How dreams can help improve your life (and the reputations of world leaders)

13 October 2019

Isn’t it interesting – well, interesting in the same way that a smelly, dead rat is interesting – that we have for the first time, as far as I know, a prime minister who nobody trusts, not even his own family, and America has a president who would find more like-minded people in a secure psychiatric unit than in the West wing.  Who else would have withdrawn American troops from Syria, knowing that Turkey would then invade and start killing Kurds, possibly rejuvenating ISIS in the process?

Perhaps he’s doing a Thatcher:  help start a war, fight, watch people die, emerge ‘victorious’ and increase your popularity ratings.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, guess what one misses most when one is a 24/7 carer for someone who is hemiplegic and has to live in a wheelchair because they can’t move or feel anything on their left side (from a surprisingly precise centre line)?

I’ll give you a hint – it begins with S.  That’s right!  Sleep.  I admit it’s 8½ hours from when my eyelids first clang shut to when the alarm prises them open again but being woken twice during the night (or once on a really good night, or four times on a really bad one) means that my natural sleep cycles are broken and I’m often woken in the middle of a dream.

Being woken in the middle of a dream means I tend to remember it while those I slept through have usually been sorted, filed away and forgotten by the morning with only a vague memory remaining;  but, if I try, I can often remember more details.

I’ve written about dreams before but their surreality still fascinates me, that they are so rarely comprehensible, or explicable.  As Bob Dylan once wrote “At dawn my lover comes to me and tells me of her dreams / with no attempts to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means”.

I recently had what I think is the only dream in my life that’s ever been useful.  I dreamt I’d lost my wallet and knew I should cancel my credit card it by ringing the bank.  Using the number they printed for me.  In very small type.  On the back of the card.  That I’d just lost.

Aha! I thought.  I must put the number to ring if I lose my card into my mobile phone directory so I know who to ring, if my phone doesn’t disappear at the same time.  Q:  have I done this yet?  A:  Guess.  Good idea though innit?  And all from a dream.

Earlier this year, an American science journalist, Alice Robb, wrote a book ‘Why we dream:  the Science, Creativity and Transformative Power of Dreams’ (published in the UK by Pan Macmillan) which basically attempts to do what it says on the cover.  She’s one of the lucky few who’s a lucid dreamer and can control her dreams but argues that dream recall can help most of us.

In the last couple of decades, technological advances have made it possible for scientists to use neuroimaging to study brain activity during dreams and they’ve shown that rats’ brains will replay a maze they ran through during the day.  It’s also believed that dreams help us cope with stress, grief and trauma and that most dreams we remember are actually unpleasant because our brains are processing things that frighten or worry us:  dreams play out ‘worst case’ scenarios in a place where they have no consequences so they are a safe place where possibilities can be explored.  For example, people who have lost someone close to them often have vivid dreams about that person and find that the dreams help them cope with the loss.

Dreams in the early part of the night involve more about what happened that day (like the mazes run by rats) while later dreams are more intense and our thoughts follow unexpected paths, so our dreams can produce new answers to problems and offer new perspectives on our lives.

Alice Robb is a firm believer that dreams are valuable and that we should make an effort to remember them either by writing them down or talking about them as if we were telling them to somebody else.  Then think about them in the light of day to see what we can learn from them and what possible solutions they may have dredged up from our subconscious minds.  Furthermore, it’s thought there’s a link between difficulty in remembering dreams, and depression so making an effort to remember them may give us some protection against depression.

So, if you’ll now excuse me, I’m off to catch some Zs.

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