Sleep and Brain Power: How Dreams Boost Emotional Health

Text by Louisa Kamps

There's a huddle of beefy thugs butchering a wolf at the base of a glassy tower that I must enter. The butchers turn from their prey, snarling, to chase me, but I manage to sneak in through a secret back door. 

I race to the top floor, where an editor I respect hands back the tall cup I've been making smoothies in lately, pronouncing my most recent concoction bland and obvious. 

I'm stung but can't help noticing she's managed to choke down the last drop.

Now, what to make of a dream like that? Part of me shies from supposing it has any deep meaning. Therapeutic dream analysis has become something of a punch line in this post-Freudian age. (So, doc, I was paddling around in a canoe when my father handed me a giant dagger....) 

Then there's the theory espoused by prominent neurologists since the late 1970s: Dreams are just physiological reactions to stimuli from the nervous system as our brains rest and digest the remains of the day. 

Still, I can't help thinking that this wacky night theater I've created must be doing something important.

There's still so much we don't know about dreams -- like what causes them in the first place -- but we may soon begin to unravel the mystery. Thanks to intensified efforts to understand what causes sleep disorders and determine how we can treat them, a growing body of research has recently converged to show that dreams not only help us consolidate new learning and think more creatively, but also recover more quickly from life's emotional slings and arrows.

Anatomy of a Dreamscape
We typically spend more than 25 percent of our sleep time in a state conducive to dream weaving. As we drift off and enter stage 1, the light phase between sleep and waking, eye movement and muscle activity begin to slow. 

From there we move through stages 2 and 3, progressively deeper phases in which breathing and brain waves continue getting slower. About 90 minutes in, we'll return to lighter sleep before suddenly moving into the phase known as rapid eye movement, in which most dreaming occurs. 

We'll cycle between REM and deeper sleep three to five times during the night, each time staying longer in dream-conducive REM.

During REM sleep, some of the physical and cognitive abilities that serve us so well in waking life fall away: Our muscles go slack to keep us from acting out on our dreams; parts of the brain's prefrontal cortex responsible for decision-making become less active; the hippocampus, involved in recalling details of recent events, is less active too. 

At the same time, the entire midsection of the brain -- the region associated with emotion, including the amygdala, which assesses threats and triggers adrenaline -- lights up. And in this alternate state of consciousness, during which we're blind to the real world's distractions yet flush with vivid imagery and strong feeling, our brains are sifting through new information, searching for ways to integrate it into what we already know and lay the important parts down permanently in memory.

Solving Problems in Your Sleep
In a series of studies looking at dreams' impact on creative problem-solving, Sara Mednick, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, has shown that naps including periods of REM (which we usually reach after about 50 minutes in an afternoon snooze) have significant cognitive benefits, repeatedly beating out caffeine as a secret weapon in mental performance tests. 

In a paper she copublished last year, Mednick described giving subjects a creativity task in which they were asked to come up with a fourth word connected to three seemingly unrelated words. (For instance, "coin," "quick," and "spoon," where "silver" is the missing link.) 

Subjects took a test in the morning, then rested quietly before taking another test in the evening. Those who slept but didn't fall into REM showed no improvement on their second test. But those who did get REM sleep scored 40 percent higher on the evening test than they had in the morning. 

To Mednick, this suggests that dreaming -- when the becalmed hippocampus slows its efforts to relay rote, "explicit" information (which is consolidated in deeper, slow-wave sleep) -- is the perfect workshop for making more abstract associations between facts and ideas already established in unconscious memory. 

"REM allows us to take bits of information, de-emphasize the details of how we learned that information, and integrate it more into our general knowledge of how the world works," she says.

Dreams as a Creativity Lab
There's evidence that creative types may find it easier to dip into the well of their dreams. In one of the largest studies on dream recall and personality traits, conducted at the University of Iowa, subjects who were inclined toward imagination and fantasy in their waking lives were much more likely to remember their dreams and to report dreams with vivid imagery. 

The power dreamers also scored higher in terms of "openness," according to researcher David Watson, who measured their inclination toward novel experiences and different perspectives.

In her book "The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use their Dreams for Creative Problem Solving -- and How You Can Too," Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett recounts the stories of notable artists, athletes, and inventors to capture the sly beauty of dream-generated creativity. (My favorite example: In 1844, American inventor Elias Howe, puzzling over how to design sewing machine needles, reportedly woke from a dream in which he was being chased by cannibals carrying spears with holes in their pointed tips. He realized -- eureka! -- that machine needles would need holes at the front end.) 

Barrett has found that 50 percent of people who tell themselves before sleep that they want to dream about a certain dilemma have dreams on their chosen subjects within one week, and that half of them find helpful new information. (The solutions aren't necessarily as world-shaking as Howe's. One student struggling to arrange furniture in a cramped apartment woke with a clear diagram of how to fit it all.)

Recent studies at Harvard showed that people who'd spent hours playing a virtual-reality skiing game often dreamed later about aspects of the experience with a strong emotional prick -- places along the course where they'd crashed, for instance -- and generally performed better on the actual game after dreaming about it. It's not exactly news to most of us that hot emotions and vexing problems tend to dominate dreams. 

Believe me, I didn't need a Ph.D. to decode the work worry in my stressful smoothie episode. But what is surprising, and to some extent vindicating to Freud, is just how emotionally beneficial our woolly night hallucinations seem to be. (Though he might be disappointed to learn how few of our dreams are overtly sexual: University of Montreal researchers, surveying 3,500 dream reports, found that just 8 percent of dreams for both men and women involved sexual activity.)

