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Dream to beat stress! Find out how you can harness sleeping visions

Scientists used to think that dreams were just a by-product of the brain’s night-time regimen. However, new research has shown that dreaming serves several functions, especially for our learning and memory.

If you’re not sleeping well (perhaps not reaching deep sleep or waking up multiple times a night), then you’re missing out on one more essential tool your brain needs to keep you healthy and sharp.

Even though you may not know whether you’re dreaming regularly (we dream at all stages of sleep, not just during the rapid eye movement, or REM, phase, and don’t necessarily remember all the content), it’s safe to say that if you’re consistently cycling through all four stages of sleep without regular interference (meaning you’re getting a full night’s rest), then you’re going to reap the benefits of dreams. The advantages of night-time dreaming are numerous.

Dr Frank Lipman and Neil Parikh explore how dreams can benefit our learning and memory in the final installment of their series offering advice to improve your sleep (file image)

YOUR NIGHT-TIME MEMORY STORE

The brain reactivates and consolidates newly received memories and information titbits while we sleep, and researchers have seen that this process is directly reflected in the content of our dreams. But some experts believe that dreams are not just reflecting what we need to know and remember. They are actively cataloguing it.

Their findings suggest that our dreams are a sort of virtual reality experience as we witness this memory processing.

Experiments in animals and humans support the theory that our dreams are like a ‘rehearsal’ of that new information, allowing our brain to put it into practice and actively organise and consolidate the material.

Recent research suggests that we are more likely to dream about emotionally intense experiences, and the theta brain waves during REM sleep are one way in which the brain consolidates those memories. This has led some researchers to examine how REM sleep plays a role in trauma recovery and mood regulation.

EVEN NIGHTMARES HAVE BENEFITS

Nightmares occur most frequently in REM sleep but, unlike lucid dreams, these intense, often unwelcome imaginings happen with decreased prefrontal cortex activity, meaning there’s less emotional control and a more overwhelming sense of arousal.

Researchers now believe that these experiences are the brain’s way of preparing us for when bad things happen, like an emotional ‘dress rehearsal’. It’s almost as though the mind is anticipating bad things happening, and then trying out solutions. Some experts believe that this is a defence mechanism rooted in our earliest days — if something bad happened once, there was a chance it could happen again. So having a recurring nightmare of that event could keep you on guard.

DREAMS CAN LEAD TO CREATIVITY

Dreams don’t just replay what we have experienced or learned, they also create brand-new mash-ups and free associations between what we have seen and what we know. Our dreams offer a portal into our deepest, most unfettered creativity, as well as to new approaches to problem-solving.

This is evident in famous artists and thinkers who credit dreams with inspiring their greatest creations, such as Paul McCartney and the melody for Yesterday or Dmitri Mendeleev and the periodic table of elements.

Dr Frank Lipman and Neil Parikh explained REM is the stage of sleep that is most frequently associated with dreams (file image)

Dr Frank Lipman and Neil Parikh explained REM is the stage of sleep that is most frequently associated with dreams (file image)

UNDERSTANDING YOUR SLEEP CYCLE

The nature of your dreams can lend insight into what cycle of sleep you are dreaming in:

STAGE ONE: During this fuzzy, foggy time just before you drift off or wake up, dreams are usually short but feel vivid and visceral, like having the sensation of ‘falling’ to sleep. Because you are still in a semi-awake state, these dreams often incorporate real-world content such as noises you are actually hearing (your alarm, a siren outside).

STAGE TWO: In this lighter stage of sleep, dreams usually include pieces of real-life events from the day. They’re often described as being ‘thought-like’, as though you are merely processing different ideas while you sleep. As you revisit stage two sleep throughout the night, your dreams will gradually get longer and more vivid.

StAGE THREE: Even though your brain is still active during deep sleep, your dreams are typically the least vivid during this stage as the brain tends to memory processing and cognition renovation.

REM: This is the stage of sleep most frequently associated with dreams. Those that occur during these more ‘active’ peaks in your sleep cycle are the ones you usually remember most: they are typically the longest, most vivid, and most bizarre. (We also get a lot of REM sleep in the morning, so the timing is more conducive to remembering these dreams.)

SLEEP KEEPS YOU YOUTHFUL 

Getting a good night’s sleep is one of your best defences against ageing quickly. One of the biggest misconceptions is that you need less sleep when you get older. But that is not the case. You may find it harder to sleep but that doesn’t mean you still don’t need seven to eight hours a night.

Experts claim a good night's sleep is one of your best defences against ageing quickly (file image)

Experts claim a good night’s sleep is one of your best defences against ageing quickly (file image)

So why does ageing affect sleep? Older adults spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep than in deep sleep, which can make it more difficult to stay asleep and also explains why the body is performing its nightly reparative processes less efficiently. Your circadian rhythm also begins to change, causing many older people to get sleepier earlier in the evening and wake earlier in the morning. Medical conditions and the medications used to treat them have also been identified as a major cause behind sleep disturbances in older sleepers.

