Last night I dreamed I bore a babe,
Born twenty weeks too soon: and dead.
I grieved awake as much as if
I’d truly born a child that day.
The day went on, I soon forgot
The heat of loss, the chill of grief.
But underneath the wound was deep
And I’m still weeping in my sleep.
We’ve all had dreams like that where we wake and feel awful for the whole day afterwards, the contents and the mood of the dream putting a heavy downer on the day.
A few nights ago on BBC2 Horizon, the popular science programme, devoted a whole programme to dreams and dreaming, focussing largely on why we dream. I’ve always believed that dreams are vital to us and in many ways and the new research backed this up.
Until quite recently it was thought that we dream only during REM sleep but it has since been discovered that we do dream in nonREM sleep too. They found this out by the process of wiring people up and then waking them during different sleep phases and asking them if they were dreaming! Now the clever part of the experiment was that when people were woken from both REM and nonREM sleep, they were asked to immediately fill in a questionaire that consisted of completing words for which only the first three letters were given. A lot of number crunching went on and it was discovered that those woken from non REM sleep generally produced words that were positively rated and those from REM sleep, chose words that were negatively rated. For example a REM waker would complete INT as intolerable and a nonREM waker the same letters as interesting. I don’t recall the exact figures but I seem to remember that 80% of the REM wakers’ responses were negative words, and about 20% of the nonREM wakers’ words were negative.
Now, this is the part I got quite excited about!
They continued the experiment and incorporated volunteers who were suffering from depression as well as those who were not. Because they could study people in sleep, it was discovered that those with depression had more periods of REM sleep than those without; the cycle of REM/NonREM was totally different and usually ended with a REM cycle immediately before waking.
I was staggered by this. If they could find a way of rebalancing the cycles, then surely the depression would ease? My own experience of the kind of questions asked by psychiatrists to assess depression is that they always ask whether you wake in a low mood and then get slowly better or vice versa. If clinical depression (that is non reactive depression) is caused by an excess of REM sleep(and dreams) then this would account for the fact that in the last fifty or so years, there has been a steady rise in cases of depression at the same time as a steady drop in the average number of hours we sleep. Maybe we need more sleep and less alarm clock calls, to let our bodies reset their natural pattern.
It’s worth thinking about.