What happens when we dream?
Dr. Garfield: When we dream, our central nervous system is going into an active state, which it is does periodically during our sleep. Nobody is quite sure why, by the way. Is it a testing of the system to see if everything's still working? We don't quite know.
Physiological changes occur periodically during sleep so that our heart rate goes up somewhat, our breathing gets more rapid, our temperature slightly increases, our brain waves change. And although our large muscles are inhibited, so that we don't start acting out our dreams, the small muscles around our mouth, our fingers and our eyes twitch back and forth accompanying the central nervous system arousal.
There's a sexual arousal as well — this is a part of the whole system. So the idea of dreams having a sexual component is literally true. That is, men experience erection and women become more lubricated, but this is just one aspect of what is happening physically in dreaming.
I describe dreaming as a three-story house. On the basement level you've got the physical changes going on in the body, and then, on the main floor of the house, you've got these visual images, sounds, and sometimes smells and all the other physical experiences we have in dreams that are expressive of our emotional state, how we are psychologically at the moment.
At another level, kind of the attic, there are sometimes experiences that we can't explain in which people connect with on another level of themselves, whether it's the spiritual or creative, or extrasensory. We don't know how this happens, but sometimes people have very unusual experiences in dreams, for example, a dream where someone to whom they're emotionally close comes to say goodbye and that they love them and that that they will always be watching for them and the person wakes up and a few hours later learns that person has died at the time of the dream. And these are very powerful experiences for the dreamer that we can't explain in a scientifically acceptable manner.
All of these experiences are there when we dream: the physical changes in our bodies, the psychological expression of how we're feeling emotionally at the time of the dream, and this other world that we sometimes seem to touch in dreams.
The Evolution of Dreaming
Why do we dream? Why did that capability evolve?
Dr. Garfield: Well, that's the question that has really been unanswerable. Many people have suggested different reasons. From an evolutionary point of view there have been speculations that dreams have evolved to periodically make sure that everything is working in the central nervous system and to be alert, alerted in a way that one could be responsive to danger in an environment. For example, if a person dreams that someone is breaking into their apartment and they see a hand creeping in, and then they suddenly wake up and realize that there is a strange noise, there is something happening that their dreaming mind has picked up first. But it doesn't explain all dreaming.
The current thinking is that dreaming is an important component of memory and that we do know that when people are learning new things, they take a language immersion course, for example, dreaming literally increases. Dreaming increases when we're learning new tasks, and if we're prevented from dreaming after we've learned something new, our memory for it is very poor. Even if we're allowed to sleep, but our dreaming is interrupted. There is a lot of evidence now that suggests dreaming is an important component of short-term memory. So, this is one possibility and perhaps one that's quite important. But, the bottom line is we truly don't know why we dream.
Purpose of Dreams
Does everyone dream?
Dr. Garfield: It appears that everyone does. There are one or two documented exceptions. There was a case in Israel of a man who had received an injury, a bullet wound in the area of the brain that controls dreaming, and he's been studied and he appears not to dream. But this is incredibly rare. Mostly when people say, "I never dream," what they really means is "I don't remember my dreams," or "I don't think that dreams are important, they don't matter to me."
Perhaps they were made fun of as a child when they first reported their dreams or it was so frightening, for some reason, that they turned off dreaming completely. People do that, people who have been badly traumatized. Very often people say to me, "Oh, I used to be such a great dreamer" and "six years ago I just stopped dreaming completely." And if I ask "What happened six years ago? What was going on in your life?" They'll say, "Oh, that was when my best friend was murdered, " for example, or there was some horrific event. And to dream about it was too traumatic.
Actually, the worse thing you can do is stop dreaming. It's a very bad prognostic sign, because it means that the trauma was too deep to even represent in fantasy. As long as you're dreaming about it and even if the dreams are horrific, your mind is working on it. Like someone who's been in Vietnam who's having recurrent horror dreams about the war. It's very painful, and very difficult to go through, but their mind is still trying to cope.
I worked with a woman who had been raped, and she had recurrent dreams about this horrible experience and seeing the rapist again, and struggling with him. As she got better, and there was the trial going on at the time, she would dream of seeing him in a passing car, but that he couldn't get at her. There was a distance between them, a protection between them. And the dream gradually changed, in that way until he was not a component in her dream life, or very rarely, and even then he was never hurting her.
