Dreams and Health

Depending on who you ask, dreams could mean everything or nothing at all.

For some, they are loaded with significance; every dream has value and substance.  Dreams reveal what is happening at your deepest level of self and therefore, their importance cannot be overstated.

For others, dreams are just mental trash: a discarding of experiences from the day and the past.  They are simply mechanisms for the mind to play out what it has encountered, make sense of it and get rid of it.

You can see this dichotomy clearly in Buddhist tradition.  Following the path of the Buddha involves the dismantling of mental constructs, to “unlearn what you have learned” as Yoda said.  On the Buddhist path, one must never get too attached to a thought or an idea, for said attachment is the root of suffering.  So the overall stance on dreams is aligned with the mental trash theory.  They are simply a product of the unruly mind and should not be assigned any deep meaning.

On the flip side, there is actually evidence that dreams are indeed important and even life-shaping events within the Buddhist tradition.  In the ancient Tibetan Buddhist system, the science of dreaming was not widely discussed, but more of a well-kept secret of more advanced practitioners.  Apparently, those who knew these secrets were able to advance their spiritual practice in the dream world.

And dreams were even used to authenticate Buddha-hood.  Documented sources reveal that more than once, a Buddha has been preempted by a dream containing a white elephant.  In one case, the mother of a particular and verified incarnation of the Buddha reported dreaming of birthing a white elephant long before she conceived.

Compelling stuff.

Whether you believe dreams are wrought with consequential symbolism or that they are meaningless projections of the mind, there is some interesting science that links our nocturnal adventures (or misadventures) to our overall well-being.   


Dreams and Sleep Quantity

Freud said that dreams are the guardians of sleep.  That is, their evolutionary function is to keep us in a sleep state.  After all, adequate sleep is crucial to being a healthy human. 

But more dreams do not necessarily mean more sleep.  In fact, the opposite is true.

You are more likely to experience frequent and vivid dreams when you are sleep deprived.  The less sleep you get, the greater the sleep intensity when you actually are unconscious.  Brain activity is greatly increased.  This is due to what’s called REM rebound.  REM refers to “rapid eye movement”, the quick shifts our eyes make in deep sleep.  During REM, brain activity is nearly as high as a fully awake state.  It’s the time when you have the most vivid dreams.

If you lose out on REM one night, the next night you may be in for an intense dreaming session.

A 2005 study showed that losing just 30 minutes of REM in one night caused a 35% spike in REM sleep the following night. 

So the more you sleep regularly, the less intense your REM sleep and consequently, your dreams.  If you are experiencing a decrease in shut-eye, get ready for a more extreme dream experience.


Nightmares and Mental Health

To have a nightmare is to be human.

We all have experienced the terror of being chased or the panic of falling off a building, only to be relieved when finally waking.

But consistent nightmares can be a sign of poor mental health.

People with depression have been found statistically to have more nightmares.  Interestingly, they also tend to play a more passive role in their dreams and are less likely to remember details.

Schizophrenic subjects also apparently suffer from increased nightmares.  Studies have indicated that this particular mental illness correlates with regular dreams of heightened anxiety.  Schizophrenics report more strangers in their dreams than familiar faces or friends.  Sounds pretty scary.

Finally, studies have also linked frequent nightmares to Personality Disorder and childhood trauma.

Many therapists will actually use dreams as a gage to measure treatment efficacy.  A decrease in nightmares and/or increase in positive dream themes is indicative that the patient is making progress.

While it’s completely normal to dream about the boogeyman every once in a while, persistent bad dreams could be symptomatic of an underlying mental health issue or stress.  Regular nightmares should not be ignored.  So in this case, we can say that dreams may in fact be highly significant to our lives.


Emotional Processing

Like the Buddhists, scientific researchers are divided on the function of dreams.  Some categorize them as a mere side effect of sleep.  But others are finding compelling evidence that dreaming plays a role in daily emotional processing.

Dr. Rosalind Cartwright, dream researcher and professor emeritus of psychology at Rush University, calls dreams our “internal therapist”.  They create a sort of inner dialogue within the psyche that helps the brain process and resolve emotional issues on a subconscious level.

Cartwright’s research concludes that dreams also affect mood regulation.  A 1998 study of hers found that dreams served as an overnight mood moderator in both depressed and non-depressed subjects.

Whatever emotional situation you are going through, and as humans we go through A LOT, your dreams may be evolution’s therapeutic tool to help you process and cope. 

Dreams are mysterious by nature.  Throughout time, they’ve been the impetus for many life-altering decisions and brilliant ideas. 

But their real, defined function in our lives remains a mystery. 

From a scientific perspective, the camps are divided, much like the general public.  On the one hand, there’s the idea that dreams are brain trash, throw-aways from a whirlwind of information constantly received and processed.  On the other, there is substantial evidence that dreams are intimately connected to our mental and emotional health.

What do YOU think?