What dreams may come

Why do some people have such vivid, elaborate dreams? There are bad reasons and good reasons, says Rich Silver

The great Indian mystic and thinker, Jiddu Krishnamurti, once said, “There may be no need to dream at all.”

And recent dream research has led to the possibility that dreams serve no purpose or function. Some researchers lean in the direction of these ideas:

  • Dreams are not necessary for either physical or psychological health.
  • There is reason to doubt that dreaming helps solve our day-to-day problems.
  • Dream interpretation may be a complete waste of time. And those who claim they know what dream symbols mean, may know nothing.

For example, if you dream that a person is chasing you down a dark street, does that mean you are running away from confronting someone about an issue? If you fall off a cliff and hit the ground, does that mean you, or someone you know, is about to die? Doubtful.

These above comments may surprise or annoy you. Yet you should be aware that much is new in the world of dream research. Let’s begin with a big myth that most people seem to believe—everyone dreams.

The world of non-dreamers

Some people don’t dream at all. It’s true. And they carry on with their lives and remain mentally healthy. You may scoff and say these people do dream but simply cannot remember their dreams. Research proves you wrong.

Many people who have suffered a traumatic brain injury, perhaps from a stroke or tumour, lose their ability to dream at all. Damage to the front area of the brain often leads to a condition known as global cessation of dreaming. The person no longer dreams or has completely lost the ability for dream recall.

You may also be surprised to learn that a small percentage of healthy people who have not had an injury do not dream either. How do researchers know this? It has to do with REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement. Back in 1953, REM sleep was discovered by two researchers who noticed that the eyeballs moved beneath the lids when people were dreaming.

Until recently, REM sleep was always thought to mean a person was in the dream state. However, when sleep lab researchers observe some people in REM sleep and wake them up and ask them if they were dreaming, they say no. By the way, another new finding is that people can dream in non-REM sleep also.

Children who don’t dream

Another surprising finding is that young children under the age of nine have limited capability for dreaming. Renowned dream researcher David Foulkes points out that the brain has to develop the ability to dream. So contrary to popular belief, young children don’t dream much and the dreams they do have are not well developed until about the age of 10.

As for Krishnamurti’s comments above, he said a mind that is fully alive and aware has no need for dreams. When you are awake and intently observing the world around you, without judging or comparing, simply watching, your mind becomes so alive that dreams are unnecessary. Sleep then becomes a time of complete renewal and you enter a different state of being that is beyond the mind and dreams.

Yet, dreaming is something that most people do. However, we remember less than five per cent of what we dream about. So why do some people have such vivid, elaborate dreams? There are bad reasons and good reasons.

The dark side of elaborate dreams

Some people have dreams that are so elaborate; they act them out in a negative way. These are people with a sleep disorder called REM sleep behaviour disorder, also sometimes abbreviated as RBD.

Normally, during the dream state, the body is completely paralysed. Nature has made sure we cannot move while dreaming. The muscles go completely limp. Thankfully, we sleep in beds for the most part because if you were sitting in a chair and dreaming, you might find yourself on the floor.

However, in REM sleep behaviour disorder, the muscles are not paralysed. This can be dangerous because whatever vivid dream this person is having, they begin to physically act it out.

Imagine a person with RBD who is dreaming of being attacked by giant, poisonous butterflies. This person may swat and swing at the insects. Their arms flail; they may kick. There are many instances where bed partners have been hit with fists and severely injured. Sometimes furniture gets broken as the dreamer jumps on it or throws an alarm clock across the room.

The alarming dreams of new mothers

Postpartum infant dreams are another type of dream that can be quite vivid for new mothers. The dreams revolve around danger to their new babies. A mother may feel the child is lost or suffocating in their bed.

While sleeping, the mother may call out, cry, or feel around in the bed searching for the infant. In some cases, she may act out the dream and grab her bed partner, looking for the baby. There are even instances where the dreams are so real, the mother will sleepwalk in search of the infant.

The bright side of vivid, elaborate dreams

When I was a young boy, many moons ago, I had a favourite uncle I spent a lot of time talking with. He told me fanciful stories about his dreams. As long as he could remember he was able to fly in his dreams. I found this fascinating and was captivated by the wild tales he told me of the things he did and the people he met, all while he was asleep.

Not only could he fly, he could control everything that happened in his dreams. If he wanted to talk to someone, he had no fear of doing so. If he wanted to go somewhere, he’d go. He remembered colours, details, and exaggerated themes in these dreams.

This type of dreaming is known as lucid dreaming and is perhaps the most elaborate and fun type of dreaming. In lucid dreaming, just as with my uncle, a person is able to do almost anything they want. There are no rules. There are no limitations. There are no consequences. It’s almost as though you become a director of your own movie.

Prepare yourself to dream what you want

There are two possible reasons why some people have more elaborate dreams than others. First, some people are intently interested in their dreams. They make it a point to remember their dreams and write them down. If you would like to do the same, keep a dream journal or dream diary next to your bed. As soon as you wake up, write down what you were dreaming.

Second, some people, with practice, can tell themselves to dream about a particular topic, and they do. This can produce a more detailed dreaming experience.

Whether you dream or don’t, I think it’s clear there is a bridge that connects your waking life and your sleeping life. What happens when these two worlds merge into one? Only you can discover that for yourself by driving across that bridge. The vehicle that carries you is awareness.

Rich Silver researches and writes about sleep on his website at sleeppassport.com. He has a background in nutrition and enjoys hatha yoga.

This was first published in the April 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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