Knitting the World Back Together
Rosalind Cartwright, professor emeritus of neuroscience at Rush University Medical College in Chicago and author of a fascinating new book, "The Twenty-four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives," has been studying dreams since the 1960s. 

While many sleep scientists were clocking nighttime brain waves, the hot project back then, Cartwright woke sleepers night after night and asked them what they were dreaming about. 

She found that if people who were experiencing major setbacks dreamed about their problems, they'd usually recover months faster than those who didn't. (In a long-term study of subjects who were going through divorces, dreaming about their situation helped them get their groove back. One woman who rallied quickly reported a dream in which she found herself chuckling gently at the former spouse's foibles, while another reported dressing up to attend a party -- notably without her ex.) 

Cartwright also observed many subjects overcoming smaller, everyday emotional troubles, simply working themselves into better moods by dreaming over the course of a single night. Cartwright found (and many studies have backed her up) that our dreams brighten toward morning, growing more vivid in feeling, color, and complexity. 

"We may not remember the details," she says, "but we do get that positive burst." 

At the end of our time asleep, the phases of REM grow longer and closer together, providing a safe space where disturbing events in our waking lives can be integrated with our older memories and experiences. If we're meeting crazy challenges at work, for instance, we might have that classic anxiety dream about missing our Spanish class. (For other common dream motifs, read "What Your Dreams Mean.")

Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist at the University of Arizona's Center for Integrative Medicine in Tucson, says that when we take "the vast amounts of new information we consume during the day" and process it throughout a night of solid, dream-rich sleep, it's a bit like healthy digestion: In the early hours, there's a lot of chewing and swallowing. And in the latter part of the night -- in our dreams -- the many new ideas we're processing begin to nourish our psyches. 

But when that process is disrupted, people can get stuck, he says, "hemmed in by chronic fear of taking this step or going there, so tightly wrapped around a problem that it's all they can see."

Studies have shown that depressed people who suffer insomnia have disordered sleep cycles when they finally are able to drift off. They lapse more quickly into REM -- as if they're desperate to reorder their world through dreams -- and get less of the deepest, restorative, slow-wave sleep.

Creating the Sleep of Your Dreams
Fundamentally, dreams -- like effective cognitive psychotherapy -- "are about abstraction, the ability to pan back, get bigger than, stretch into the remembrance of a larger sense of self," Naiman says.

And in this hard-charging, info-slurping, sleep-deprived era, in which about 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders (and depression is also suspiciously widespread, affecting one in eight women), he and many other sleep experts are more convinced than ever of the link between mental health and a full nightly menu of sleep.

We asked the experts for their best tips to help you get restful sleep -- ideally, seven to eight hours of it -- that will yield all the dreams you've got coming to you.

Drink Moderately, and Mind Your Meds
"A glass of wine with dinner is fine," Naiman says, but excessive alcohol will cause you to wake up after two or three hours when the sedative effects wear off; this interacts with the first significant REM cycle and disrupts sleep further from there. 

Also, many medications -- including a number of antidepressants, over-the-counter painkillers, and even, ironically enough, sleeping pills -- suppress the hormone melatonin and/or the nutrient choline, both of which mediate REM. It's always wise, Naiman says, to ask your pharmacist before taking any medicine if it has a REM suppressant and, if it does, whether there's an alternative.

Establish a Presleep Routine
Take a 20-minute soak in a hot bath two hours before bedtime, Cartwright says. The body's effort to cool itself after the bath mimics the cooling that occurs naturally as our bodies prepare for sleep. 

If your logical waking brain is reluctant to let go of the same old anxieties, Cartwright suggests writing down the day's cares (well before bedtime) in a worry diary, then literally closing the book, telling yourself, I've done my worrying for the day.

Create a Restful Environment
Use blackout shades or a sleeping mask to make the room as dark as possible; darkness prompts your brain's pineal gland to make melatonin. Also, keep your bedroom at a comfortable 60 to 65 degrees; even subtle shifts in body temperature can disrupt sleep cycles.

Put Technology to Work
Relaxation CDs have moved beyond ocean waves; new versions actually have frequencies embedded in the sound tracks to encourage slow-wave sleep. (Check out sound therapist Jeffrey Thompson's sleep-enhancement collection at neuroacoustic.com.) 

To find out how much deep slumber you're actually getting, Naiman recommends the Zeo Personal Sleep Coach ($199, myzeo.com), a lightweight headband accompanied by a bedside display that monitors the length of your sleep, disruptions, and how much time you're spending in REM and the deepest sleep.

Soothe Yourself if You Wake Up
If you have trouble falling back to sleep, Cartwright advises adjusting your strategy depending on the time of night. If you're waking up after only an hour or so, try some boring mental exercise: See if you can name all 50 states alphabetically, or count backward from 100, inhaling deeply and slowly, then exhaling with each number. 

Woodson Merrell, M.D., chairman of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, advises trying to remember the dream you were having when you woke up -- even if you can recall only a detail or two -- and focusing on it to see if you can drift off again. 

If it's close to your usual wake-up time -- say it's 5 a.m. and you usually wake at 7 -- your core body temperature will just be starting to rise to get you active for tomorrow, which may make it hard to go back to sleep, Cartwright says. "The best thing is to take a positive attitude and don't say to yourself, I'm going to be draggy all day," she advises. "Instead say, Great, I have two more hours to rest!"

Let Go
"People with insomnia are hyperaroused -- pushing, pushing," Naiman says. "We're all working so frantically to get a chance to rest. But the paradox is that rest is free." And, he adds, the great beauty of dreaming -- in which "parts of ourselves that recede during waking life" roam freely and creatively -- is that "you don't have to force it to happen. It's just there for you when you stop."

Read More: What Your Dreams Mean

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