Why We Dream – Dr. Bob Stickgold with Dr. Christine Schaffner
Why do we dream? Do dreams hold psychological meaning or are they merely the reflection of random brain activity? What purpose do dreams serve?
Questions on the origins and meaning of dreams are as old as humankind, and as confounding and exciting today as when nineteenth-century scientists first attempted to unravel them.
Our brains spend the entire time we’re asleep processing the memories we formed during the day before, strengthening them, filing them, discovering patterns, and generally figuring out what they mean all so that they will be more useful to us in our future waking lives.
In this week’s episode of Spectrum of Health, Dr. Christine Schaffner talks with Dr. Bob Stickgold to discuss how our dreams play an integral role in our nightly memory processing, as well as how these new memories might fit with what we already know.
Dr. Bob Stickgold is a cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He is the co-author of When Brains Dream as well as published over a hundred scientific papers on sleep and dreams.
Can we actually catch up on sleep?
The critical intervals of sleep and how each affects our brains differently.
Why we need to dream.
Lucid dreams and controlling your dreams
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Pick up your copy of When Brains Dream, written with Dr. Bob Stickgold and Tony Zadra
Bob Stickgold is a native of Chicago. He attended college at Harvard University and received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He is currently an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and serves as the Director of Harvard’s Center for Sleep and Cognition.
Dr. Stickgold is the co-author of When Brains Dream and author of numerous scientific articles, as well as two science fiction novels, and his work is frequently cited in both leading scientific journals and the popular press.
To download a copy of the Transcript – click here
TRANSCRIPT: Why We Dream with Dr. Bob Stickgold and Dr. Christine Schaffner
Dr. Christine Schaffner: Hi, everyone. My name is Dr. Christine Schaffner, and welcome to the Spectrum of Health Podcast. Today, my guest is Dr. Bob Stickgold. Dr. Stickgold is a cognitive neuroscientist and professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He’s published over 100 scientific papers on sleep and dreams. Dr. Bob Stickgold is co-author of the book, When Brains Dream, written by Antonio Zadra and himself. It was just published in January of 2021. As I’m deepening my understanding in exploration of sleep, that was really a catalyst through the product that Dr. Ruggiero created with me, which is a topical GABA with chondroitin sulfate called Somnium. I’m learning about each stage of sleep and the benefits of not only deep and REM sleep, but also the benefits of dreaming. So, I asked Dr. Stickgold to educate us so we can understand what is happening to the brain while we dream. I hope you enjoy this podcast. Welcome, Bob. It’s really an honor to have you here.
0:01:08.2 Dr. Bob Stickgold: I’m delighted to get a chance to talk with you and through you to those who listen to your podcast.
0:01:13.6 CS: Thank you so much. Sleep has been on my brain for a long time, being a naturopathic physician and educating people about the benefits of sleep, but my knowledge is deepening as I look at all the things that happen in the body and in the brain during sleep. During my research, I came across your book, you all have a very interesting and evolved model of looking at the brain, especially the brain while we’re dreaming. And so, we’re going to dive into all your insight. Just to start, I think that people are still learning, why do we need to sleep, and what are the benefits of sleep?
0:01:50.2 BS: Well, thank you, that’s a wonderful question. And it’s a question that’s been around for thousands of years and very strangely, without any good answers. If you think about basic human drives and needs, eating, drinking, sex for procreation, we understood the biological function of these behaviors thousands of years ago. We eat because we feel hungry, we drink because we feel thirsty, we engage in sex because we feel like we want to, but we understand that they serve a deeper biological function. And those functions have been known for thousands of years.
0:02:28.8 BS: But when it comes to sleep, as recently as the turn of the century in 1999, I think Allan Hobson, a sleep researcher was famously quoted as saying, “The only known function of sleep is to cure sleepiness,” which was a very sad state of affairs, but things have really grown over the last couple of decades. So let me tell you some of the things we know now. Sleep is important for endocrine function. If we take subjects and put them on four hours of sleep at night for a week, they start looking pre-diabetic, their insulin regulation goes totally off. And our epidemic of obesity in this country might in part be actually a consequence of an epidemic of sleep restriction as we stay up later on screens and whatnot. So, endocrine function.
0:03:18.7 BS: Immune function, too. If you give someone an immunization against the flu, which by the way, is closely related to COVID, and if you sleep deprive them the night after you immunize them, they end up producing only half as much antibody against the flu, and that’s probably going to be true for COVID as well. So if you get your COVID vaccine, you want to make sure you get sleep the next night or you might be losing the majority of the benefit that that vaccination could give you. Sleep seems to be involved in cleaning out poisons from our brain, the glymphatic system, which is involved in this.
