- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Dr. Marc F. Schlosberg believes that everyone benefits from dreaming. Although some people think that dreams are total nonsense, Dr. Schlosberg, neurologist and sleep medicine specialist at the Washington Hospital Center in Northwest, says that studying the content of one's dreams could reveal hidden anxieties.
"Dreams call our attention to concerns we may not have picked up on," he says. "Dreaming helps you consolidate the memories of the previous day."
There are many opinions on the specific functions of dreams. Some psychologists and sleep specialists say that dreams are meaningless, while others argue that they have symbolic messages. Most suggest that dreams are a combination of the short-term and long-term memory and provide a way for the mind to restore itself during sleep.
About 75 percent of dreaming occurs during REM or "rapid eye movement" sleep. Bursts of eye motions and muscular twitches often happen during this stage. The first episode of REM sleep begins about 90 minutes after falling asleep. About 25 percent of sleep is considered REM sleep, which the body experiences at intervals of about 90 minutes at increasing length.
Each episode contains beta waves, which are present when the brain is both awake and asleep. They are the result of heightened mental activity. Therefore, the most vivid dreams of the night take place during REM sleep. The heart usually beats faster and breathing usually becomes rapid during this stage of sleep. Voluntary muscles also are motionless.
The remaining 25 percent of dreaming occurs during the four other distinct phases of the sleep cycle, which happen prior to the culminating episode of REM sleep, says Dr. Schlosberg. The body experiences the sleep cycle about four or five times a night during sleep. The first stage is light and lasts about 10 minutes, in which the brain has alpha waves. These are created when people are relaxed with their eyes closed. In every progression of the sleep cycle, brain waves becomes larger and slower, and sleep is deeper. Stage 2 is about 10 minutes long with rhythmic theta brain waves, a low amplitude wave that predominates in light sleep.
As stages 3 and 4 take place, slower delta waves replace the theta waves. Delta waves occur when a person is in a deep sleep. At this point, neurons in the brain are not engaged in the processing of information. If one is awakened during these stages, one might be confused. Sometimes, people experience sleepwalking or night terrors at this point in the sleep cycle. Mental activity is more thought-like rather than dreamlike. After stage 4, the pattern of brain waves reverses and the most active period of brain activity occurs in REM sleep with many dreams.

Rosalind Cartwright, professor and chairman of the department of Psychology at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, says dreaming is a mood regulator or an emotional information processing system. Although the first four stages of sleep are physically restorative, REM sleep and its dreams allow the emotions to recharge, says Ms. Cartwright, who holds a doctorate in psychology.
"Sleeping is good for us both in terms of body and mind," she says. "Dreaming works out who you are, where you're going and whether you're on the right track If we are upset, anxious, or depressed, we can wake up in a better mood."
If one had many negative experiences in a day and went to bed upset, an associative process is triggered in the brain that relates those circumstances to previous experiences, Ms. Cartwright says. While dreaming, the long-term emotional memory attempts to provide solutions to the problem. Otherwise, one is likely to awaken feeling blue. People suffering from major depression feel worse first thing in the morning because their long term memories were unable to provide suitable solutions to troublesome matters.
"Dreaming is a very good internal coping mechanism," Ms. Cartwright says. "It works just like our digestion system over night … It should not be foreshortened by being short of sleep."
Alan Siegel, former president of the Association for the Study of Dreams in Merced, Calif., who holds a doctorate in psychology, says dreams tend to exaggerate internal conflicts as a self-awareness mechanism. They provide the body with balance during a threat, challenge or new situation.
For instance, a pregnant woman may dream that she had a bad outcome to her pregnancy. Mr. Siegel says this dream could help the woman focus on how to take care of her body during the pregnancy. Although some people rarely remember their dreams, he says everyone dreams and can remember their dreams with practice. People who have trouble remembering should try to keep a journal of them or discuss them with family members after awakening. One is most likely to remember a dream when one wakes from REM sleep than at another point in the sleep cycle because of the frequency of dreams. The body dreams an average of four years throughout a single lifetime.
Having traumatic dreams should not be seen as unhealthy, Mr. Siegel says. People who have experienced devastating circumstances often have dreams as a way of coping with stress. Gradually, the terror in the dreams should fade. However, people who have repetitive nightmares with graphic violence might need professional help. Often, discussing bad dreams that reflect deeper problems is easier to talk about than the real-life negative experiences behind them.
"Nightmares are more like a vaccine than a poison," Mr. Siegel says. "Otherwise, you are in denial, and you can't tolerate what you have to work through."

Robert Van de Castle, professor emeritus of the University of Virginia Health Sciences Center in Charlottesville says dreaming gives someone time to reflect. It is like looking into a nocturnal mirror or talking to an internal therapist. Mr. Van de Castle holds a doctorate in clinical psychology.
"Dreams are not going to pull any punches," he says. "They are going to give you the real, honest scoop All the stored up memories are there."
Kelly Bulkeley, visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., who holds a doctorate in religion and psychology, says although he believes that dreams can be relevant to a person's life, he warns that people should not get carried away.
"It leaves room for monkey business and people manipulating each other through dream interpretation," he says. "Interpreting dreams is not an easy business. There's lots of room for skepticism. People have to be careful. I don't think people should go out and totally change their lives on the basis of one dream."
Robert A. Hicks, professor of psychology at San Jose State University, who holds a doctorate in experimental psychology, says along with opportunities for reflection, dreams can inspire creativity. For instance, Mr. Hicks says that on more than one occasion when he has had writer's block, he has dreamt good ideas that have helped him finish his thoughts.
"Sleep is an ideal state for that kind of discovery," he says. "When you're relaxed, you have 'ah ha' moments."
However, Mr. Hicks emphasizes that it obscures the value of dreaming to insist that every dream has a practical function.
"Dreams are often filled with fantasy and events and impressions that are unreal," he says. "In a sense, they are not experiences that we have had. They are enjoyable. I always have fun when I dream."

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