Health problems such as arthritis and restless legs syndrome can cause discomfort that makes it harder to fall asleep. An enlarged prostate will cause you to wake frequently and go to the bathroom. Napping for too long will also throw off the rhythm, as will relying on caffeine for a second wind in the late afternoon.

Also, this is the stage of sleep when the emotional parts of the brain are most active, which is what experts suspect makes our REM dreams feel more poignant and affecting.

INSIDE YOUR DREAM FACTORY

Different parts of the brain contribute to different types of dreams, giving them each unique qualities:

THE CORTEX: This is where most of our memories are stored, and it is the main content creator for our dreams. It explains why our dreams are strangely autobiographical and pulled from seemingly random snippets of things we have seen or done.

THE SENSORY CORTICES: This audio/visual storehouse is also active in providing dream details, which is why some dreams seem like they come with their own unique sounds and, less frequently, smells.

THE MOTOR CORTEX: Responsible for controlling our movements when we’re awake, this part of the brain also kicks in at night and contributes to dreams that feel ‘active’, like playing a sport or running from something.

THE LIMBIC SYSTEM: This is where we process our emotions, and it is most active during REM sleep — the reason why REM dreams tend to feel more expressive than those from other stages.

DECODING YOUR SLEEP

Just like you can track your heart rate and calories burned during exercise, new sleep technology and apps allow you to get an even clearer picture of what’s happening after you drift off.

If you are the type of person who gets obsessive about your results, step away from the tracker.

This feedback should help you measure success and feel good, not prompt you to get mired in how little REM sleep you got one night and how it’s all your fault because of what you ate for lunch.

Ideally, you can look at your data in a non-judgmental way, just observing and knowing that they can only get better from here.

But if you are having a tough time getting into that headspace, then tracking may not be for you. In that case, go by how you feel. If you feel more rested, then you must be sleeping better.

For the most part, sleep-tracking technologies — especially those with sensor capabilities — are registering your sleep latency, or the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep (five to 15 minutes is optimal but 30 minutes is acceptable).

They also register the stages of sleep, or the length of time you spend in each phase of sleep, such as deep sleep and REM; total sleep, or the duration of time you are asleep; and restfulness, which measures how frequently you wake in the night.

This data isn’t 100 per cent scientifically ironclad but it offers insight into what’s going on with your sleep. Here is how to make sense of the numbers so you can gauge where you are on the road to good rest:

THE STAGES OF SLEEP 

Your sleep at night is a rhythm within a rhythm. As you rest, you cycle through four stages of sleep, ideally four or five times each night.

Because the body accomplishes different tasks during each stage, it’s essential to your health and your overall rhythm that each of these stages is not only reached but also as uninterrupted as possible.

Dr Frank Lipman and Neil Parikh said the data collected by sleep trackers data isn¿t 100 per cent scientifically ironcl

Dr Frank Lipman and Neil Parikh said the data collected by sleep trackers isn’t 100 per cent scientifically ironclad (file image)

STAGE ONE (Non-REM)

This is when you transition between wakefulness and sleep. Your breathing and heart rate slow, your muscles begin to relax, and your core temperature dips. At this point you can still easily be woken by distractions and noise.

STAGE TWO (Non-REM)

You are still in light sleep but now your brain waves slow down and your body enters a deep state of relaxation. Your brain activity is dominated by theta waves, which foster learning, memory, and intuition.

During this stage, theta waves are interrupted by short bursts of waves called spindles, believed to aid the consolidation of information and memories.

STAGE THREE (Non-REM)

This is the beginning of deep sleep, also known as slow-wave or delta sleep. Brain waves slow further; your heart rate and respiration slow dramatically; your body temperature cools further; and your muscles are completely relaxed.

This is when human growth hormone is released (essential for keeping the body supple and resilient) and the regenerative processes happen.

The brain begins to ‘detoxify’ using the glymphatic system (waste removal for the central nervous system) and DNA repair is at its peak. Surges of energy have also been detected during this time, as the body seems to store energy for the next day.

Dr Frank Lipman and Neil Parikh said interruptions during REM deprive the brain from sorting through daily events and making cognitive connections (file image)

Dr Frank Lipman and Neil Parikh said interruptions during REM deprive the brain from sorting through daily events and making cognitive connections (file image)

STAGE FOUR (REM)

This is when the brain almost exclusively produces slow, impactful delta waves, which are generated in deepest meditation and dreamless sleep.

They are to credit for sleep feeling restorative and for us waking up feeling refreshed. While the rest of your muscles are temporarily paralysed (besides your respiratory and cardiovascular functions), vivid dreaming hits its stride and your brainwaves look similar to those when you are awake.

