We live in a wake-centric world that devalues dreaming, yet we need to experience dreams to be our authentic selves.
In the Old Testament, Jacob, on the run for his life from the twin brother he betrayed, beds down for the night in the wilderness and there dreams of a ladder stretching between heaven and Earth, of angels ascending and descending, and of God assuring him of an auspicious future.
With his head on a pillow of stone – symbolic of matter in its densest form – Jacob dreams of a structure linking the material and ethereal worlds. Jacob’s ladder is a story about an archetypal passageway between a rock and a soft place: between earthly troubles and sacred transcendence; waking and dreaming; consciousness and the unconscious.
From a sleep science perspective, Jacob’s ladder might represent the structure of REM sleep – a neural network linking the upper and lower regions of the brain. And the movement of angels could symbolise the process of dreaming, an ongoing dialogue between the waking world and the world of dreams.
REM sleep and dreams represent two divergent takes on the same process: one is physiological; the other, phenomenological. One occurs in the body and brain, the other in the mind. To fully appreciate REM sleep and dreaming, our understanding of each must be triangulated into a new higher-order concept I will call REM/dreaming (I will continue to use the terms REM sleep and dreaming separately when referring to their distinct features). Part-waking and part-sleep, REM/dreaming is a hybrid state of consciousness, a borderland between the material and ethereal worlds, between the body and mind.
Research about REM/dreaming began in the mid-1950s and accelerated sharply with advances in neuroimaging. We now know that, independently of sleep – that is, of non-REM sleep – REM/dreaming plays an essential role in learning and memory, mood and immunity, as well as in creativity and artistic expression. Just as important, REM/dreaming stretches, expands and reshapes our very consciousness. From Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, REM/dreaming effectively morphs our fundamental sense of self.
From a hard-nosed neuroscientific perspective, the subjective dream is merely an incidental, meaningless side-effect of REM sleep. It’s just a dream. The phenomenological study of dreams, however, which dates back millennia, has yielded a vast and intriguing literature of psychological, cultural and mythological observations. What might an integration of the science and subjectivity of REM sleep and dreaming reveal?
he body and mind go their separate ways during REM/dreaming. In essence, upper cortical executive functions become disengaged from lower limbic somatic functions. The body gets a break from the supervision of the authoritative, waking ego-driven mind, and the mind is liberated from the physical constraints of occupying a body. From the perspective of the mind, REM/dreaming is an out-of-body experience. From the perspective of the body, it’s an out-of-mind experience.
When the mind is away, the body gets wild, disorderly, even randy. REM sleep is characterised by autonomic nervous system ‘storms’ – powerful waves of somatic dysregulation of EEG, cardiovascular activity, respiration, blood oxygen and body temperature. Our voluntary muscles go offline, imposing a kind of neurological bondage on the body, which, independently of dream narratives, becomes sexually aroused.
This seeming dysregulation can actually be a process of re-regulation that restores the body to its original factory settings by shaking off tension accrued under the watch of the waking mind. More specifically, REM sleep helps to regulate circadian rhythms, body temperature, hormones, metabolism and immunity.
The mind seems to grow fidgety and uncomfortable cooped up in a body 24/7. Mentally, dreaming is like taking off a pair of tight shoes at the end of the day: the liberated mind is no longer constrained by somatic sensory and motor processes. Reminiscent of common notions about the soul leaving the body in sleep, dreaming unfetters the mind from the world of matter; and, having vacated the body, consciousness is free to pandiculate, ponder and play.
The dreaming mind stretches, yawns and reawakens in a strangely familiar place where it can time travel, dialogue with demons, get trapped in a mundane loop of doing dinner dishes or soar with angels. With Jacob’s ladder in place, the sky is literally the limit.
Since the discovery of key brain neurotransmitters at work in the digestive tract, it’s become normal to speak of the gut as a second brain. Digestion, after all, is a process requiring intelligent decision-making about whether to assimilate or excrete what a body has consumed. But if the gut functions as a second brain during digestion, then the brain is a second gut during REM/dreaming.
Dream digestion sifts through short-term memories of recent waking experiences to determine what will be released and forgotten, versus what will be assimilated into existing stable memory networks to become part of who we are. In the process, negative emotions are downregulated while psychologically nourishing experiences are symbolically integrated into our sense of self. As suggested earlier, our very consciousness is morphed in REM/dreaming. One of my favourite psychotherapy cartoons depicts a therapist telling a patient to ‘have two dreams and call me in the morning’. Today, research suggests that dreaming functions as an endogenous form of psychotherapy.
Dreaming can be personal or transpersonal, revealing the world behind my world, or the world behind the world