Some consider it the ultimate Primal ground – a terrain unapologetically wild and forever untamable. It’s the last place a man or woman can live out every deep seated instinct and inclination with no interference from cultural authorities, no entanglement with others and their needs or opinion. I’m talking of course about dreams. (Those titles ruin all the mystery, don’t they?) Yes, I mean those baffling vignettes that take over when we think we’ve finally let go of the day and retreated to peacefully impervious hours. The brain, however, has other plans and sets out with its own agenda. Sometimes we wake unaware of the fictional muddle we’ve witnessed the night before. Other times we’re roused in a cold sweat, physically and emotionally gripped for hours by some bewildering, miserable ordeal. On a few lucky occasions, we’re treated to the good stuff, a stream of reverie worth luxuriating in if it weren’t for the cursed alarm clock. What’s the deal with all this drama anyway? The Primal Blueprint, of course, extols the importance of adequate quantity, high quality sleep. But what is sleep without dreams? According to research, not much.
Our need for sleep as a whole to this day confounds experts. What a waste of 33% of a day! The useless extravagance, the vexing inconvenience, the staggering vulnerability of this state stuns. Is this some kind of massive evolutionary flub? Add in the nightly circus of often incomprehensible dream segments, and it can seem like some genetically orchestrated joke.
But sleep, as we know, is the professional organizer of our daily experiences. Without it, our brains would reflect an overflowing mental mess analogous to an episode of Hoarders. And as for our emotions, we’d live along a continually ragged edge of psychic strain if it weren’t for the role of dreams.
Just as sleep allows our brains to process information, to file and discard extraneous detail, REM sleep (i.e. dream sleep) reconstitutes difficult emotional experiences. As research demonstrates, dreams regularly engage the emotionally charged memories of our day and compose them into more psychologically manageable narratives. Scans of study participants has revealed that the same brain areas involved in acting out particular experiences during waking hours also operate during dreams about the same content. (The researchers used so-called “lucid” dreamers who can consciously control and steer their dreaming. Radical stuff, eh?)
In other words, the brain essentially relives our most poignant experiences in order to organize them. There’s a key difference, however, as researchers have found. During dreaming, the brain can retrieve and process emotional experiences with the body’s stress response in low mode.
Yes, as illogical as dreams may seem, they actually process our memories more rationally because of the simultaneous reduction in neurochemical reactivity. Professor Matthew Walker, senior author of the University of Berkley study explains, “By reprocessing previous emotional experiences in this neuro-chemically safe environment of low norepinephrine during REM sleep, we wake up the next day, and those experiences have been softened in their emotional strength. We feel better about them, we feel we can cope.” Some dreams, as mentioned, are so emotional that we wake up clearly feeling like we’ve been through the wringer. Nonetheless, we’ve still benefited from the significantly dampened neurochemical backdrop for processing whatever experiences inhabited these particularly vivid dreams.
Underscoring the difference normal REM sleep makes, we find the influence of sleep disruption on psychological conditions like PTSD and depression. Although these conditions don’t begin with sleep disturbance, the characteristic disruption of sleep becomes part of a persistent, vicious cycle. Professor Walker explains the PTSD connection that guided his research on the role of reduced norepinephrine in normal REM sleep. Another doctor from the local V.A. hospital shared the success he’d had treating patients who suffered from PTSD with a blood pressure drug, which Walker noticed also reduced levels of norepinephrine. The patients, as a result of the drug, were able to experience more normal REM sleep, which helped alleviate their PTSD symptoms.
Add to this, of course, the overall benefits of sleep. Among the primary theories behind our need for sleep is synaptic homeostasis. During our waking hours, our synapses respond to the myriad of stimulation we encounter. (The more “enriched” (or stressful) our days, the more the synapses grow.) But we can literally only take so much stimulation. Our brain’s synaptic activity accounts for some 80% of its overall energy usage. In other words, over the course of a day we literally drain our brain. Sleep allows the synapses to return to their baseline measures. The result? We wake up better able to deal with whatever happened the day before and more capable of meeting the challenges of the present day. The whole of our sleep experience, it turns out, has both profound psychological and physiological impact within our brains.
In traditional societies, sleep – and dreaming in particular – was associated with healing and access to a deeper dimension of insight inaccessible during waking life. Theorists like Anthony Stevens and Carl Jung have suggested that dreams contain shadows of evolutionary instinct, “phylogenetically ancient structures” that help us “rehearse” life scenarios and even problem solve by accessing intuitive wisdom unrelated to conscious rationality. As Jung wrote, “Go to bed. Think on your problem. See what you dream. Perhaps the Great Man, the 2,000,000 year old man, will speak. Only in a cul-de-sac do you hear his voice.”
Jung’s quote, for me, is a kind of grand metaphor. It makes me think about how many sources of feedback we tend to devalue in modern life – the roots of intuition, the connection between the emotional and physiological, the benefits of sleep, the processing of dreams.
In a modern 24-7 world, it’s easy to cheat on sleep and dismiss the messages the body gives us. During busy times a full seven to eight hours can seem like an absurd obligation that we either grudgingly fulfill or reject in the name of bigger fish to fry. Science, however, warns us otherwise as does practical experience if we’re willing to learn from that sort of thing. In our attempts to live and work more “efficiently,” we end up short changing our overall well-being. The body has its own model for emotional and physical efficiency, much of which we can’t fathom. It’s a bigger and much grander picture than we give it credit for.
Thanks for reading today. Let me know your thoughts on sleep, dreaming, and that enigmatic 2,000,000-year-old man.