The Power of Dreams

Did you ever have a dream that changed your life? Did you ever wake in the middle of the night, drenched with sweat and filled with terror? Did you ever jump out of bed to check on a loved one? Did you ever try to force yourself back to sleep because you were enjoying a dream so much that you didn’t ever want to leave that sleepy land?

I thought it appropriate to explore the science of dreams on a day that we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King. The American pastor and human rights activist shared his famous dream speech with the world on August 28, 1963. His dream clearly helped to change the world!

Many individuals hold their own personal theory on dreams, and scientists will share with you their hypotheses on their mechanism and value. The divergence of opinion is not really surprising as this “alternative reality” is hard to research. Scientists devote time to studying brain waves and other metabolic activities during sleep and force dreamers into wakefulness, prompting them to recall the content of their nocturnal journeys. Psychologists and anthropologists work to relate dreams to psychosocial events and needs. Spiritualists look for messages in dreams. Not surprisingly, there is little consensus, and large knowledge gaps exist in this profoundly moving aspect of our lives.

Scientists agree that dreaming happens mainly during rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep. In this phase of sleep, the entire body is paralyzed, except for the eye muscles. Some believe that sleep paralysis is designed to protect the dreamer, who otherwise may act out the vivid dreams, sometimes with disastrous effect. A group of scientists have explored the similarities between sleep paralysis and the deep trance-like state some animals enter when “playing dead”. The “tonic immobility reflex” is the last refuge of certain species that fake death to escape predators (hence terms like “playing possum”). While physiologically similar, an evolutionary link is hard to prove. What is clear about REM sleep is that the unparalyzed eyes react to the dream as though it was real. The eyes scan and follow the action being played out in the theater of the sleeping brain.

There is far less agreement about what dreams actually are, and why we have them. Freud believed that they were “letters to ourselves”. Although not adhering as closely to his original hypothesis, many modern psychologists still believe that dreams somehow either reflect issues we are currently wrestling with (“emotional processing” theory) or serve to prepare us for events that may occur in the future (“threat simulation” theory). A prominent group of neuroscientists believe that dreams are nothing more than a collection of random nerve activity in the brain. I find this theory hard to substantiate given the colorful stories I have experienced, in many of my dreams. To unite these hypotheses, other scientists propose that our brains react to the random nerve activity to give it meaning. It may be that our current emotional and psychological context serves as a filter, ensuring that our brains apply relevant interpretations.

Throughout history we have attempted to interpret the meaning of dreams. Many of us will be familiar with the biblical story of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams in the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Bill Dement, the grandfather of modern sleep science reminds us to differentiate between the meaning of a dream and its purpose. To date, we have no definitive scientific conclusion on either!

So, this gives us broad scope in deciding what to make of dreams, and I’m happy to share my own views.

First, enjoy them! We have roughly 2 hours of REM sleep on an average night, and we dream in each of them. That means we get to watch one full-length movie, or perhaps 4 sitcoms every night! We remember a dream when we waken during that dream. This happens when the emotional weight of the experience exceeds our somnolence. We know from nuclear scans of the brain that our emotional brain and long-term memory centers are hyperactive during dreams, while other centers such as sensory and computational regions are passive. This explains the remarkable phenomenon of waking, with your cognitive brain aware that what you just experienced was NOT real, while your emotional brain firmly believes it WAS real. This suggests to me that the cognitive brain served up a life-like experience to the emotional brain for good reason.

Which takes me to my second recommendation: use them! Use them to help you interpret and understand issues you are dealing with in your day-to-day life. In a way, your body puts your brain onto the therapists couch every night. Observe, learn, and grow. Do NOT get caught up in doom and gloom forecasts. No science has ever demonstrated that dreams foreshadow reality. What we do know is that visualization is a powerful tool when you’re awake. So, use the equally powerful theatre of the mind while you’re asleep to prepare you for the future, either by rehearsing for events you dread, or more powerfully, in planning for a spectacular future. We recently discussed the power of BELIEF in driving success in your life. You need to harness the cognitive and emotional brains harmoniously behind an idea, which becomes a desire, and finally an invincible BELIEF that overcomes doubt and leads to success. Embrace the moments when you wake in ecstasy, with the cognitive and emotional brains in deep alignment. Use this force to drive success in your life.

This brings us back to Dr. Martin Luther King. I believe that he had a real dream; a dream in which his cognitive and emotional brains were so tightly aligned that success was inevitable. I recommend that you read or listen to his deeply moving words, and ask yourself if dreams can come true. Then close your eyes, find your own desires, arm them with BELIEF, and build your future!

Have fun,

Roddy

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