For millennia, we have looked to our dreams for clues as to how we should live our waking lives. Everyone dreams, even if we think we don’t — and for much longer each night than previously believed.
Cutting-edge sleep science suggests we dream for at least six-and-a-half hours every night.
But experts remain divided on precisely why we dream.
Some think dreams are merely the result of random — and meaningless — firings of neurons, as the sleeping brain clears out debris from the day before and forms new memories.
Others, including those at the forefront of neuroscience, are convinced that dreams are the brain’s ingenious way of joining the dots and suggesting solutions to problems while we sleep. By ‘dramatising’ our deepest anxieties and desires, they can show us what we really want and need in life.
Modern sleep research has even begun to reconsider the notion of ‘precognitive dreams’ — those that apparently show us an event before it’s happened. Professor Robert Stickgold, of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School in the U.S., co-author of a new book, When Brains Dream, says our sleeping brains are so good at mulling over waking concerns — and we all dream so much — the probability of a real-life event mirroring a dreamt-of one is far higher than we think.
Sleep science suggests we dream for at least six-and-a-half hours every night, but what if a dream could change your life? (file image)
‘When our brain dreams, it can sometimes predict the future, or show what’s happening at that very time somewhere far away,’ says Professor Stickgold.
‘Sometimes that’s because, consciously or unconsciously, we have information that allows our brain to calculate and literally envision the possibility of these events. At other times, it happens by pure coincidence.’
But imagine having a dream with such a clear and compelling message that it ends up changing the course of your entire life.
As she settled down to sleep one winter night six years ago, Lesley Krier Tither, 68, was completely unprepared for the detail and significance of the dream that followed.
‘I was asleep and yet it was like watching a crime drama on TV while sitting next to the main character, a chap who told me his name was Ted Darling,’ says Lesley, a retired copywriter from Stockport, Greater Manchester. ‘I could see every detail about him. ‘He was short and slight, with floppy, dusty-blonde hair. He told me he was a detective inspector working on serious crime, but he started his police career as a specialist firearms officer.
When Sarah Class (pictured) was 21, she was working as a researcher for a major broadcaster. She had a staff position, with promotion in the offing, and yet a powerful dream led to her walking away from it all
‘There were the colleagues, where they work, and the case they were dealing with. Ted told me about his love of green tea and cats, and all about his partner. I can’t tell you how long the dream was, but I woke up with the plot for a first novel.’
When she climbed out of bed the following morning, Lesley switched on her computer and started to transcribe her dream.
‘I wrote the first chapter within an hour,’ says Lesley, ‘and I had a first draft within a month. I didn’t have to think about it: the book, from start to finish, was as I dreamt it.’
Today, Lesley, who writes as L.M. Krier, is working on book 17 of the Ted Darling detective series and has sold many thousands of copies. Ted has his own fan page on Facebook, where regular posters discuss plotlines and fantasise over who would play Ted in a TV series.
‘Even today, Ted regularly visits me in my dreams,’ says Lesley. ‘He’ll be so insistent that I have no choice but to listen to his advice. He’s very pedantic about the minutiae of my plots and characters.
‘I’m very open to the experience and to talking about it, too.’
Mandy Nicholson is another who believes in the power of dreams to change the course of a life. For ten years, she ran three businesses, including one as a partner in wills and estate planning.
Change: Mandy Nicholson, 56, (pictured) painted a new life as an artist in one of her dreams
‘It was a million miles away from being creative,’ says Mandy. ‘But it was safe, I was good at it and I was financially stable.’
In December 2018, Mandy, 56, fell asleep as usual with her husband Gary — and by the following morning was ready to upend everything.
‘I’m a fitful sleeper and at one point during the night I was aware that I was centre stage of my dream. In it, I was creating beautiful paintings while everyone was looking and listening to me. It was like I was teaching in a massive auditorium.
‘It’s usually my husband who has weird dreams and I’d have to listen to long descriptions while rolling my eyes. Yet Gary was fascinated as I explained it to him and he took my recollection very seriously.
‘Before we’d even got out of bed, he said, ‘You should do it.’
‘I could think and talk about nothing else, but I was nervous and scared because I didn’t know what it meant. In the days and weeks that followed I kept having the same dream, so my husband decided to give me a shove.
New chapter: Lesley Krier Tither (pictured here in her garden) was inspired to write in one of her dreams
‘For Christmas, he bought me an easel and some art equipment and told me to ‘just do it’.’
In her 20s, Mandy had loved to draw, but that Boxing Day, when she began to paint the family labrador, it was the first time she’d held a paintbrush for 25 years.
‘I didn’t know whether I’d still be able to do it, but I loved the result.
‘I began sketching other compositions, often of female figures, and before long I was painting again. At first I was terrified, but over the next few days I made my mind up that this was my new path.’
In January 2019, Mandy, who lives in Alnwick, Northumberland, left her company and started working on her new career as an artist, author and creative coach.
Mandy credits her husband with giving her the confidence to follow her dream. Sadly, Gary, who suffered from cystic fibrosis, died in April last year — 16 years after a life- saving double lung transplant. By then, he had lived ten years longer than doctors had predicted.
‘The dream was a one-off,’ says Mandy, ‘but it did the job of encouraging me into action.’
Writer Susie Pearl (pictured) describes herself as a walking miracle. Two and a half years ago, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and told she had around six weeks to live
When Sarah Class was 21, she was working as a researcher for a major broadcaster. She had a staff position, with promotion in the offing, and yet a powerful dream led to her walking away from it all.
‘One morning, around 5 am, I was half asleep when I just felt this vibration all over me,’ she says. ‘I saw myself standing on the edge of the moon, looking down at the beautiful, shimmering Earth.
