Dr. Rubin Naiman speaks on the important relationship between sleep and dreams, and how our dreams relate to waking life.
Dreaming is one of the least understood, yet most intriguing, aspects of sleep. Different cultures and spiritual traditions have long aimed to explain why we dream and what these midnight movies mean for our waking lives.
In the modern world, it’s often assumed that dreams are merely a byproduct of sleep with no real purpose. However, recent research into REM sleep suggests that dreaming actually plays important roles in memory consolidation, mood regulation and the assimilation of new experiences. Certain schools of psychology also postulate that dreaming provides insight or helps the brain resolve waking problems.
Whichever side you fall on, one thing is certain: dreaming is fascinating. To gain more insight into the world of dreams and how they relate to sleep health, we invited psychologist and sleep and dream expert Dr. Rubin Naiman, PhD, to share his knowledge.
Dr. Naiman currently serves as the Sleep and Dream Specialist at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, founded by Dr. Andrew Weil. The program combines cutting-edge science and medicine with alternative perspectives. He also holds membership in the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Friends of Jung, and has authored several books on various sleep subjects.
Read on to learn about Dr. Naiman’s perspective on healthy sleep and the function of dreams.
Rosie: How did you get into the study of sleep and dreams?
Dr. Naiman: I always wonder why everyone isn’t into sleeping and dreams. People often look at sleep and dreams as subservient to waking life, when really, they stand alone as amazing personal experiences. Sleep and dreams support our health as well as productivity, creativity, emotional well-being and so much more. But they also open a mysterious door to another realm of consciousness.
Something people tend to miss, and what got me into the sleep field, is that sleep is delicious. People who sleep well will tell you that they love sleep — and they mean it. They don’t sleep because they have to, they tap into the pleasure that it provides. Sleep is not just another item on their to-do list; it can be exquisite and deeply enjoyable.
Rosie: As a dream specialist, what kind of approaches do you take toward sleep problems?
Dr. Naiman: In my work, I use regular sleep hygiene practices while also taking into account medical, biological, and psychological factors.
I also look at the sleep environment, which I refer to collectively as “the bed”. This includes the entire environment – temperature, light, safety, etc.. For example, even a little light from a nightlight or LEDs on electronics can trickle across closed eyelids. It may seem insignificant, but it suppresses melatonin, throws off our circadian rhythms and negatively impacts the quality of our dreams.
The bed is the heart of the bedroom and I view it as a vehicle for sleep. When we look at automobiles, common critical factors include comfort, performance and safety. These three tenets apply to the bed and it’s suitability for sleep as well.
One’s personal relationship with sleep and dreams is also a key area. Over the past 30 years, we’ve learned tremendous amounts about sleep, but not as much about the sleeper. I’ve learned much just by working with and talking to people about their personal experiences around sleep and dreams. Many of us don’t sleep well today and don’t value sleep.
If we don’t get enough sleep at night, it shows up during the day as sleepiness — much like a valued guest just arriving at the wrong time. Millions of people then fight sleep during the day, struggling to stay awake. Fighting sleep throughout the day creates a conditioned negative association with sleep that damages our relationship with it by night.
Rosie: In your view, how do sleep and dreams relate to one another?
Dr. Naiman: The relationship between sleep and dreams is so incredibly important. One of my greatest concerns around sleep is that as a society, we are more dream-deprived than sleep-deprived. We tend to devalue dreams as superfluous in the modern world, and even in science, dreams are considered a stepchild of sleep. Although they occur within sleep, dreaming is a distinct form of consciousness.
We know that people with certain mood and anxiety disorders have damaged patterns of dream sleep. While dreaming, experiences and conversations we had while awake are being “digested, assimilated” and consolidated into long-term memories. Not dreaming well is associated with cognitive deficits and with conditions like Alzheimer’s. I believe that the loss of dreaming is also the most important overlooked cause of depression.
There are many things that interfere with dreaming even when we technically get sleep. The first two to three hours of sleep is when we get most of our deep sleep, while most dream sleep [REM sleep] takes place in the later hours.
Excess alcohol consumption significantly interferes with REM sleep, usually causing disruptions three to four hours into the night. Millions of people are prescribed antidepressants, virtually all of which suppress REM sleep. Many aging baby boomers also take anticholinergic medications, which also suppress dreams. Marijuana research is still limited, but it too appears to damage dream cycles.
The two most common sleep disorders, sleep maintenance insomnia and sleep apnea, also interfere with dreaming. Sleep maintenance insomnia involves difficulty staying asleep (rather than difficulty falling asleep). People with this condition sleep for a few hours, getting their deep sleep, but they miss out on later dream sleep. Sleep apnea significantly interferes with REM sleep as well, because dreaming actually increases the likeliness of an apnea event.
