What We Can Learn From Nightmares
(From my dream journal: November 11, 2016, 3:45 AM)
I just woke up: sweats, tachycardia, cold chills.
I was at a celebration party at a mansion on a hill as an outside observer. The people were so happy to be there- enthusiastic and joyous. The host was an eccentric, flamboyant man. I had a feeling, an unambiguous somatic marker, that something wasn’t right. Something manipulative and evil lurked and swirled in the atmosphere.
But the guests were so happy. Gleefully happy. Maniacally happy.
I investigated. I found it. In an arched room in the mansion on the hill, a monolith of rusty nails, barbed wire, railroad spikes. A tower of babel, a jenga of tetanus.
So this was the weapon, but what were the means?
A few of the guests came in to the house early — foraging, searching. They were hungry. So hungry. Starving.
They celebrated when they found what they were looking for — just a pile of mail, but they devoured it. Scraps of bills, glossy inserts, bank statements escaping from their mouths with each breath, like the cartoon cat who had just eaten the cartoon bird and exhales feathers.
And then I knew: Somehow, the host had infected them with an insatiable pica- the compulsion to eat non-food. This hysteria would start with a buffet of paper, but end in the lofted room with the tower of sharpened rust.
The guests wouldn’t become murderers, an angry mob pouring out of the gated community. They would die themselves on what they were fed, grinding gums on metal scraps, rust belt twists of metal piercing the narrow neck of the esophagus, slicing open the stomach lining, nicking arteries here and there.
They were so happy. But they would die.
I woke up with my dream-mind in a car stolen from the host, racing away, trying to get into cell range so I could call for help. Was I too late?
Why do we dream?
Are they prophetic? Illuminating? Mirrors to our soul? Sigmund Freud argued that dreams were a direct peek into our deepest subconscious desires. Hearing my dream, he would have warned that my id harbored insatiable aggression. Carl Jung, Freud’s protégé, would have explained that my dream wasn’t a literal wish to be fulfilled, but instead an exploration of the collective unconscious, universal human themes of threat, need, and vulnerability.
I prefer the interpretation of modern sleep researchers: dreams are a byproduct of our story-telling consciousness doing its best to make sense of erratic, internally driven neural activity in the sensory and emotional brain centers. Neural activity generated deep in the brainstem drives the emotional limbic system and sensory cortex to produce intense and bizarre images, and our half-asleep language centers do their best to make a sensible story out of it, with very little help from the rational prefrontal cortex. Because of this neural mismatch, dream situations are scarier, sexier, more dangerous and vivid, and certainly less logical than waking life.
Clearly, our dream imagery isn’t truly random. What’s freshest in our conscious mind tends to show up in our dreams. If we’re having relationship tension or work stress, it’s likely those themes will emerge in our dreams. Freud called this “day residue,” and if you look closely at dream content, you will find that many of the bizarre dream images we experience are just distortions of the normal scenes, sounds, and observations from the previous day. Some scientists think this day residue is a byproduct of the brain going through the day’s events and deciding what to encode as memories (e.g., interesting new people you met) and what to forget (e.g., what socks you wore that day). Neuroscientists are uncovering more evidence that dream-time brain activation actually enhances learning, insight, and decision making.
Could the common dream themes of escape, pursuit, sex, and aggression actually serve a functional purpose? The threat rehearsal theory suggests that dreams work as emergency preparedness drills for situations our minds know are vital to survival (fight, flight, sex), but which we rarely get the opportunity to practice. When’s the last time you ran away from a predator? Still, it’s an important survival skill, and your brain wants make sure the neural circuits are practiced and prepared. Some people have reoccurring danger dreams that relate to some emotionally salient childhood event. I grew up in tornado alley, and every few weeks, no matter the season or my geographical location, I have a tornado dream. A Caribbean student routinely dreams of shark attacks, even though she lives thousands of miles away from the nearest ocean. (The next time you have a nightmare, be sure to thank the deep crevices of your emotional brain for practicing survival skills.)
My nightmare makes perfect sense in the context of modern neuroscience. My brain infused the main emotional themes from the day (political anxiety, worry over how to best care for those around me) and integrated it with the day’s experience (reading about Dunning-Kruger effect and rust belt politics, and an evening organizing the tool shed for winter). The emotional intensity of the dream added clarity to my resolve as an educator to help students sharpen their critical thinking and information literacy.
To me, reflecting on my dreams offers another ‘door’ to perception. Just as our ancestors incorporated hallucinogenic drugs into religious practices (or more recently Aldous Huxley with mescaline and Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary with LSD), alterations in neurochemistry and blood flow during REM sleep offer unique physiological conditions that can promote creative insight. In recalling my dreams and nightmares, I am gifted with a unique perspective on my thoughts, both explicit and implicit, without needing to pay for an analyst or risk the legal ramifications (or stomach cramping) of psychedelic drugs.
If nightmares regularly interfere with your quality of life
In order to remember your dreams, you actually need to wake up — have a few seconds with your conscious mind — to encode the content of your dreams into your working memory. Without this conscious attention, dreams cannot be recalled. In other words, never remembering your dreams could be a sign that you are getting excellent sleep. By contrast, frequently remembering your dreams could be a sign that you’re getting fragmented, inefficient sleep.
For some, nightmares are not the occasional oddity, but instead are frequent and vivid enough to make them dread going to sleep. Some medications, like the malaria prevention pill mefloquine, trigger nightmares so intense that the pills come with explicit warnings not to take unless you’re psychologically well. REM rebound can also trigger intense nightmares. If you regularly drink high levels of alcohol or you take medicines that suppress REM sleep, like SSRI anti-depressants or opiate painkillers, you will likely experience nightmares if you abruptly stop taking the drugs. If you have regular nightmares and you can’t think of an obvious biological cause, it could be a symptom of waking distress. People who experience debilitating nightmares also often struggle with something fairly serious in their waking life, like PTSD. Talk therapy and finding ways to reduce stress can help ease nightmares.