SINCE THE BEGINNING OF TIME, men have regarded dreams as a sort of by-product of sleep, often pleasant, sometimes frightening, as in nightmares. Ancient soothsayers believed—as do some modern psychiatrists—that the content of dreams can be significant. Now scientists have discovered that the very act of dreaming contributes importantly to mankind’s mental and physical health.
Research now underway may help those who suffer from schizophrenia, neurological disabilities such as epilepsy, and prevent borderline cases from developing into much more serious mental illness.
One result of this research is the knowledge that we need to dream the right amount to keep healthy. People who dream less than they should develop abnormal behavior—irritability, anxiety, impaired memory, inability to concentrate, and poor co-ordination. In one study, persons who went without sleep, and therefore without dreams, for a hundred hours developed psychosis, a very serious and disabling psychiatric illness.
On the other hand, too much dreaming can be harmful. Victims of schizophrenia, or split personality, the commonest and most disabling of all mental ills, dream more than normal people do.
Dr. William C. Dement, of Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, one of the “big three” of the world’s dream researchers, says dreaming is a necessary psychological outlet. Dr. Charles Fisher, of New York, who was one of Dr. Dement’s collaborators, adds, “Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.”
Research has also uncovered a connection between dreams and sudden deaths which occur as a result of heart attacks, asthma and other circulatory and respiratory diseases. This relationship may be the answer to the puzzle of why so many people die during sleep, when supposedly they are under less strain than when awake.
It is now known that when you are dreaming your body is working at a harder clip than when you are awake: your breathing is shallower and more irregular, your pulse is higher, the blood flow to your cerebral arteries is greater, and your heart is pumping harder. Dreams of a particularly exciting and stimulating nature so increase the demand on physical resources that a patient in poor condition may not be able to survive in the face of this demand.
Dr. Frederick M. Snyder, of the National Institute of Mental Health, at Bethesda, Maryland, where one of the U. S. government-backed dream laboratories is maintained, believes this probably accounts for the large number of sudden deaths during sleep.
One researcher has suggested it may be possible to eliminate some of these deaths by using sedatives or drugs to reduce the number of stressful dreams to which a patient is subject when he is in poor condition.
Here is some of the new information uncovered about dreams:
We dream more than we thought (about one hundred minutes every night, or twenty to twenty-five percent of sleeping time) and the average is four dreams a night, or fifteen hundred a year. Any Canadian of seventy or more has already dreamed away at least four and a half years of his life in one hundred thousand dreams.
The first dream, after ninety minutes of sleep, is the shortest—about nine minutes; the next jumps to nineteen or twenty minutes and the others increase in duration by about five minutes each, with about ninety minutes between each one.
A study of immediate dream recall reveals that more than eighty percent of our dreams are in color, seven out of ten being in vivid Technicolor. I used to be thought that seventy-five percent of dreams were in black and white.
Certain drugs increase or reduce the number and speed of dreams.
We have preliminary evidence that the content of dreams can be influenced by mental telepathy.
Events in dreams do not flash across the mind in a fraction of a second, unrelated to time and space concepts of the waking world. It takes you just as long to walk a block in a dream as in real life. You watch yourself take that walk, and your eyes follow your footsteps around corners and up and down curbs at the intersection, and it’s possible that you hear each slap of leather on the pavement. Dreams are not like old Charlie Chaplin movies run through the projector at twice the frame-per-second rate at which they were made.
The dreamer really believes the events are happening. If he’s watching a tennis match, his eyes follow the ball to and fro across the net, and if the ball bounces out of sight at one end of the court, his eyes stay glued on that side until the ball is in play again. If it s a volleyball game, the eyes go up and down. The dreamer is there, sharing the emotions of the crowd.
Going to bed on a full stomach does not affect the number or kind of dreams you will have.
You can’t start a dream by banging a window shut, or letting a cold draft of air into the bedroom, ringing the doorbell, or sending a fire reel down the street, but it is possible that about forty percent of such events will be incorporated into dreams already underway, perhaps in a modified form.
Children have nightmares in the intervals of ordinary sleep not usually associated with dreams, and this applies as well to the few adults who have them.
Depriving a man of water for twenty-four hours and sending him to bed desperate for a drink will not increase his likelihood of dreaming of a cool running stream, even if verbal clues along that line are spoken.
You can’t force a dream of a certain type on someone by taping his eyelids open while he sleeps, and passing pictures or other visual stimuli across his eyes.
Newborn babies “dream” twelve hours in every twenty-four — they show the same brain-wave and eye-movement pattern that occurs during dreams of adults. Premature babies “dream” even more of the time; those born about a month early, for instance, are in this state seventy percent of the time.