When we step back and look at it, it is a frightening situation when we miss out on sleep and dreaming. So, absolutely, yes, dreaming is incredibly important in relation to sleep.
Rosie: How can we best decipher the meaning of our dreams?
Dr. Naiman: This is a simple question without a simple answer. I firmly believe that dreams have meaning but I think most of us go about interpreting dreams in a misleading way.
We assume dreaming is a reflection of waking life, distorted like a mirror in a funhouse. The most popular approach to deciphering these are “dream dictionaries,” books in which you can look up alphabetized images to determine what they represent. These are very oversimplified and misleading approaches.
The meaning of a dream doesn’t just depend on symbols and content; it depends on a person’s individual experiences, their feelings and views, and the timing of the dream. There are also different types of dreams. “Low-flying” dreams are more ordinary — close to waking reality. We can also have more magnificent, expansive, or spiritual dreams.
Dreaming is a much bigger world than our waking world, and though dreams are very much connected to waking life, you can’t always understand or interpret dreams in terms of waking life. We don’t want to approach the dream with any presumptions.
Before attempting to interpret dreams, I encourage people to ask themselves the question “What is dreaming?,” as their answer will affect their understanding of particular dreams.
Rosie: Some dreams can be quite distressing after waking (like those pesky ones where your teeth fall out!). What are the best ways to clear your head or deal with unpleasant dreams?
Dr. Naiman: This is important — many people dismiss dreaming because they experience bad dreams and nightmares.
For dreams where you lose your teeth, dream dictionaries may say this is related to a loss of power, but it can be a number of things from returning to the stage of infancy to something that needs to be expelled from the body.
A related subject important to me is post-traumatic stress disorder in returning soldiers. In our world today, we are seeing many thousands of wounded warriors with PTSD who also experience posttraumatic nightmares. From a medical standpoint, the nightmares are commonly viewed as a pathological symptom that requires treatment. And the single most common treatment is medication that suppresses all dreaming.
I think this approach is a mistake because dreaming is a natural or endogenous healing process. Dreams can help us heal through emotional pain and even traumatic experiences if we manage them properly. Research shows that if we try to suppress dreams, however, they will rebound, damage our sleep and grow in intensity. Learning how to approach and deal with bad dreams helps us develop courage in waking life.
Something that’s been lost over time is the idea that it takes a village to heal a nightmare. The idea that nightmares belong to all of us, that they are our dreams rather than your dream or my dream, may be a safer way to diffuse them. This is especially true for traumatic dreams in returning veterans, where they originate in social settings to begin with.
Rosie: Are there any waking behaviors you’ve found that help people have better or more pleasant dreams?
Dr. Naiman: The simple answer again is to share your dreams. The process of sharing bridges the dream from the dream world to the waking world, where it is easier to manage.
Too many of us routinely leap out of bed like a rocket on awakening. Doing so results in our rapidly forgetting our dreams. I encourage people to linger in their morning grogginess, which is a hybrid state of part wakefulness and part dreaming. If you rest in this state, you will get better at remembering your dreams over time. Sharing dreams with one’s bed partner can also be very intimate practice since dreams arise from the deepest places in our hearts.
Creating a community to share dreams really helps process the negative and increase the positive ones. For example, I run a dream circle where we share our dreams and our nightmares in order to help each other develop courage and understanding, and it’s really a beautiful thing.
Rosie: What is one discovery you hope comes out of sleep or dream research in the next decade?
Dr. Naiman: One discovery I hope to see is actually happening now. I’m on the advisory board of Shadow, a company developing a new sleep and dream app. The Shadow app wakes users slowly and gently and allows them to audio record dreams. It will then collect and organize them in a searchable global database.
I believe we’re going to reveal the existence of a mysterious, shared dream world, in which people find they have similar experiences to others around the world. I think that the discovery that our dreams are largely shared would shake things up in a beautiful way.
Rosie: If there’s one thing that everyone should know about dreams, it’s …
Dr. Naiman: …that what we call waking is a kind of dream. This is an age old notion found across the world. Remember the rhyme “Row, row, row your boat, life is a but a dream..?”
We commonly think of waking life as being more real than dreams — but it’s not. As we pay attention and more clearly see the connections between these two worlds, we begin to experience an incredible ephemeral continuity — a deeper sense of wholeness.
Essentially, life itself is a dream, so dreaming is a very important part of life.
If you want to learn more about Dr. Naiman’s work on sleep and dreams, check out his latest book, Hush: A Book of Bedtime Contemplations, which offers simple, nightly reading designed to improve one’s understanding and relationship with sleep. Dr. Naiman also participates regularly in conferences around the country and provides sleep consultations.
Do your dreams impact your day? How important are your dreams to you?
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.