Sometimes dreams make a lot of sense — like when we’ve been working hard and we end up dreaming, alas, that we’re still at work. Other times the meaning of dreams is less clear. That doesn’t mean the dream isn’t important to our well-being, however. Retired teacher Barbara Kern can vividly recall the details of a dream she had nearly four decades ago, for instance.
“I’m lying on my back, holding the bottom rungs of a fireman’s ladder that has been extended to its full height,” she explains. “A boy is at the top of the ladder, swaying it back and forth, while I try to control it, but I can’t and I’m afraid he’s going to fall.”
For Kern, 79, who now lives in Lakewood, N.J., the dream was a symbolic expression of real-life concerns about her ability to reach a boy with severe learning problems whom she remembers as “one of the most challenging students I ever taught.” She characterizes the dream as a nightmare, recalling that it kept her up half the night.
Dreams, memories, and emotions
The dream — likely a means of coping with a major life stress — helped Kern, explains researcher Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at Rush University in Chicago. “It’s almost like having an internal therapist, because you associate [through dreams] to previous similar feelings, and you work through the emotion related to it so that it is reduced by morning.”
Although some researchers believe dreams are just a byproduct of sleep, others think dreams are important for memory consolidation or conflict resolution. Cartwright has found clues to suggest that dreams may help with mood regulation.
Dreams occur during both REM (rapid-eye-movement) and non-R.EM sleep, but sleep studies show that brain activity is heightened during REM periods. When sleep-study participants are wakened during the first non-REM period, those who recall their dreams tend to report thinking about a piece of emotional unfinished business. The dreamer may then restate or reshape the problem in a different form during the next REM cycle, and so on, through the night.
Dreaming may help depression
Sleep is without a doubt beneficial. According to the National Sleep Foundation, humans spend more than two hours dreaming each night (with the most vivid dreams occurring during REM sleep). Rats deprived of that precious REM sleep for four days produce fewer nerve cells in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center.
Among humans, dreaming may also help alleviate depression. In sleep studies of recently divorced women with untreated clinical depression, Cartwright and colleagues found that patients who recalled dreams and incorporated the ex-spouse or relationship into their dreams scored better on tests of mood in the morning. And they were much more likely to recover from depression than others who either did not dream about the marriage or could not recall their dreams.
“It really shows that there was an ongoing working through the night in the dream material, and eventually that the depression lifted in those people,” Cartwright says.
Looking back now, Kern says she was highly stressed at the time and the dream helped her realize how much the boy had been controlling her life. “It didn’t solve the problem,” she says, “but it helped put it in perspective.”