“It is very doubtful that the newborn infant is having visual dreams because their brains and nervous systems are so immature,” says Dr. D. C. Conway, professor of pediatrics at the University of Ottawa.
Both men and women dream the same amount, but dreaming time falls with advancing age. (It decreases from infancy through childhood, and then increases at time of puberty.) As for the battle of the sexes in dreamland, men tend to have hostile dreams about other men and friendly dreams about women, while women bestow their sunny dreams on both men and women, and have fewer unfriendly dreams toward other people than men.
On this evidence, women are the kinder, gentler sex, for an investigator who collected and studied ten thousand dreams found hostility to be the chief emotion involved in sixty-four percent. A murder took place in one of every fifty hostile dreams, reported Dr. Calvin S. Hall, of Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, while violence and violent talk dominated the other forty-nine.
A deficit of dreaming, says Dr. Frederick Snyder, of the U. S. National Institute of Mental Health, significantly alters brain function and can cause mental illness.
Some types of epileptic seizures become worse and some disappear during dreams, according to Dr. Snyder. This gives researchers an important lead to follow, for there is a specific relationship between the action of the brain in dreams and in seizures.
There is a relationship, too, between the brain-wave patterns during their dreams and during their attacks in victims of narcolepsy, who fall into deep sleeps, suddenly and without warning, and who begin to dream at once. The sleeps are usually of short duration, but may be long enough to cause fatal accidents. In a type of narcolepsy where the patient may suddenly fall to the floor, without losing consciousness, the brain and eye patterns are particularly similar to those in their dreams.
Depressed people dream less than others, according to a report given this year at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, and not surprisingly, their dreams are mostly unhappy ones. But in this case, an ill wind blows some good, for one method of telling whether sufferers are improving under treatment is if their dreams become more cheerful and if they can recall more complex dreams than before.
Teeth grinding and rhythmic headbanging by sleeping persons are highly related to their dreams, says Dr. Snyder, but there is little connection between dreams and snoring, bed-wetting, talking in sleep, night-time anxiety, or sleepwalking.
The person who walks in his dreams does so because the nervous-system mechanism that usually suppresses such physical activity as walking during sleep, has failed to do so in this case. The sleepwalker is acting out his dream. The opposite reaction is when a dreamer imagines himself completely paralyzed as a tiger prepares to leap.
The key that opened the door to the mysterious world of dreams was research that led to method of measuring dreams in time and revealing their contents.
Two electronic devices of modern medicine make it possible to learn when a dream begins and when it ends — the electroencephalograph (EEG) and the electrooculogram (EOG). The EEG tremendously magnifies the electrical discharges of brain waves so they can be recorded automatically, and the EOG measures speed and direction of eye movements. Electrodes are attached to two areas of the head in the case of the EEG and to the folds of skin near the corner of each eye for the EOG recording. A low-voltage, rapid-fire burst of brain waves, along with a darting back and forth or skittering of the eyes, signals that a dream has begun. Other distinctive patterns on the unrolling graph paper of both machines tell when that dream is over.
From a baby, the clue
This period has been given the name of Rapid Eye Movement Sleep, or REMS, and ordinary sleep, in which the dreaming content is much less and more related to the day’s activities, is called Non-Rapid Eye Movement Sleep, or NREMS.
The first clue to the existence of this well-organized framework for dreams came from an alert physiology professor making the rounds of a nursery in a Chicago hospital. Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman noticed that the eyes of a baby were darting back and forth, underneath the closed lids. This triggered some ideas Dr. Kleitman already had and, with colleague Dr. E. Aserinsky, he first described what later came to be known as REM sleep, and became the first scientist to work out techniques to measure it. Now seventy-one and professor emeritus of physiology at the University of Chicago, Dr. Kleitman continues to do research on and write about his favorite subject — dreams.
The experimenter, with the electronic records unrolling before him, can awaken a subject at the end of each successive dream during a night’s sleep and ask the dreamer to recall as much as possible about it. Many subjects come close to one hundred percent recall. Those volunteers who claimed they never dream were surprised to find they were dreaming, after all, and able to recall the details when awakened. Not one nondreamer has turned up among the thousands of subjects tested for dream recall.
Usually most dreams disappear from memory in ten minutes and this is probably why so many people claim stubbornly that they never dream, and why the dream you remember best is the one just before the alarm clock rings.
In one series of experiments, volunteers were deprived of dreams by being awakened within a minute or two after the EEG and EOG signaled the start of a dream. The procedure was repealed throughout the night—every attempt the subjects made to dream were foiled. After three nights, three of eight volunteers (who were being paid five dollars a night, or about a dollar a foiled dream) suffered hallucinations, and they begged off.
