more insight you’ll draw.

The blues are but a dream
An active dream life can help you shake the blues. Research conducted at Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago found that people who were depressed after a divorce felt better more quickly if they had, and were able to recall, both good and bad dreams about their ex-spouses. Rosalind Cartwright, PhD, director of the research program, and her colleagues found that as dreams involving an ex-spouse became less negative and less frequent, their subjects’ depression lifted. This is not to say that people who don’t remember their dreams are more likely to be depressed—but people who do remember may recover more quickly from traumatic events such as divorce.

Similarly, people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are often encouraged to use dreams to aid their recovery. PTSD sufferers commonly have nightmares about real events that prolong their trauma. If they can successfully redirect a negative dream and change its outcome via hypnosis or self-suggestion at bedtime, it not only stops the nightmares but also lessens other symptoms, like heightened startle responses and daytime flashbacks, says Barrett. This method can also quash recurring nightmares for people who don’t have PTSD. Throughout the day and before bedtime, think of the dream and vividly imagine a more positive outcome. With determination, you can eventually change the content of your nightmare.

The interpreter of maladies
Is your body trying to tell you something? “Someone might dream she has cancer or some disease and then later see the first clinical sign of it,” says Barrett. The idea that our subconscious knows about illness before our conscious mind goes back to Hippocrates. Our body, it seems, often sends early warning signals that don’t always reach our consciousness. When we sleep and dream, the sensory overload that’s now part of everyday life gets blocked, making our psyches more receptive to messages our bodies send.

Shanee Stepakoff, a clinical psychologist in New York City, experienced this firsthand. “I had a mark on my cheek that looked like a freckle. I asked a few different dermatologists about it, and they all said it was nothing, but I kept having dreams about it,” she says. Stepakoff continued to see cancer metaphors in her dreams. “Finally, I had a very intense dream in which the word check kept appearing in various contexts (checkbook, write a check),” Stepakoff says. She believed this was her psyche urging her to get the spot on her cheek checked. Her doctor didn’t want to do a biopsy, but she insisted. Sure enough, it came back as melanoma—luckily, they caught it in time.

“I believe that the psyche gives us messages when there is something important that we need to pay attention to—it could be about our health, but it could also be about a relationship, a person in our lives, or a job situation,” says Stepakoff. “I think it is part of how our psyches help us survive and, ideally, to become more whole.”

Jeanne Ricci is a writer living in New York City.

To Dream, Perchance to Remember
It’s hard to learn from your dreams if you can’t remember them. But even if you draw a blank every morning, don’t fret. Follow these steps, recommended by Deirdre Barrett, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and Andrew Holecek, a dream workshop teacher at Colorado’s Shambhala Mountain Center, to enhance your dream recall.

* Get seven to eight hours of sleep a night. The more you sleep, the more dreams you will have, increasing the likelihood you’ll remember one of them.
* Throughout the day and right before you fall asleep, remind yourself of your intention to remember your dreams.
* Keep a pen and paper by your bed. A dream journal can encourage recall and, at the very least, help you document any fragment you do remember upon waking.
* When you first wake up, don’t move. Lie quietly and reflect on any image that comes to mind. Sometimes a whole dream scenario will come back to you.
* Be mindful during the day, not just about dreams but about everything going on around you. The lucidity you cultivate in waking life will translate to your dream life.
* Set an alarm to wake you every two hours throughout the night. When the alarm sounds, write down as much as you can remember about the dream you were just having.