The Quiet of the Mind

The Quiet of the Mind

I know many people who claim they don’t dream. Science tells us we dream, on average, about five times every night. We dream every time we pass through the REM cycle of sleep. But many people don’t remember their dreams. When they wake, those nighttime images pass from notice. Sometimes something a person says or a smell or an image might trigger a distant memory, a short snippet of something glimpsed during the night.

I’ve never been like that. I have always dreamed vividly and I have often remembered those images upon waking. As a writer, I harvest my dreams. I jot down every interesting tidbit, no matter how brief. You never know when you’ll string together a coherent plot out of it all. I have a folder of ideas that sits on my computer. The majority of them come from dreams. In fact, two of the four novels I’ve written were heavily inspired by dreams.

This tendency of mine to dream in such vivid detail has inspired a lot of research. The best way to capture dreams is to understand the science behind the body’s sleep cycle. Understanding the sleep cycle is also useful if you’re an insomniac, like me. After all, the best dreams are born during a full night’s rest.

It’s generally accepted that there are four stages of sleep. These are recognizable because the activity of our brains is distinctly different at each level of sleep. We dream during the REM (or Rapid Eye Movement) stage. The other three stages are classified as NREM (non-REM).

When we sleep we travel downward through the cycle, starting at N1. The deepest sleep occurs during N3 (also known as slow wave sleep (SWS) or Delta sleep because the brain produces delta waves at this level of sleep). It’s a bad idea to use sedatives (when they can be avoided) because they prevent you from reaching the deepest layer of sleep (N3). After spending some time in N3 we begin to travel back up through the stages. Instead of N1, however, we pass through the REM cycle, during which dreams occur. After this first cycle we spend less time in the N3 stage, but more time in the REM stage, which means more dreams. Some research indicates it used to be common for people to awaken after one set of sleep cycles, be active for awhile, then go back to bed for a second sleep. Either way, the average adult spends about 25% of their sleep time in the REM stage, which means they may spend an average of 25% of their night dreaming.

So why can’t everyone remember their dreams if we all dream with about the same frequency? Some people sleep too well to recall their dreams, especially dreams which occur early in the night, well before waking naturally. Dreams are best remembered if we wake directly from them.

One method is to set your alarm an hour before you want to wake. When it goes off, go back to sleep with your alarm set to wake you in one hour. When you wake, you’ll remember your dreams. This works because you’re giving yourself enough time to travel to the first REM cycle, and waking yourself directly from that sleep stage, meaning the images are fresh in your mind.

Another way to capture your dreams with more regularity (without having to wake up an extra time), is to write them down. Most ‘dream experts’ recommend keeping a journal by the side of your bed. If you wake up in the middle of the night and recall a dream, jot it down. I’ve never done this – it would interfere with my sleep schedule too much and, as an insomniac, it’s incredibly hard for me to sleep at all when there are interruptions to my regular sleep schedule. But over the year’s I’ve found that writing your dreams down at all will encourage your brain to hold on to them longer. Write them down in the morning while you’re drinking your coffee. Write them down when that flash of inspiration reminds you of something out of nowhere. I used to email myself on my lunch break at work whenever I recalled a dream in the morning.

But my interest in dreams goes beyond the science. Vivid dream imagery, unfortunately, also means vivid nightmares. I wake up in a cold sweat sometimes from the kind of disturbing nightmares that make you wonder what kind of drugs you took (even if you didn’t take any). But I’ve also had several re-occurring nightmares that have plagued me. These nightmares encouraged me to research dream interpretation (cooky as it might sound) in hopes I could rid myself of these troubling images.

The first of my re-occurring nightmares is actually fairly common. I often dream of my teeth falling out. They fall out for all kinds of silly and stupid reasons. Once I dreamed that I was getting ready for my wedding and I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth. I used the wrong tube somehow and brushed them with some sticky chemical substance that coated my teeth. When I prodded at them, they started falling out. Often when I have these dreams, I try to shove my teeth back into the gums, hoping to get them to stay in place.

What does the tooth falling out dream mean? According to every dream interpretation I’ve read, teeth falling out is an insecurity dream. It means that we’re afraid of losing something; a loved one, a home, a pet, an object of extreme sentimental value. If you stop to think about it, it makes a great deal of sense. Our teeth do represent an aspect of our well-being. If we lose our teeth, it’s difficult to feed and therefore care for ourselves. So it makes justifiable sense that our brain tells us we’re afraid of losing our livelihood and other important things by showing us our teeth falling out.