My personal opinion about what dreams do is that they are an adapter for us, that they help us solve our problems. We see certain patterns take place in dreams when a person is injured, when a person is ill, when a person has been traumatized. If people turn off their dreams totally they're deprived of that. Meaning they don't permit themselves to even think about it.
A Few Good Dreams
Why do we remember so few of our dreams?
Dr. Garfield: Nobody is really sure. When we remember anything it's connected to recency and intensity. So when we wake up from a dream unless it's very powerful, very intense, there isn't this impact that makes us pay attention to it. It's why we remember negative dreams more than positive. Because they make a big wallop. It's as though your dreaming self is saying, "Hey, pay attention, this is important." And it does get our attention, not very pleasantly, but it makes us think about the images in the dream.
Much of dreaming is kind of mundane. For example, you might dream about what you were doing at work, and it's not really terrible, it's not really great. It's almost like chatter, and it doesn't have enough intensity to get our attention.
Our dreams start out really short and get progressively longer. The early dreams of the night last about 10 minutes long and get longer toward morning. If you wake up naturally, you will be waking up from the dream cycle, and the dream is a half to three quarters of an hour long, and that's the dream that people remember because there's more to remember then. If you wake up from the dream naturally it's very fresh, very long, it's usually more dramatic than all other dreams in the night. There's something that gets your attention, and it's recent, it's fresh.
But most people don't wake up that way. We're living our lives not by natural body rhythms. We live by alarm clock or the kid is screaming, or the dog has to go out, or we have to get to work. We tend to leap up and get into daytime gear, and it's difficult to remember this sort of wispy imagery unless it is so intense that we can't get our minds off of it.
What can people do to remember dreams better?
Dr. Garfield: Dream recall is a learned skill, and like any memory skill, if you practice it, if you use it, it gets better. You can do such simple things as putting the notepad and pen by your bed, setting the intention — saying to yourself, "okay, tonight I'm going to remember a dream." For most people who have structured lives and need to be to work and so forth, it works better to pick a weekend or vacation to let yourself wake up naturally from a dream.
And one of the things that people find particularly helpful, and people don't always believe in it at first, is that the dream is very much connected with the body position in which you've had the dream. So if you sleep on your right side or on your left side and you wake up on your left side and have no dream recall, if you have the time to very gently roll into the other sleep position and lie there for a moment, very often dream recall will come fluttering back. It's almost weird. It's true. It works.
Pick a time a period of time during which you want to focus on your dreams, get ready to dream, put a pad and pen by your bed that you can easily reach without effort, and arrange times where you can wake up naturally and then test out other sleep positions that you use.
Sometimes if you wake up with just the tiniest wisp of a thought, and you train yourself to write something down, when you're doing that your mind often brings back the former scene. It's almost like pulling the dream back in reverse. It's all there, but you have to catch hold if you're not used to doing it.
Catch hold of that last little scene. Sometimes you can begin with what you were thinking about when you woke up, and that will lead you to the dream content that was before. If you make a habit of writing down the smallest bit of dream and treating it with respect, as valuable, as something I need to understand, your recall of dreams will improve.
Not everyone will want to do this, but I have a special dream notebook in which I copy over my dream notes during the day. It also helps, before you go sleep, to jot down the just main events of the day in this book. . . . It's really helpful to know what's actually going on in the waking stage. And if you pay attention to both of them they work to nourish each other.
Are all dreams symbolic, metaphysical? How much of dream symbolism is universal, and how much is personal?
Dr. Garfield: Dreams are kind of picture thinking, if you will. It's initiated in an older part of the brain, and the images seem to speak to that part of the brain. Like reading a wonderful poet, we're all poets in our brain, we're creating images out of emotions. If you feel like a relationship is really in trouble, instead of dreaming you're having trouble with that person in the relationship, you're more likely to dream about an earthquake, things are breaking up. We express ourselves in dreams in these metaphors that are expressions of our feelings literal expressions. It's poetry really.
We are expressing ourselves in these images that say more than we could say by just repeating pictures of what happens in day-to-day life. So much of dreaming is symbolic, and metaphoric, but of course not all. There can be quite literal messages that come in our dreams, like wanting to slow down or be careful or to just not do something. They can be very direct but they do tend to come in this symbolic package, and so it's important for us to understand our own inner language, which is what it is.
