I’ve talked about REM sleep and dreams before, ad nauseam. But research has shown that we don’t just dream during REM, we also dream during non-REM (with its four stages leading up to (and from) REM with non-REM out performing REM by over 2.5:1). And it turns out that there’s a qualitative difference between the types of dreams!
Those who are awakened during a non-REM episode report generally positive dreams while those who are awakened from REM report mostly negative. What’s that about?
Well, during REM sleep the Amygdala (located deep within the medial temporal lobes of our brain) that deals with unpleasant emotions, aggression, and fear and modulates REM sleep, hence the negative vibes. Along that note, it’s interesting that people with depression jump into REM quickly by bypassing the non-REM stages–the positive stages. A dysfunctional Amygdala is also implicated. This rapid entering into REM and depletion of overall nonREM is a marker for depression and often precedes a depressive episode*.
Nightmares are also experienced during REM and are affected by a dysfunctional sleep cycle in that people with depression and/or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) tend to have a lot of them. There’s a movement afoot in the Psychiatric field to find ways of diminishing nightmares in those with chronic depression and PTSD. But nightmares are similar to ancestral dreams and may very well be rehearsals in the struggle to survive. They may be the brain’s way of aiding an individual to confront their fears and tensions head-on. Drugs may in the short term provide a respite for the insomnia of the depressed caused by nightmares, but if used over the long term what may they be doing to the process that nature uses to resolve and deal with fear? Do we really understand the functions of sleep and dreaming well enough to be interfering in this way? Might not it be better to develop a different way of therapeutically dealing with the darkness other than the popping of a pill to suppress it?
REM dreams tend to be dark and sometimes unpleasant and the Western culture tends to avoid these emotions in that it is believed that it’s best to leave them alone. But what is the consequence of this avoidance over time? What is the consequence of suppressing the natural negative? Perhaps in some of us it takes the form of chronic depression, or chronically unresolved fears and anxieties, especially those fears and anxieties that seem to be unattached to any stimulus, what psychologists call “Free-floating.”
Both REM and non-REM have what appear to be important, perhaps even vital, functions to our survival and learning. It turns out that non-REM is our internal trainer–it mirrors past experience in a time-compressed manner. It literally is helping you in the present to relate to the future from the past. The REM dream, however, expands time and takes you into the future in order to practice it and to test various scenarios. This may explain why some dreams seem to be about what’s happened during your waking life the day before, while others seem more distant, or unrelated to waking life events, perhaps more internal in nature.
Dreams in both forms seem to be nature’s way of preparing us for whatever comes next. Basically it’s an ancient survival tool, the content is different, but the mechanics are pretty much the same.
Dreams seem to reinforce learning, creativity, and survival skills, provide a window to your emotional self, and open a space for life preparation, i.e. practice. They do this by providing a totally different point-of-view to that of our waking life i.e. they are intuitive and visual in contrast to the waking life’s linear and logical. What seem to be intractable problems in one’s waking life can be overcome through the highly creative, free-associating content of dreams.
*Bypassing non-REM sleep also interrupts the body’s healing/repair/rejuvenation/immunization cycle that further reinforces the depression.