0:04:00.3 BS: It has pulses of activity during slow wave sleep that lead to the removal of these chemicals. including chemicals known to be involved in the development of Alzheimer’s. People who sleep less, animals who are deprived of sleep end up having higher levels of these Alzheimer compounds in their brain. So that’s another function that sleep serves. The one I have focused on mostly, and I want to argue is probably the one that led to the original evolution of sleep is the processing of our memories. This is the only function that clearly can’t happen if we’re awake. Now, our brain is not like a VCR. The old VCRs that could record one channel while putting a second channel up on the screen. We can’t do that. If we are talking to someone, what they say makes us think of something else, you see this in conversations all the time.
0:05:02.4 BS: The person sort of looks off to the side and then they come back and say, “I’m sorry. What did you say? I’m sorry. I… ” We can’t do that. So if we want to continue to process our memories after we form them, we have to go offline, we have to take our brain and disconnect it from sensory input from the outside world and even to a certain extent from our intentional thoughts on other topics. And we do that by sleeping. Sleeping is a time when the brain goes offline. It turns out that for every couple of hours we spend awake taking in new information from the world around us, we need to go offline for an hour to give our brain a chance to figure out what it means. So awake for 16 hours, sleep for eight hours. And it’s a nasty, nasty task.
0:05:50.7 BS: My first computer was an Apple II Plus. It came with 48K of memory, 48,000 bytes as opposed to the millions and billions of bytes of memory that we have in our computers now, and it could memorize anything I wanted. I could type on the keyboard and it would memorize it. I could speak into a microphone and it would record it. I could scan a photograph and it would dutifully encode it in its memory and save it, but it had no clue what any of it meant. In fact, it’s only in the last half dozen years that computers have become powerful enough and sophisticated enough to start to actually decode the information that we give it and describe what it means. And so, our brain needs time of its own to figure out the meaning of the information we take in during the day.
0:06:45.4 BS: So while we sleep, our brain is taking some of our memories and strengthening them. It’s taking other memories and stabilizing them so they won’t be forgotten. It’s taking emotional memories and treating them specially, holding on to the core of the emotional event but allowing the irrelevant details to be forgotten. At the same time it’s strengthening that core memory of the emotional experience, it’s also reducing our waking response, our emotional response to it, when we remember it. It can take information that comes in quantities and can discover patterns in it. It can get lots of information about a subject and find patterns that we can’t find when we’re awake, and all of that is what the brain is doing while we sleep.
0:07:37.9 CS: Wow, it’s doing a lot, and we can all probably attest to how poorly we feel after either a few nights or a long string of sleepless nights. And you mentioned already, I think, as Americans we value being productive. We have very full lives and very full days so that sleep is one of the things, if anything is going to take a hit, it’s usually hours of sleep. I think I read somewhere that the average American now is sleeping about 6.8 hours a day. Am I correct, is that the research you’ve seen around that much?
0:08:11.1 BS: That’s about the right number. And this willingness to give up sleep…I also give the example of, I imagine the coach of some football team having players say, “We’re just too stressed out. We’re spending too much time practicing, we need more time to ourselves, so we’re going to stop eating dinner.”
0:08:30.6 BS: Right? I mean, you can’t stop eating dinner, you have to eat dinner. You need that nutrition. You need that energy. But we say, I’ll just give up an hour or two of sleep like it’s nothing, like you can just give it away, and we can’t. We really can’t. We’ve had studies that show for some particular types of learning that if you only get six hours of sleep, you get no benefit.
0:08:55.0 CS: Wow, wow.
0:08:56.4 BS: Others require less, others might require more, but it’s absolutely crucial. The most scary part is that that processing has to happen the night after we take in the new information. If we have subjects that we keep awake one night and let them get all the sleep they want, maybe eight or even 10 hours the next night because they’re so sleep deprived, they show no benefit from that sleep. It’s too late.
0:09:22.5 CS: Wow.
0:09:23.3 BS: The brain has a window. You have about 24 hours within which you have to get sleep if you want to benefit for a given piece of information that you learned. Interestingly, for babies, that window is smaller, which is part of the reason they need to nap. We can learn something in the morning and wait till night to fall asleep and that can work out, but with babies, if you teach a baby something and they don’t get their nap, that night is too late for them to benefit.
