Positive and negative dreams…REM and non-REM


The Nightmare by- John Henry Fuseli (1780)

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.

The Darkling Wood



Into the wood where the Darkling play2_fairies_lighting_moon_reflections.gif

Follow the path, I’ll show you the way.

Look carefully now for all crawly and slither

They’ll make you all creepy, scaredy and shiver.

The night falls here with a cackle and thump

A crack of a twig, a murmer and bump.

For it’s these dark woods where the nightmares play

The nightwoods where your darkmares say,

Beware, beware the darkling soul

He cannot be bested by fairy nor troll.

For he rules the forests of your mind

Your lighter and darker forever entwined.

Look close dear one for there is a charm

That can tame before there is too much harm.

Face the demon to make you wise

Embrace his fire and don’t despise.

Give only what he is due and

Accept that he is but a part of you.

He will bow his head and give you due

For his master is really you.

So harness him up and together take flight

Across the deep lake and into the night.

–R.J. Cole


Take a peek at the Dark Knight of the Soul blog and see what it is that dark dreams have to tell us.

10 interesting facts about dreams



1) Surprisingly, your body is virtually paralyzed during your sleep – most likely to prevent your body from acting out aspects of your dreams. According to a Wikipedia article on dreaming, “Glands begin to secrete a hormone that helps induce sleep and neurons send signals to the spinal cord which cause the body to relax and later become essentially paralyzed.” This fact often accounts for those dreams when we actually feel paralyzed. This is especially true when we first wake, but are not yet fully conscious.

2) If you are awakened out of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, you are more likely to remember your dream in a more vivid way than you would if you woke from a full night sleep. Studies have shown that our brain waves are more active when we are dreaming than when we are awake. Women tend to have more frequent dream recall than men.

3) When you are snoring, you are not dreaming. This may be partially true in that people with sleep apnea don’t usually get the deep sleep that is often characterized by dreams. However, we also experience dreams when in the lighter, Alpha, stage of dreaming that may not be affected by sleep apnea.

4) When you dream about some particular subject or even a person you know, it is not necessarily what the dream is about. Dreams speak in a deeply symbolic language. The unconscious mind tries to compare your dream to something else that has similar aspects or characteristics. Whatever symbol your dream picks on it is most unlikely to be a symbol for itself.

5) A full 12% of sighted people dream exclusively in black and white. That means about 88% of us dream in full color. We also tend to have common themes in our dreams, e.g. situations relating to school, being chased, running slowly, or in place, sexual experiences, falling, arriving too late, a person now alive being dead, teeth falling out, flying, failing an examination, or a car accident.

6) In an average lifetime, humans spend a total of about six years of it dreaming. That is more than 2,100 days spent in a different realm! On average, we dream anywhere from one to two hours every night. Moreover, we can have four to seven different dreams in one night.

7) In a recent sleep study, students who were awakened at the beginning of each dream, but still allowed their 8 hours of sleep, all experienced difficulty in concentration, irritability, hallucinations, and signs of psychosis after only 3 days. When finally allowed their REM sleep the student’s brains made up for lost time by greatly increasing the percentage of sleep spent in the REM stage.

8) People who become blind after birth can see images in their dreams. Those who are born blind do not see any images, but have dreams equally vivid involving other senses of sound, smell, touch and emotion.

9) Nightmares are common in children, typically beginning at around age 3 and occurring up to age 7-8. In adults between 2 and 8% are plagued with nightmares. Occasional adult nightmares experienced by many are usually the result of extreme stresses experienced in their waking life and is the mind’s way of dealing with them.

10) Dreams have been here as long as mankind.  In the Roman Era, profound and significant dreams were submitted to the Senate for analysis and interpretation. This was true of most tribal groups and continues as a practice within some small communities throughout the world.