To a certain extent I think there are certain universal symbols that all human beings share, because our bodies are basically the same, and experiences that we share with all humans are very similar. So that much of it is fairly common and yet, there are these variations that are fairly cultural. We have to look at these as levels of dreaming: there's the part that is universal, there's the part that is the cultural, then there's the part that's truly personal something that gives the image in the dream a specific personal meaning. This is why when you're working with someone you have to question the dreamer about the images and not just make assumptions. You can know what that usually means, or people in the past have found that this is such-and-such, but need to know what it means to that dreamer, and then you can say something more or less intelligent.
Can you talk about conscious or lucid dreaming — controlling dreams or their outcome? How would one acquire that skill?
Dr. Garfield: Some people actually come across it on their own. I've talked with many people who say, "oh yeah, I used to be scared in my dreams, and I said to myself this is that same old nightmare. I'm tired of this." Sometimes they wake up. Someone told me the other day, "When I saw that dream again, I just woke up."
Well, I don't think that's the best solution, but it does solve the discomfort. If you enter into the dream knowing it's a dream then it becomes more of an adventure. And that can be the best of both worlds because you're having the surprise of what's going to happen, but at the same time you hold on to awareness that it's a dream. If you don't like it, you can change it. And it gives you the consciousness of the unconscious. It's a rare state indeed, but as I said, many people discover this themselves and can use it to turn their dreams into more of an adventure like scenarios and are infinitely more comfortable with that.
It's not as easy for many people who haven't come across this skill on their own. It takes some effort, and concentration and a real willingness to pay attention to your dreams and to look for the moment when you might have realized you were dreaming. There's a lot of distortion in dreaming. I might dream that I was at my mother's house, but it wasn't quite like it. The living room was the same, but there was additional porch, or something was different, and that was a moment that I could have realized I was dreaming.
If people are being trained to recognize what we call pre-lucid moments — clues that could trigger the realization that you are in a dream, and that you are dreaming at this moment. You have got to hone that skill. Stephen LaBerge at Stanford has developed this kind of goggle that dreamers who want to develop this particular skill can wear. The goggles have an infrared light that begins to flash when your eyes go into rapid-eye-movement, so it picks up the movement of your eyes and starts a red light flashing. That red light comes into your dreams. Some people who are training don't always recognize it, and just go right on dreaming. But many of them do learn the clue and realize they're dreaming, and then sometimes carry out different things that they've planned to do.
You can also do that for yourself if you've gained the ability to lucid dream. And you can carry out predetermined tasks, such as choosing something that you would like to dream about. Many people who become lucid in dreams like to fly deliberately because it is such a wonderful, free experience. Others choose to make love with the partner of their choice. It does open up a great range of possibilities to dream of. You can be aware of the fact that you're dreaming.
Is lucid dreaming used clinically for people who are having post-traumatic or recurrent nightmares?
Dr. Garfield: It sometimes is. The training used here is not full lucid awareness, but to look at the dream as it occurs and be aware that it is a dream. Usually post-traumatic dreaming is filled with very stereotypical, horrific scenes. When you recover naturally what happens is that there are gradual changes in the scenario, as I described with the woman that had been raped. First she replayed the rape exactly as it had happened and then it would be a little different each time. Then finally there was a distance between her and the rapist until he became less important for her.
The same thing happens in all post-traumatic dreaming if you recover naturally. So what one does if trying to work with someone who has post-traumatic stress or recurrent nightmares is help them look for differences in the dreams and to try to deliberately change a small part of the dream instead of waiting for it to happen. You could say, "I wonder if this time you could just wait a minute before the bomb explodes," and help them to see places within the stereotyped dream that they might make a small change.
One young girl had recurrent dreams about sharks eating her that was very terrifying to her. And I talked with her about how it's possible to change your dreams to become active within your dream. Most people don't realize that, but you can make your dreams different if you just think about it.
I said to her, "So, next time the shark is after you in that dream, why don't you bite back? It always gets you anyway, so you don't have anything to lose, or get somebody to help you." When she came back she said, "Oh, when you said that I didn't believe you, but I tried it and you know what? It took a big hunk out of my side. And then I was lying on the beach dead, and all these people in white uniforms were around watching my body and it was still awful."
