When I think about dreams and dreaming, my mind takes me to the hypnotic voice of the diva, Joan Sutherland, singing the aria “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls” from The Bohemian Girl Opera. Whether it’s opera, Les Mis (“I Dreamed a Dream”) or Aerosmith (“Dream On”), dreams have so much meaning in our lives – especially the ones that happen as we slumber.
Dreams can be bizarre, scary, exhilarating and seemingly nonsensical all at the same time. They’re one of the most unique experiences of consciousness (rather, unconsciousness), and research is exploring the potential benefits of REM sleep—the sleep stage we’re in when we dream—and of understanding our dreams. Today, we’re taking a deep dive into both, with tangible tips on how you can start reflecting on your dreams for personal growth and self-understanding.
What are the different sleep stages?
For starters, you should know the general sleep stages we move through while we’re asleep. They don’t always occur consecutively, and we can float back and forth between various phases. They are listed below:
Stage 0 – Awake: This stage refers to the time in bed preparing for sleep. It can also exist as the brief moments you may lightly awaken during the night or a nap.
Stage 1 & 2 – Light Sleep: Typically, we start our sleep cycle in light sleep mode. Your muscles relax, heart rate slows, and body temperature decreases. Your body is preparing to move into deeper sleep stages or to awaken.
Stage 3 & 4 – Deep Sleep: This phase is where healing and repair happens. Your body focuses its energy on releasing various hormones, boosting blood flow, and repairing damaged cells. Your brain activity is slow and focused on pruning unnecessary information and data from the day.
Stage R – REM Sleep: In REM, your body takes on a unique set of characteristics. You may have dreams that are fantastical and vivid. Your body moves into atonia, where the muscles are essentially switched off (this keeps you from acting out your dreams).
Why is REM Sleep important?
REM Sleep is an especially important phase for a variety of reasons. A recent article in Sleepline outlines that getting adequate REM sleep has been shown to:
- Increase ability to read others’ emotions
- Heighten ability to manage stress
- Improve memory
- Boost mood
- Bolster creativity and problem solving skills
In addition to the benefits of getting enough REM sleep, having a deficit of REM sleep has been shown to correlate with a decreased ability to cope with negative emotions, weight gain, more migraines, increased anxiety, and declining memory.
Lastly, in REM sleep we dream, and many psychologists believe reflecting on these visions in our REM sleep can provide genuine psychological value and benefit.
Why should I care about my dreams?
Dreams are often a marker of what’s troubling you most intensely right now. Your concerns from the past day or two days are likely to arise in your dreams, a phenomena known as the day-residue effect. Similarly, prominent issues can arise in dreams about 5-7 days after the issue occurs; this is called the dream-lag effect. In either case, your dreams are often signaling to you the parts of life most stressful and needing the most reflection or attention right now.
Many also believe that dreams are a way to consolidate memory and new information. As we already reviewed, adequate sleep, especially REM sleep, is important to boosting memory. Some theorize this memory boosting effect is actually due to dreams. A recent Harvard study has shown new learnings are more easily recalled if those learnings were incorporated into a dream, making our dreams a way that the mind seeks to embed important information.
Combining these two pieces, dream expert and psychologist Dr. Sue Llewellyn notes that our ability to spot patterns increases after dreaming. Dreams can feel extremely bizarre and random, but when we begin to notice how the bizarreness of our dreams is strung together with similar emotions, characters, or themes, it can help our ability to notice hard-to-spot patterns in our waking lives. Some even see this as the subconscious mind attempting to relay messages or warnings about what to give more attention to in the waking state (No – we’re not in The Twilight Zone!)
How can I record my dreams?
Psychologist Dr. Jason Holland recommends recording information about your dreams with a dream diary or journal if you’re curious about really getting to the heart of what your dreams mean, and what they may be trying to tell you.
Not only can recording your dreams provide you with insight on your daily highs and lows – it can also show you general patterns in what’s been affecting you.
Recording your dreams can be very simple. It essentially consists of writing down the main points, characters, and emotions of your dreams. When considering the meaning of these different aspects, focus on the significance they hold to you based on your own lived experiences, rather than meanings you might read on various dream dictionaries online.
You can record your dreams in:
- A journal or notepad
- The notes app on your phone
- A voice memos app (Apple phones have this built in; it’s a great substitute if you don’t like writing)
- A number of iPhone and Android apps: Dream Journal & Lucid Tool como Dreams are two great, free options (note: both include optional in-app purchases)
I started journaling my dreams upon waking and was surprised to learn of the things I dreamt about: giant white snake trying to eat a goldfish, someone looking for their cut-off toe, getting on a plane made of paper, etc. I haven’t figured out what all this means yet but it sure makes great conversation!
Start recording your dreams and see what insights it brings you! When you string together the seemingly nonsensical, you just might find the key to the questions keeping you stuck and the patterns you’re ready to break out of.