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?
The 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
One of the most critical overlooked functions of REM/dreaming is its mediation of sleep. Sigmund Freud saw dreams as the royal road to the unconscious. But dreams are, more accurately, the royal road to sleep. REM/dreaming is the bridge to and from sleep. Healthy sleep normally begins with, incorporates and then finishes with various dream states. We enter sleep through a brief hypnagogic dream characterised by rapid firing kaleidoscopic images – a swirl of faces and geometric patterns, as well as strange sounds, and that familiar sensation of falling. Narrative-driven REM/dream cycles then weave their way through the night, culminating in the morning in hypnopompic, groggy REM/dreams that segue us back to waking. The ability to shift from ordinary waking into dreamy states of consciousness is the key to the gates of sleep.
In his first book of alternative medicine, The Natural Mind (1972), Andrew Weil argued that humans have an innate need to expand consciousness, which if not met naturally will increase our chances of relying on substances and drugs to do so. Dreaming naturally expands consciousness. ‘What dreaming does,’ wrote Carlos Castaneda, ‘is give us the fluidity to enter into other worlds by destroying our sense of knowing this world.’ REM/dreaming is a way of perceiving that reveals the dreamscape – what the mythologist Michael J Meade called ‘the world behind the world’. In contrast to the intention-driven looking of ordinary waking consciousness, dreaming is a gentle, receptive way of seeing. Depending on the depth of our vision, dreaming can be personal or transpersonal, revealing the world behind my world, or the world behind the world.
Such revelations are not often pretty. Dreaming opens us to other worlds by destroying our sense of knowing this world – a process most evident around dark, nightmarish dreams. If ordinary REM/dreams digest and assimilate waking events into who we are, then dark dreams accommodate life’s most challenging experiences by changing our sense of the world and our place in it. If we let it, dreaming gradually erodes wake centrism – that waking consciousness to which Westerners in particular are inordinately attached. You might think of wake centrism as a pre-Copernican-like worldview that presumes waking to be the centre of the universe of consciousness, while relegating sleeping and dreaming to secondary, subservient positions. It is a matrix, a cultural simulation evolved to support adaptation, yet it inadvertently limits our awareness. Wake centrism is a subtle, consensual, sticky and addictive over-reliance on ordinary ways of perceiving that interfere with our direct personal experience of dreaming. To paraphrase the 16th-century British clergyman Robert Bolton, it is not merely an idea the mind possesses, but an idea that possesses the mind. Wake centrism is a flat-world consciousness. It warns us to stay away from the edges, to refrain from dialoguing with dreams and the unconscious.
Most dreams are expressions of the personal unconscious, and involve stories about identity, aspiration, neurosis, love and loss. Such personal dreams are like funhouse mirrors that reflect caricaturistic images of our waking lives. But when engaged more deeply, these mirrors morph into doorways that draw us into the looking glass. We are not in Kansas anymore. Here we can wander even further out of our ordinary minds into the collective unconscious, the place of transpersonal dreams. In contrast to classical Freudian approaches that assume all dreaming to be personal and subordinate to waking, Jungian or archetypal approaches are more aligned with dream cultures such as the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and the Achuar in the Amazon who view dreaming as a superordinate state of consciousness.
Most dreams have varying degrees of both personal and transpersonal features. Transpersonal features, however, are more likely to break the frame of wake centrism and open us to mysterious realms. In the rarefied atmosphere of the dreamscape, the mind is more curious than intentional, more empathic than judgmental, and more present than in waking. Not surprisingly, dreaming has long been recognised as a fount of creativity. Dreams have been instrumental in the development of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, Francis Crick’s structure of DNA, and Elias Howe’s sewing machine. The Beatles song ‘Yesterday’ (1965) came to Paul McCartney in a dream. August Kekulé might have discovered the circular structure of benzene in a dream of ouroboros – a snake devouring its own tail. And Larry Page’s original algorithm for Google’s web searches was dream-inspired.
Dreams are not simply stories, mental movies or mirrors of miscellaneous events. Irrespective of our beliefs about them, we experience our dreams as meaningful. And whether recalled or not, dreams impact our body and mind much like waking experiences do. Even if upon awakening we dismiss them as ‘just a dream’, they will have left a mark. Opening to dreaming doesn’t require believing that dreams are supernatural, only that they are meaningful.
But the depth of their meaningfulness can draw us into the supernatural. Carl Jung used the term ‘big dreams’ to describe rare, extremely vivid dreams that have a lasting impact on consciousness. Prominent examples include Zhuang Zhou’s classic butterfly dream (where he dreams he is a butterfly, and is unsure if he is a butterfly dreaming he is himself), common dreams of visits from deceased loved ones and, of course, Jacob’s ladder. Such unforgettable dreams have played crucial roles in the evolution of major religious traditions, concepts of demonism, prophecy, healing and spiritual practices throughout history. Not surprisingly, dreaming is often referred to as the language of God.
Today, there is indisputable scientific evidence, corroborated by anecdotal reports from clinicians, to indicate that we are in the midst of a silent epidemic of REM/dream loss that leaves us as least as dream-deprived as we are sleep-deprived, since so many lifestyle and medical factors suppress, damage or otherwise interfere with REM/dreaming. Alcohol is a common culprit. Consumed near bedtime, it can promote the onset of sleep, but it typically disrupts later sleep and REM/dreaming. Depending on dose and timing, alcohol can affect the start of REM/dreaming as well. Even a single drink taken as a nightcap can adversely impact REM/ dreaming. One can imagine how this plays out, when about 30 per cent of Americans routinely have a glass of wine
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