Tuesday, 20 July 2010
How to Tame Your Nightmares
herapies Teach Sleepers to Change the Ending of Their Dreams—or Even Take Flight
In the new movie, "Inception," a master thief is able to infiltrate peoples' dreams and steal their subconscious secrets—even plant a dream idea they'll think is their own.
As fantastical as that seems, an evolving area of sleep research holds that it is possible for people to direct their own dreams, in a limited way.
WSJ's Melinda Beck gives a recap on how dreams have played a role in entertainment, including its latest part in the film, "Inception."
For example, people who suffer from recurring nightmares can learn to substitute happier endings. Practitioners of lucid dreaming—who train themselves to be aware that they are dreaming—say they can try out fantasies like flying.
Ordering up a dream about a nagging personal problem is difficult, but possible, says Robert Stickgold, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "As you go to bed tonight, really think about some of those emotional issues that you haven't wanted to deal with. You've got about a 10% to 20% shot."
That fits with the current understanding of what dreams are and why we have them. Once thought to represent repressed sexual urges, or simply neurons firing randomly, dreams are now believed to be mash-ups created by the unconscious mind as it processes, sorts and stores emotions from the day.
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Solving the Puzzle
As the rebus above illustrates, dreams can contain cryptic messages. But these techniques, with practice, can help calm troubled sleep:
Rewrite an Ending: While you are awake, imagine a happy conclusion to a recurring scary dream. Practice visualizing it several times a day and just before bedtime.
Become Lucid: Ask yourself often during the day if you are dreaming; then do it at night. If you can become aware of dreaming while you are doing it, you may be able to dream whatever you want.
Plan a Dream: Focus on an image, question or problem before you go to sleep. Look for a solution in your dreams—but it's likely to be a metaphor.
Interpret Meanings: Record every dream you remember in a diary before you get out of bed. Look for recurring themes. Gaining insight in your waking life may quiet a message in your dreams.
"We take our problems to sleep and we work through them during the night," says Rosalind Cartwright, an emeritus professor of neuroscience at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who has spent nearly 50 years studying sleep and dreams.
Her new book, "The Twenty-Four Hour Mind," explains that the mind latches onto some thread of unfinished emotional business from the day. Then, in REM sleep (the rapid eye movement period when most dreaming occurs), it calls up bits of older memories that are somehow related, and melds them together. "That's why dreams look so peculiar. You have old memories and new memories Scotch-plaided into each other," she says. "They are emotional connections rather than logical ones."
Usually, people work through the most negative emotions first, and their dreams become more positive as the night goes on. (How do researchers know that? "The old-fashioned way. We wake them up and ask them," Dr. Cartwright says.)
But nightmares interrupt that process; people usually wake up before the frightening emotion is resolved, so the dream keeps repeating.
"Your brain seems to think that it's helping you to prepare, but you don't allow yourself to finish it so it becomes a broken record," says Shelby Freedman Harris, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, N.Y.
Image Rehearsal Therapy
Dr. Harris's program is one of a small number around the country that helps nightmare sufferers and people with post-traumatic stress disorder learn to rewrite the script of their recurring dreams using a technique called Image Rehearsal Therapy.
After recalling the nightmare in detail, the dreamer writes out the new script and envisions it several times a day. Dr. Harris says one of her patients had recurring nightmares of being surrounded by sharks. She imagined they were dolphins instead and rehearsed the scene during five sessions, and the nightmares vanished. A young patient having nightmares of being chased turned the pursuer into chocolate and ate him.
"It gives the patient control over the nightmare," says Dr. Harris. Studies have found that after several sessions practicing with a therapist, some patients dream the new ending just as they envision it, some dream another version of it, and some stop having the nightmare altogether.
or some people, the ability to recognize that they're dreaming while they are in a dream comes naturally—others are able to learn it. Once they master lucid dreaming, practitioners say they can change the scene, the action, the characters and the outcome at will.
"We recommend that most people start with flying. Have fun with it. The laws of gravity don't apply," says Stephen LaBerge, a psychophysiologist who popularized lucid dreaming while teaching at Stanford University for 25 years.
llustration by John S. Dykes
Tibetan Buddhists have practiced a form of lucid dreaming for centuries, but it wasn't taken seriously by scientists until 1978, when Dr. LaBerge, then a graduate student, came up with a way for lucid dreamers to signal that they were aware of dreaming using prearranged eye movements during REM sleep. Since then, dozens of studies at other universities have replicated the experiments, and enthusiasts have logged hundreds of lucid dreams at seminars held by Dr. LaBerge's Lucidity Institute.