Has interpreting the dream made it disappear? Not entirely. But now that I recognize both the dream and it’s meaning, I’m able to rouse myself as soon as my teeth start falling out. This is a dream, I tell myself. I wake up, I roll over, and the image troubles me no more. So in a round-about way, I suppose it has.

The other re-occurring nightmare involves elongated shadows that stalk me. Sometimes they lurk in or around my home or places I’ve lived before. Often they try to strangle me (so you can see why these dreams terrify me). I’ve never found an interpretation for them, but I have found an explanation. Several years back I watched a documentary on alien abduction. It was put together by a respected journalist (though now I can’t remember his name). It took the stories of victims seriously while also trying to find reasonable explanations for them. I recall it was very well done. It was the show that introduced me to the concept of sleep paralysis.

When we dream, our brain produces a chemical that paralyses us from the neck down (aside from vital organs), to prevent us from acting out our dreams. Sleep paralysis occurs when someone wakes during an REM cycle, still paralyzed by this chemical. The show offered sleep paralysis as a possible explanation for alien abduction stories because many of the common factors discussed by victims matches the symptoms of sleep paralysis – the inability to move coupled with a sense of impending danger and sometimes hallucinations of shadowy figures (often elongated and shadowy).

Sounds familiar.

I’ve never awakened during my nightmares. I’ve always been asleep. Sometimes I’m aware I’m asleep when they happen and sometimes I’m not aware it was a dream until after I wake up. Sometimes I’m aware I’m asleep but can’t seem to wake up and the struggle to escape the nightmare only makes it worse. But I have had significantly fewer of these dreams since learning about the condition. Though there are, perhaps, several other factors which could have lessened these nightmares; I’m more confident than I used to be, we’ve moved, ect.

Unfortunately, dream interpretation isn’t a cure for nightmares. I still have plenty of disturbing dreams. I usually only have them once, but that’s still enough to wake me up and get my brain churning. That leads me to my third and final type of dream research; Lucid Dreaming. The simplest explanation of lucid dreaming is: when you realize you’re dreaming, you can take over the dream and control it. Yes this is actually a real thing. And yes there are several papers, books and websites devoted to teaching you how you can learn the technique.

From what I understand, lucid dreaming is a valuable meditation technique. It can make the time you spend dreaming more relaxing and enjoyable. What happens in dreams is, after all, only limited by your imagination. Lucid dreaming was featured in an episode of Star Trek; Voyager, where the crew were under the influence of a shared dream forced on them by a sleeping alien race. One of the characters, skilled in the practice, used the image of Earth’s moon to inform him he was dreaming. When he saw the image, he knew to wake himself; much like I use the image of my teeth falling out to wake myself.

I’ve never mastered the technique. It’s a tricky thing to do. One of the most popular methods is to ask yourself the question at regular intervals throughout the day am I dreaming? This is called ‘reality checking.’ You have to be able to take this question seriously (something I can never do while I’m awake). If you ask yourself regularly am I dreaming? And learn to assess whether or not you are, your brain will do this automatically during your dreams. If you can realize you are dreaming without waking up, you can control your dreams. I’ve done this accidentally. Often I’ll end up flying around in the dream and controlling where I want to go. Awareness of my waking life sometimes also interferes with my dreams on a smaller scale. For instance, I’ll often dream I’m visiting family who live far away, or going on some other sort of vacation, only to recall I have to work the next day or over the weekend. The dream then shifts to focus on me trying to get home in time to get to work.

How can you tell you’re dreaming? There are a few tried and true methods. One is the ‘totem’ method I mentioned before, where you see a certain object and it triggers the realization you’re dreaming (they played on this in the movie Inception). Other ways are to look at a clock. If you’re dreaming, the time on a clock will jump drastically between viewings even if only a few seconds have passed. If you’re reading or writing, read the same few lines over again; they’ll be different. There’s no consistency for these sorts of things in dreams. Your mind will simply fill in the blank with whatever image at the time you look at it. Sadly, I’ve written many a brilliant poem or story in my dreams, only to realize I can’t remember a single word when I wake up (likely because my brain filled the dream with an impression of a poem rather than an actual poem. Ah, the agonies of a writer!).

I suspect dreams, in all their forms, will remain very much a part of my life. And while I wish I could weed out all the bad ones, I’m grateful to have the creative ideas whenever and however they reach me.

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