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To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Aren’t dreams great? Especially when we’re doing things like flying effortlessly around the neighborhood or performing for an astonished crowd, doing something that, in waking moments, we haven’t the slightest idea how to accomplish! I’ve given many stellar performances on piano in my dreams, and I play piano not at all.

Of course, dreams can be too real and frightening, and we wake up in a cold sweat, such as in the dreams where I realize I have no idea how to play the piano, or fly, after all.

In our quest to understand the human brain, one of our newest medical frontiers, scientists and doctors are paying more attention to how dreams are linked to things like creativity. It seems that, during Rapid Eye Movement, or REM sleep (the period when we dream) our brain is energetically making new connections, which is why dreams can be so weird (“Why is Aunt Carol here, she’s been dead for fifteen years, and why is she trying to cook a tennis ball?” Or mine from the other night: “Why is Robert Downey Junior plotting my demise?” Well, I did just see “Oppenheimer”…..). Dreams are more or less a lesson in creativity - our brain is teaching us ways to use information in new and exciting/terrifying/never-seen-before ways.

In human evolution (written records of dreams go back five thousand years, so it’s logical to assume they’re a lot older than that), dreams have taught us a lot about being creative to survive, so dreams serve an important purpose in the quality of life and longevity of our species.

Here’s how a typical night goes for the average human. You go to sleep, and for the first four or five hours, you’re in a stage called Non Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) where you’re pretty much just resting and rejuvenating your body, although some dreaming can also take place. But then, entering the sixth to eighth hours, you transition to REM sleep, which is where the magic happens. That’s why, if we haven’t gotten enough sleep and missed the REM, it’s hard for us to concentrate and problem solve, and we become irritable and less productive. Our psyche didn’t get its dinner, and it’s crabby!

When I was in psychiatric therapy in my thirties, my doctor was always very interested in my dream activity. So, dreaming plays another role in our lives: dreams illustrate what is bothering us at a subconscious level. I remember telling him about a dream I had where I was a doll, and I kept being abused by humans. I have never been physically abused in my life, but the psychological abuse from my childhood was evident, and my subconscious was nudging me to wake up and do something about it.

Dreams can help facilitate instances of so-called Eureka moments, when we suddenly have a flash of insight that often happens after we awaken in the morning, and especially if we’re doing something mundane like taking a shower. Our brain is relaxed, we may not be thinking about anything, but suddenly - whammo - we know how to solve a problem that’s been on our mind. Actually, we probably already solved it in our dream, and we just then remembered the key to the puzzle.

There are two other types of dreaming, and they happen just as we’re drifting off to sleep or waking up. Called hypnagogic hallucinations and hypnopompic hallucinations, they can typically occur when we take a nap, but can also occur when we sleep at night and cross the line from wakefulness to sleep or vice versa. The artist Salvadore Dali tried to take advantage of these hallucinations by holding something heavy when he napped, so that when he dropped it while falling asleep, he would waken and might be able to recall his hallucination and incorporate it into a painting. The difference between these phenomena and REM dreaming are that they seem realer than real, and the hallucinator may believe the vision until they realize they had been falling asleep or just waking.

Here is something really fascinating to me: a study at the University of Rome tracked communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain when subjects were awake, and both in NREM sleep and in REM. In the waking and NREM states, information traveled mainly from left (the language and reasoning side) to right (the creative and intuitive side), consistent with the idea that the left brain controls the right. During REM sleep, however, there was no preferred direction. The right brain’s creator can emerge from the shadows since the traffic cop is on break.

The cells in our brain can link to one other cell, or to many cells at once, making for richer ideas. However, this can get out of hand, and the brain has a way of running a defragmentation system to clear the air, so to speak. Then, during REM sleep, the cells surviving the defrag can come up with their own unique ideas or dreams. The brain takes the fragments and weaves them together into new stories and information, and voila, we’re dreaming!

There are many examples in history of people making astonishing discoveries in their dreams. Musician Paul McCartney claims that his beloved song, “Yesterday”, was just there when he woke up one day. The mathematician Archimedes ran around naked in the streets (according to legend, anyway) when he woke up and realized he could figure out the volume of an irregular vessel.

The bottom line with sleep, it seems, is get enough of it - it is regenerative in ways we may not even comprehend, but the things we do know point to the fact that it is vital to our creative selves. There is a troubling saying nowadays that goes, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” as if sleeping less is something to aspire to. Our evolution has made sleep an important part of human advancement. We need to take that seriously.

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