0:09:54.8 CS: Wow. I have a 3-year-old and she still, thank goodness, takes naps, and I think about all the reasons why she’s sleeping, and I think about growing and all these things, but I hadn’t thought about how their world is so new, right? They’re taking in and organizing all this information and they need sleep to do that.
0:10:11.9 BS: And of course infants are processing emotional memory too. You have a 3-year-old, you know this, there’s no more fearful phone call than the one that says, “Hi, I’m bringing Billy over for his playdate and by the way, he didn’t nap.”
0:10:25.8 CS: Yes.
0:10:28.5 BS: Right? The emotional dysregulation that comes when a child of even 3 years old doesn’t get their nap is terrifying to watch. We all know that piece of it but we don’t ask the obvious question which is, what happens while they’re sleeping that allows them to maintain self-regulation for the whole rest of the day?
0:10:53.4 CS: Yes, I’m very in touch with when Ann Marie does not have a nap. She’s a great kid but it’s amazing, yes, she can’t regulate as well. She’s just more easily irritated or just can’t cope or cries at things she would never have cried at. I have that very close contact to what a lack of sleep looks like. As you were talking too about the consolidation of memory and learning, I’m thinking about way back when in school when we’re doing all-nighters and trying to cram. It’s better just to close the book and go to bed and consolidate what you did learn, so that’s really interesting. We’ve talked about all these benefits of sleep and I want to get into your area of expertise, which is vast but much around dreaming and what’s happening to the brain in dreaming, but for people who are new to understanding sleep in these different phases, can you give us a little high overview of like the different kinds of sleep?
0:11:56.4 BS: Sure. So from our perspective as people, just regular people, we go to bed, we fall asleep, we wake up a few times, fall back asleep, get up in the morning and it feels like the sleep is one undifferentiated phenomena. It might even feel like the brain is just shut off for that time. But first of all, it hasn’t shut off. It’s as active during sleep as it is when you are awake. It’s also not undifferentiated. We go through a basic cycle that’s known as the REM cycle, named after Rapid Eye Movement sleep or REM sleep, named after the band REM. And that period is about 90 minutes long. So every 90 minutes we go through an hour or so, maybe more, of non-REM sleep where there are no rapid eye movements. And then the sleep lightens up and we enter a period of REM sleep, and then we go back down into non-REM and about an hour later we come back up into REM sleep, and the whole cycle is 90 minutes long. We get about five cycles in a night, in and out of REM sleep. Interestingly, the first half of the night is really heavy on the non-REM sleep, and the second half is heavy on the REM sleep, and the non-REM sleep is divided into three stages. Now, we call them, very creatively, non-REM one, two and three.
0:13:23.8 BS: Non-REM three is the deepest stage of sleep. And so, we’ll come down, we’ll fall asleep, and we’ll go through one and two and down into three. Then we’ll come back up to two, and then into REM and then back to two and three, and two and REM. By the second half of the night, we’re not having hardly any of that deep stage three sleep, but are getting a lot more REM sleep.
0:13:46.8 CS: There are a lot of people who have poor sleep in our country and they have either trouble falling asleep or interrupted sleep. Do you have to start the cycle from start, the N1 to get into REM or can you kind of go in and out of it, just as people think about their nightly sleep pattern?
0:14:06.8 BS: So, there’s two types of interval. There’s multiple types of interruptions of sleep, but there’s the ones, like I have, which are the bathroom runs in the middle of the night. When you’re waking up on your own like that, it tends to happen at the end of your REM period. That’s the time when you most easily wake up, and then go to the bathroom and you come back, you go back to sleep and you’re right where you should be, going to stage one and two and three of non-REM and back up and into your next REM period. If you’ve got a baby, you wake up whenever she decides she wants you to wake up. That gets pretty much scattered throughout your sleep cycle.
0:14:49.2 BS: If you’re awoken from a REM cycle, especially if you’re up for five minutes afterwards, as opposed to if your partner snores loudly for 10 seconds or drops something as he gets out of bed or a car horn goes, and you just go right back to sleep, then you’ll go right back into that REM period. But if you’re up for five minutes or more, you basically abort that REM period and then you’re back at going down to two and three and back up, and it’ll be another hour before you get REM again. So, that’s sort of the danger of it, but usually, that’s not what’s happening. I mean, with those new mothers and the occasional father who chooses to help, that’s what they’re having, and it can be seriously disruptive of the amount of REM sleep they get.