This stage gets its namesake from the quick, random movements of your eyes that occur during it. The REM portion of your sleep cycle lengthens as the night progresses, allowing your brain to perform the maintenance that benefits your learning, memory, and mood.

Interruptions during this part of sleep (as a result of your snoring, your partner’s snoring, sudden noises, anxious awakenings, muscle spasms) deprive the brain from sorting through daily events and making cognitive connections, ultimately leading to a range of consequences from difficulty focusing and learning to depression.

Hitting all four stages of sleep is where quantity of sleep and quality meet. In order to hit the deepest, most restful sleep, your body has to pass through all the other stages first. The order goes: 1, 2, 3, 1, 3, 2, 1, REM. No matter what you do, you cannot rush this process and you cannot cheat sleep.

Ideally, you would spend one to two hours in deep sleep (REM) for every seven to nine hours of a night’s rest.

TIME FOR A NOCTURNAL ADVENTURE 

A DREAM ODYSSEY

Normally when we dream, we are not aware we are dreaming. So we go along for the ride with whatever bizarre scenarios our brain comes up with.

But when more of our brain gets in on the fun (the parts that are related to higher cognitive function, attention, working memory, planning and self-consciousness), things get a little more real.

Suddenly, we are aware that we are in a dream and, with the same cognitive abilities we have in real life, can even control what happens and what we do. This is called lucid dreaming.

Lucid dreaming gets less and less frequent the older we get (it drops off steeply after the age of 25), but about 20 per cent experience lucid dreams at least once a month. And it is estimated that about 50 per cent of us have had at least one lucid dream in our lifetime.

It is not clear what purpose lucid dreaming serves, nor do we really know why some people lucid-dream more than others. It is suspected that certain neurochemicals may ‘switch on’ parts of our consciousness when they would normally be switched off, so some people may just be naturally equipped with that neurochemical cocktail.

Some researchers have found a connection between an increase in B6 intake and lucid dreaming, while others have discovered associations between people who have strong moods, anxiety and depression and those with a higher frequency of lucid dreaming.

The ability to recall dreams in general is another predictor of lucid dreams, as is adopting a meditation practice.

DIRECT YOUR DREAMS

One of the coolest features of lucid dreaming is that you can, in theory, learn how to do it — and then be a more active participant in your dreams. It is a way to explore activities that defy real-life logic (ever wanted to fly?), face your fears or dig deeper into your subconscious. These are the most popular techniques used to harness your dream state:

  • Get better sleep. The more REM sleep, the longer and more vivid your dreams will be. And to get more REM, you need to be getting long stretches of deep sleep.
  • Keep a dream journal. The most important step toward lucid dreaming is tuning into your dreams and recognising that you are dreaming. The moment you wake up, write down everything you remember from your dreams. Then revisit these details to look for patterns. What do you tend to dream about?

As you are dreaming, you will begin to be able to identify these ‘dream signs’ and recognise that you are in a dream state.

DO A REALITY CHECK

Lucid dreaming experts recommend doing frequent ‘reality checks’ throughout the day to confirm whether you are awake or dreaming. When you are awake, it is obvious that you are not dreaming, but the repetition of these reality-affirming actions makes you more likely to repeat them when you are asleep. These are a few of the techniques that experts recommend doing ten times a day:

  • Looking at a clock or a page of text, glancing away and then looking back. In a dream, the time and text are likely to change.
  • Look at your hands and feet. They tend to be distorted in dreams.
  • Try pushing the index finger of one hand through the palm of your opposite hand. Do it with the expectation that you will be successful, and ask yourself whether you are dreaming. If you are successful, you will know that you are, in fact, dreaming.

BE A LUCID DREAMER

Instead of immediately writing down a particularly vivid dream after you have woken up, try going back to sleep and re-entering the dream. But this time, be mindful of the fact that you are dreaming.

If you are successful in lucid dreaming, staying in the dream can be difficult at first.

This can be because the realisation that you are dreaming is so exciting that you get a jolt of adrenaline, or because you forget you are dreaming.

In order to settle into this new state, expert lucid dreamers recommend techniques for going deeper into your dream and essentially distracting your mind from waking up:

  • Do a simple maths equation (such as 3 + 3 = 6). Engaging a high-functioning part of your brain helps you build and keep consciousness while dreaming.
  • Rub your hands together or spin around. Research has found that initiating movement with your mind can stimulate the conscious brain, drawing more awareness to your dream state body.
  • Stay calm. Getting over-excited or alarmed will cause a dream to end abruptly. Lucid-dream experts suggest looking at your hands to centre yourself in the moment.

Adapted from Better Sleep, Better You by Frank Lipman and Neil Parikh, published by Thorsons at £9.99. © Frank Lipman and Neil Parikh 2021. To order a copy for £8.79, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Delivery charges may apply. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until April 24, 2021.


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