And I said, "Look! You made it different! If you can make it that different you can make it better." And I encouraged her to keep on trying, and the next thing I heard from her was, "You know, it was wonderful." She said, "I dreamt my girlfriend fell off the boat and the sharks were coming after her, and I jumped in and saved her." This was a dramatic shift from her being in the water, being the one who was killed by the shark, but she needed to do it steps.
Many dreams that have sharp teeth in them have to do with being angry. And she had, had a quarrel with this girlfriend and she said, "I think my dream is telling me that shouldn't let a silly quarrel break up a friendship I've had all my life." She instinctively, almost, understood that this was anger expression, the sharks were an expression of anger, and she saved her best friend. This is how such things can happen with post-traumatic dreaming, if you help the dreamer realize they have options. You, in a sense, are empowering the dreamer. Most people in the Western world simply aren't accustomed to thinking that you can get ready for a dream, that you can change your behavior during a dream, as well as work with a dream afterwards.
Ins and Outs of Dreaming
How do dreams and dreaming change through different stages of life?
Dr. Garfield: The amount of dreaming varies over our lifetime. We dream in the womb, by the way. They've measured fetuses eye movement, which appear to be similar to what they have after birth. Whether they have images that accompany the experience we don't really know because we can't talk with the infant or with the fetus.
The earliest documented dream where there are images accompanying it is an 18-month-old child whom [a researcher] heard speaking in their sleep. After the child woke up they told the researcher about the dream. At that age a child can talk about the dream. With newborns there's a tremendous amount of the physical component of dreaming. About 80 percent of the sleep time of the neonatal infant and the newborn infant is in the REM state.
As we get older, that shifts. For an adult, approximately 20 to 25 percent of sleep time is in this REM state. Now you must understand there are theories that we dream constantly through the night, that the REM periods are just like the peaks of the mountain during the dramatic dreaming and we're kind of thinking-dreaming all of the time. But these dramatic peaks occur about 20 to 25 percent of an adult dreaming. In old age there is a reduction so that it goes down to more like 20 percent or there about. It not a huge drop, but from birth to adulthood there's a big reduction.
Is [dreaming] helping to form the brain? It's part of what we don't yet know. So in terms of amount of REM there is definitely an overall change from very large right after birth to 25 percent or so as an adult to less. If we sleep for 8 hours, that would be an hour and a half of every night that is spent in dreaming. For the older person if they sleep eight hours that would be more like an hour. But we're still dreaming.
Then there are increases in dreaming that occur in special circumstances and those being when we're learning a new skill, regardless of the nature of this skill. Any time that we have to really concentrate on something really increases our dreaming. It's probably good for us to keep learning new skills and exercising our brain in that way.
There seems to be a link between hormonal levels and the amount of dreaming, so two great spurts of dreaming are at adolescence and during pregnancy, when there are literally more dreams taking place.
The dreams throughout a woman's pregnancy somehow vary in content according to the development of the fetus. Dreams during early pregnancy often deal with becoming pregnant and your reactions to it or sometimes even learning of the pregnancy. Early pregnancy dreams also often contain a lot of water and aquatic animals. Many women report swimming or that there are fish or tadpoles. They're not consciously thinking about this but fluids are gathering in the womb and the dreaming is reflecting this aquatic state of the fetus. And then in the second trimester dreams tend to include lots of cute baby animals.
In the later third trimester dreams tend to contain larger animals, sometimes threatening animals, such as gorillas — and of course babies. But there is a changing animal component that accompanies the development of the fetus. Also, architecture changes in the woman's dreams. So that it changes from small buildings to large building at the end, such as big skyscrapers and such. There is an interesting dream life that accompanies the experience of pregnancy. This seems to accompany her sense of things getting bigger.
There's often a lot of practiced birth in that last trimester — Braxton Hicks contractions — and that is picked up in the dreaming mind and there are dreams in which the woman may actually be having the baby. It feels very real and it's a kind of practice that the mind is preparing for, sometimes the worse. These dreams can be anxiety producing. A lot of woman have these horrible dreams, and ask, "Is that normal?" And the answer is yes. First moms in particular are more prone to have anxiety dreams. There's one study that seems to show that the more anxiety dreams you have during pregnancy the shorter and easier is the delivery. The author's belief is that the women were mastering this experience in fantasy, that they were preparing themselves.