How do you learn it? The next time you wake up from a dream, try to return to it immediately, he says. It will help your mind recognize that you are dreaming the next time. "Let your brain have that one little obsessive thought—'I want to remember that I'm dreaming'—and sleep with that intention," he adds.
How can you tell you're dreaming? If there's no give-away, like a dragon chasing you, Dr. LaBerge suggests trying to find a printed word. In a dream, words almost always change if you look away and look back.
In nightmares, while you can theoretically outrun or outfly any dangers you encounter, Dr. LaBerge recommends facing your fears instead. "Once you realize you are not in any real danger, you can turn and befriend that ogre," and the insight you gain may carry over into your waking life, he says.
Videogame players are often very adept at lucid dreaming, according to research by psychologist Jayne Gackenbach at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Not only do gamers have highly developed visual-spatial skills, she says, "they've also practiced fighting back, so that when Freddy Krueger pops up in their dreams, they're energized and think it's fun."
Can you order up a dream on a specific topic, or can somebody else influence your dreams? Numerous experiments with so-called dream incubation have tried, with mixed results.
"I can control people's dreams. I can get them to dream about videogames by having them play intensely," says Dr. Stickgold. His studies at Harvard found that when volunteers played the game Tetris for hours a day, 60% reported dreaming about it at least once as they were falling asleep.
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In a follow-up study with the virtual-skiing game Alpine Racer, 14 of 16 students reported seeing skiing images at sleep onset (as did three people who were merely observing the experiment.)
It's unclear how far into the night's dreams those images persisted. Dr. Stickgold and colleagues are now repeating the study having subjects play "Dance, Dance Revolution" and waking them later in the night to ask about their dreams.
Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett had students incubate dreams in the 1990s. She asked 76 students to try to solve a problem of their own choosing every night for a week. About half recalled a dream they thought was related to the problem, and 70% of those felt the dream gave them a solution.
Many scientists, artists, writers and other creative people have found the solutions to problems and other inspirations in their dreams, as Dr. Barrett recounts in her 2001 book, "The Committee of Sleep." The chemist Friedrich Kekulé discovered the ring-shaped structure of benzene after dreaming of a serpent devouring its tale, for example. Paul McCartney woke up with the tune for "Yesterday," in his head one night in 1965.
Still, it's by no means easy to order up inspiration on demand.
"It's not like the dream-construction portion of your brain is an intern and you can say, 'Go look this up,' You can't do that," says Dr. Stickgold. But reviewing emotional issues and memories of the day when you go to bed may lay down a trail for dreams to follow, he says.
Experts say the first step toward working with your dreams is recalling them in the first place. Most people dream for two to six hours each night, but at most they recall only about a half-hour's worth, usually the last one in the morning.
Keep a journal by your bed and write down anything you remember before you do anything else. If possible, wait until you don't have to set an alarm and can work through your last dream slowly. "That's when you are most likely to catch a dream," says Dr. Cartwright. Sketch out visual images you remember. Give each dream a name, like "The Ghost in the Closet or My Date With Robert Redford," she notes.
When you have collected several, look back to see if emotional themes are emerging. And be aware that they are highly metaphorical.
That common dream of being unprepared for an exam may be a stand-in for not meeting a goal or trying to juggle too many responsibilities. The naked-on-a-stage dream may be a reflection of being exposed and vulnerable in your waking life.
"Do the interpretive work first," says Dr. Barrett. "Just trying to suppress your dreams without exploring what they are about is doing them a disservice."
When Your Day Invades Your Dreams
By Rachel Emma Silverman
Ever since I saw the movie Inception last Friday (thanks “Baby Day” at my local movie theater!), I’ve been thinking about dreams. In the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio heads a team of corporate spies, of a sort, who can invade people’s dreams and extract secrets.
Dreams are based on snippets and snatches of our daily lives– the thoughts, memories and anxieties that we carry with us, even though we may not always be aware of them. During stressful work times, many of us have weird dreams about the office, while parents often have anxiety dreams about their children.
Sometimes dreams themselves are so stressful that people seek out therapies to actually redirect their dreams, as my colleague Melinda Beck reports in today’s Journal. Specialized sleep clinics are teaching people bothered by recurring nightmares how to “rewrite the script” and come up with different endings.