Their brain-wave patterns and eye movements were the same as those of students who lived in isolation chambers cut off from any sound, sight, smell or stimuli of any kind, in experiments pioneered by Professor Donald Hebb, of McGill University.
In one project with twenty adult men, it was possible to reduce the normal amount of dreaming by seventy-five to eighty percent for periods extending to sixteen nights. Every night it became more difficult to awaken each man and “steal” his dream away, the subject's need mounting along with his dream deficit. It took only seven awakenings to keep a volunteer out of dreamland on the first night, but five nights later he had to be roused thirty times.
One volunteer whose dreams were stopped cold in this way for sixteen nights in a row finally was so groggy he had to be pulled out of bed, walked and half-dragged around the room by the experimenters who tried to rouse him by shouting in his ear, and would wake only momentarily, then sink back into sleep standing up. He still holds the world’s record for dreamless nights.
Once the twenty men were free to dream again, they quickly made up their deficit, dreaming on the average an extra fifty minutes on the first unrestricted night (and as much as eighty minutes in some cases). The dreamless champion splurged on one sweet dream lasting a hundred and six minutes.
The same brain-wave and eye patterns that occur during human Rapid Eye Movement Sleep dreams also occur in animals, but what the animals dream about (if they do in any way we understand) is unknown. Dr. Snyder estimates that the REMS biological pattern first appeared on earth in vertebrates two hundred million years ago, and continued to evolve as man evolved until it is now solidly anchored in our nervous systems.
The same pattern occurs fleetingly in birds, and newborn kittens are “dreaming” ninety percent of the time. No one has been able to demonstrate it in the frog or turtle. It occurs in chimpanzees, monkeys, mice, rats, goats, pigs and sheep. The wily possum dream-sleeps three times as much as man, though he isn’t talking about it for the record. Cats are pretty close runners-up to the possums, managing at least half of every twenty-four hours in REM dream-sleep, probably curled up in the most comfortable spot in the house.
Although forceful awakenings of sleepers to disrupt normal dream patterns is one method used by experimenters, it is not the only one available. Drugs can be used to suppress dreaming, or to increase it. In one test, Dr. William Dement, of Stanford University, used a combination of dexedrine and nembutal to block REMS periods. Amephetamine is another drug used to suppress dreams. (Like dexedrine, it has an opposite effect on the dreamer than on the student who uses it to stay awake while studying for exams.) Atropine, too—an alkaloid that dilates the pupils and is given during eye tests—is used to block dreams. On the other hand, eserine, which contracts the pupils, increases dreaming time.
Just why suppression of dreams should cause changes in behavior is not known definitely, but one hypothesis gaining support is that a poison builds in the brain during the day and that REMS dreaming dissipates it. If something interferes with the normal cycle of REMS periods, the toxic substance accumulates and impairs mental processes. A famous French researcher, Dr. Michel Jouvet, whose original work on the REMS process in cats set the stage for many later advances in knowledge, thinks this poison is a chemical acting on nerve endings to impede circulation of other chemicals needed for the brain’s normal function.
REMS techniques to pinpoint dreams answered a silent prayer for Dr. Montagu Ullman, professor of psychiatry at State University of New York. Up to then, he had heard only random accounts of dreams being influenced by mental telepathy and had no way of proving them. Now he reports preliminary scientific proof that thought waves can be transmitted to a dreamer from an “agent” or “sender” in another room, concentrating on certain objects, such as simple geometric designs and copies of well-known paintings.
On the basis of experiments with twelve subjects, Dr. Ullman has announced a “striking correlation” between the dreams of the subjects and the thought waves being directed at them. Three independent judges checked the dream protocols, finding the correlation far beyond the level of chance.
However, Dr. Ullman says it is too early to draw any definite conclusions or to speculate on what kind of benefits the altering or inducing of dreams by mental telepathy may bring. He has a much larger series of experiments underway and wishes to see his early work confirmed, and also confirmed by other researchers, before dreaming by mental telepathy is taken for fact.
One by-product of the REMS research raises a problem for psychoanalysts to grapple with in defending Freud's theories of dream interpretation. The antianalyst forces in psychiatry have been quick to point, with raised eyebrows, at new evidence that the physical act of dreaming itself has assumed importance, and that the meaning of dreams may not be as significant as Freud claimed. However, the analysts reply that the meaning of dreams, and the act of dreaming, are two different things, and in this view they have the support of many dream researchers who say the REMS findings do not support or contradict Freud’s theories about dreams.
A logical aim for research on the dream frontier is to treat some forms of mental illness with dream therapy, perhaps by inducing dreams with drugs or environmental factors. This is a subject on which scientists speak cautiously, but considering the dramatic advances in other psychiatric treatments, dream therapy is not beyond the bounds of possibility.