Every Saturday and Sunday, when I wake up, I’ll spend a moment chatting with my partner about what happened when we were asleep. “Any cool dreams?” he’ll usually ask first. My answer is often no, that my dreams were not “cool,” and he’ll give me this sad look, before diving into what he remembers of his dreams, which are typically full of color, excitement, and a crisis that he resolves. But while he is saving the world in his subconscious, I am frequently messing up in mine. That made me wonder, what exactly is a dream? And what does it tell us about ourselves?
A dream is a hallucinatory, visual, and mental activity that occurs during REM sleep, Alan Eiser, Ph.D., a psychologist who studies sleep and dreaming at the University of Michigan, explains. It’s an emotional process that grapples with what’s on our mind when we’re awake — our secrets, neuroses, joys, and desires. It’s one of the myriad ways human beings process the things that preoccupy us. And this idea — that our dreams are helping to sort things out for us all on their own — suggests that dreams are beneficial whether or not we can recall them the next day.
If dreaming is good for us regardless of whether or not we remember our dreams the next day, is there still value in trying to do so? Eiser acknowledges that you can “get along just fine” without examining you dreams, but if you want to get clarity on your internal conflicts, some self-analysis of your dreams could be useful. Eiser adds that being aware of your dreams might help you discern some trends in your thoughts that can lead you in interesting directions, creatively or socially. But, he explains, dream-searching can also stir up complex emotions for people, which explains why sometimes, on the rare occasion my partner’s dreams are not heroic or hilarious, he’ll simply say when I ask, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
If you’re of the introspective sort and you do want to remember your dreams, in hopes of better understanding the themes that are occupying your mental space, Eiser shares a couple of best practices. For starters, write down what you recall as soon as you wake up. Keep a notebook next to your bed rather than using the Notes app on your phone — you’ll want to avoid the blue light, which can have adverse effects on your sleep. Eiser says you should also speak about your dreams more often. When we dedicate time to talking about something, we designate it as important, and assigning importance to a topic can help you remember it.
While the exact neuroscience behind the interaction between your subconscious and your dreams is still the subject of ongoing research, Eiser does acknowledge that dreams can be a useful tool for self-discovery — and can contain practical reminders if we attend to them.
Last week, for example, I dreamt about my father. In the dream, my mother, who is no longer his wife, had sent me a text message: “Your dad is sick.” The story spiraled, the way my thoughts often do, but it felt real. Later that morning, after I’d woken up, I thought about my dream, and checked my phone to see when we had spoken last. As I suspected, it had been too long. I made a mental note to check in with him more — a useful practice, and one directly prompted by my dreams. If that’s the meaning I derive from my dreams, and it keeps pushing me toward greater connection, then I’m in. I’ll keep searching.
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