I think we’re fascinated with our dreams because we believe they tell us something about ourselves. But while they may not predict the future or even tell us much about our personalities, new research shows that they do help us learn new skills, work through problems and overcome troubles.
It’s this last bit that really got my attention when I read psychologist Richard Wiseman’s latest book Night School. Why we dream is a fundamental question, and although many of the images and plot lines that run through our sleeping minds can seem completely random, plenty of research shows that they are in fact very purposeful. When you take the time to break down their content in the context of your life, the meaning often becomes clear. Wiseman cites examples of people trying to make difficult decisions whose answers have come nocturnal metaphors, or people struggling at work whose bosses are reincarnated as dragons blocking the elevator doors.
But dreams can also be a form of therapy. The theory is that by experiencing or working through situations we find difficult during sleep, we are less likely to be affected by them in our waking life. Dreaming helps us cope with the world. Studies seem to bear this out – one particularly interesting one looked at women with depression following divorce. Those that dreamt more about their ex-spouse were more likely to have beaten depression within 5 years.
So dreaming is good for depression, right? Well, Wiseman also cites a study that seems to contradict this, for a slightly different reason. I’ve often half-joked that the reason I’m so tired all the time and I need to sleep a lot is because I have particularly vivid dreams and that takes a lot of energy. Well, it turns out that’s true. But here’s the rub: people with depression are shown to dream more, presumably to try and help them cope, but this energetic dreaming leads to daytime tiredness and fatigue, all things that can make depression worse.
When I had depression, I could never really sympathise with other sufferers I met who were insomniacs. I mean, I understood it on an objective level – you’re worried so you stay awake consumed by your anxieties. But all I wanted to do was be asleep. Not that dreams were any comfort of course; when I had a bout of severe depression following a break up I didn’t dream of my ex too much, but had a recurring dream that tried to prove to me that something I cared about very much was not what I always thought.
In Night School, Wiseman mentions these two results, of dreams as therapy and of dreaming too much as fatiguing, in separate sections. In the latter, he describes how techniques to reduce dreaming and spend more time the the restorative phases of sleep can help afflicted depressives get a more productive night’s rest and function better in the morning. But as unconnected from the previous section I have to wonder: which is better for helping us through troubled times, dream therapy or getting a quality rest? How can we optimise the best of both worlds?
If I had my way, I’d keep my dream therapist and be allowed to spend a little more time in bed. It’s one of the reasons I’ve never practised lucid dreaming, even though I have done it naturally a couple of times. I like to pay attention to what my dream landscape is telling me.
[P.S. I thoroughly recommend the book – I read it faster than I would have liked, so full was it of interesting research, stories, insights and Wiseman’s perfect measure of wit.]