‘At that moment, I heard the most beautiful music: it infused every cell of my body. It was so beautiful that I felt tears in my eyes. It was like a synthesis of light and sound — no other music I have ever heard even comes close to it.
Harness the power of your dreams
To help you examine your own dreams, Professor Robert Stickgold, of Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine, says:
Dreams explore possibilities. They connect things our waking brain wouldn’t normally put together. It’s important to realise that dreams don’t solve problems, but they can suggest solutions.
When we dream, our mind wanders freely, without some of the inhibitions our brain imposes in waking life, and it often finds loose or weak — but potentially valuable — associations between things we’d never think of otherwise.
You don’t even have to remember the dream for that process to be useful; waking life can be influenced by your dreams without you consciously knowing.
It can be helpful to examine your dreams. There’s no point consulting dream dictionaries since everyone’s dreams are personal to them. Your teeth falling out, for example, doesn’t have one ‘meaning’. Try this technique instead:
- Keep a notepad or smartphone by your bed. When you do remember a dream, lie in bed with your eyes closed and give yourself a few minutes to recall as much as possible. Only then, open your eyes and write down or record everything you remembered, even if it’s just an isolated image.
- Next, ask yourself some questions to help explore what the dream may mean for you. How did you feel in the dream? What was its central emotion? When was the first or last time you felt this way?
- Think of the dream’s setting. Does it remind you of anything? Now think of the people in your dream. What were they doing? Who or what else do they remind you of? Can you see parts of yourself in these dream characters?
- What were the main images in the dream? What kinds of associations come to mind when you think about these images now?
- What was on your mind when you went to bed? Given your answers, does your dream remind you of experiences or concerns in your life?
- Taken as a whole, what do the answers suggest about who you are and who you want to become, and how you view and interact with the world around you?
‘I felt fully conscious. The vibrations I could feel were something I can only describe as other-worldly. I realised then that I wanted to create this sensation in music.’ Sarah, who lives in Somerset, says it was the first time that she had experienced such a dream.
‘Afterwards, I felt totally transformed. I started to see all life from that day on in a very different way. I knew that my day job would never fulfil me.’ Sarah had learnt to play the piano as a child and, though working in broadcasting, in her spare time, she had continued to compose commissioned music at home. ‘Music was my passion,’ she says. ‘While I found the broadcast role interesting, if stressful, when I got home from my day job I worked on my music into the early hours.’
In that moment, she made the life-changing decision to leave her job. ‘I kept remembering the heavenly music and knew I had to try to recreate this beauty for other people to hear.’
Within weeks of leaving, Sarah’s musical work diary was full with commitments. ‘It was the most liberating and uplifting thing I had ever done,’ she recalls. ‘Suddenly, I was offered work left, right and centre.’
Sarah went on to work with record producer and composer Sir George Martin, famed for his work with The Beatles, and today she is one of Britain’s most sought-after composers. She has received three Emmy nominations and written the scores for numerous films and TV shows, including Blue Planet. Her new album, Natural High, was released last year.
‘I’ve never spoken about this experience before and I feel it happened to me for a reason, because this is my calling. I suspect my consciousness was ready and open at that crucial time before waking. I certainly felt guided to make music my career.’
Recent advances in neuroscience make it easier to examine what actually happens inside the brain when we dream. Its findings back up the theory that dreams aren’t merely the by-product of sleep.
‘There are exceptional examples of people waking up from dreams and finding them immediately wonderful and useful,’ says Professor Stickgold. ‘There’s no question that it happens, and that sometimes they become the impetus for life-changing decisions.’
Writer Susie Pearl describes herself as a walking miracle. Two and a half years ago, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and told she had around six weeks to live.
‘For weeks beforehand, I’d been acting strangely,’ she recalls. ‘I couldn’t find my car, turned up late to meet friends — that sort of thing. It was totally out of odds with who I am normally.
‘I’m not a forgetful or ditzy person. I’m usually very together, and I’ve run a celebrity PR agency. I was in hospital when I got given the news that I had brain cancer. The tumour was inoperable and I was faced with an end-of-life prognosis. My consultants were very explicit: I was dying. I was told in no uncertain terms to write my will and to gather my family as soon as possible to say goodbye to them all.’
Susie, who is in her early 50s, had chemotherapy and stem cell therapy. She was treated at a hospital in Ibiza, where she was diagnosed, and in Addenbrooke’s Hospital near her UK residence in Cambridgeshire.
It was while Susie was in hospital that she had the dream which changed everything.
‘While I was sleeping, I saw very clearly that I would have three MRI scans on my brain — the first with terrible results about the tumour; a second scan would show it had shrunk; and the third scan would reveal it had disappeared.
‘When I woke up, I could remember this clearly and I had an overwhelming sense that I would be walking out of this hospital.
‘The dream conveyed to me that I had more to do in this lifetime. It was so convincing that I just didn’t do any of the end of life stuff that I’d been advised to do. I was going to live!’
Within weeks of leaving her old job, Sarah’s (pictured) musical work diary was full with commitments
Susie says that everyone thought she was ‘sweet but bonkers’, and even though no one believed her she insisted on having her laptop brought into hospital.
After I had experienced the dream, I became extremely creative. In hospital, I started working on a book.
The first of the three scans was in April, and by the third one in December the tumour had indeed gone and I was discharged.
‘I see the world very differently now. While it looked unlikely that I would stay alive, I wasn’t afraid of dying either.’
Susie published her book, The Art Of Creativity, last year and she now holds creative writing classes.
‘Today, I am living happily, normally and working full-time. I now recognise the value of all forms of dreams — it’s when we connect with our intuition. I use them to journal and make sense of my subconscious. That’s when the magic happens.’
- When Brains Dream: Exploring The Science And Mystery Of Sleep, by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold, is published by W.W. Norton, £18.99.