0:15:38.7 CS: I know what that feels like. If the baby could time my waking up after the end of that REM cycle, right? So then, REM, Rapid Eye Movement, is the time where the brain is dreaming, right? And so in your book, When Brains Dream, you’ve been studying dreaming and what happens in dreaming. Is it true, correct me if I’m wrong, that REM is when we dream the most, but we do have some dreams in other stages of sleep as well. Is that correct?
0:16:10.4 BS: Yes. You get about two hours out of an eight-hour night of REM sleep, but you’re probably dreaming all total at least six hours of the night. It’s really strange to say that because people sort of look at me and they say, “I don’t dream that much,” because of course, we only know that we’re dreaming or have been dreaming, if we wake up out of a dream and then it seems you only remember back about 5-15 minutes at the most. Maybe not even that much time of dreaming that you can recall when you wake up. So the vast majority of your dreaming, probably 90% of your dreaming, you’re never aware of in wakefulness.
0:16:53.3 BS: You’re aware of it while it’s happening. But it doesn’t form memories the way your day-time activities do. So some people will say to me, “Bob, how come I never dream?” And I say, “Well, it’s not that you don’t dream, it’s that you don’t remember them.” And the reason you don’t remember them, is you fall asleep quickly, you sleep soundly through the night and you wake up in the morning with an alarm clock. More than half the time they say, “How did you know that?” I say because if you fall asleep quickly, then you don’t notice those dreams that happen at sleep onset. They’re called hypnagogic or sleep onset dreams, little short dreams that happen as we’re falling asleep.
0:17:33.8 BS: If you don’t wake up during the night, you don’t have the opportunity to remember any of the dreaming that happens then. If you wake up in the morning with an alarm clock, it so distracts you into your waking life that it literally wipes the memory of any dreaming you were doing before you were falling asleep from your mind. So probably, almost all of your listeners and viewers are dreaming for three-quarters of their night or more. But you’re right that REM sleep is when the dreams are most emotional, most complex, most bizarre, the narratives are stronger, the visual vividness of the dreams is greater. Your dreams are the most dreamy when you’re in REM sleep.
0:18:26.0 CS: So then Bob, in your research, why do our brains need to dream? I mean, do we need dreaming as part of the biological effects of sleep to make all these things that you shared in the beginning of sleep effective for our bodies and our physiology? Why are we dreaming?
0:18:44.9 BS: Well, let me answer the question first, “Do we need to dream?” That’s actually a tricky question. We probably don’t “need,” in quotes here, any of the benefits of sleep. We might get sort of pre-diabetic. We might get sick more. I sometimes laugh and tell people my frustration in life is that all that I’ve done is help prove that my mother is right. That if you don’t get enough sleep, you’re going to end up fat, sick and stupid. But you can survive without those, right? You can’t go 10 minutes without breathing. You can’t go a week without drinking any fluids. You can’t go six months without eating anything. You will die. Now it appears that if you go more than a month or so or maybe two months without sleeping, you also die, but that’s not something any of us are capable of making ourselves do. That’s only in some very bizarre neurologic disorders that that happens. So it’s not that we need it, it’s that we need it to lead the happy, productive lives that we want to.
0:19:53.5 BS: So in that sense, we need to sleep and we need to dream. So what is dreaming doing for us? That’s the question. And in our book, When Brains Dream, we come up with this model that we’ve named NEXTUP. NEXTUP is an acronym for Network Exploration To Understand Possibilities. It’s part of that whole process of memory enhancement during our sleep. Most of the things I spoke about earlier, most of the work on memory that our brain does while we sleep, has to do with things like answering questions or stabilizing and strengthening things that we’ve learned so that we don’t forget them, or to extract identifiable patterns that are present, information we’ve taken in. What dreaming is doing is something much more complex and much more sophisticated. It’s asking the question, “So what?” Excuse me, I have a teenager, it’s the last thing I want to hear from them. You know, who cares, so what?
0:21:00.8 BS: But that’s really the question about all the information that we take in and everything that we learned. You’re taking in information all day long, even if you’re just walking along the street. You’re seeing people, you’re seeing faces, you’re seeing their clothing, you’re noticing trees and plants, you’re crossing streets and noticing traffic, and all of this you’re encoding into your brain as memories. Then the brain has to decide, “Okay, don’t need that. Don’t need that.” That’s kind of easy, what’s hard is, “Okay, so wait, what does this mean?” I had a conversation with a good friend and he said, “You’re going to be on this podcast tonight, huh?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Good luck,” and left and walked away.
0:21:45.6 BS: What was that about, right? We have all these things that happen during the day that are unfinished. It could be we’re working on writing something and we haven’t finished it. Or you’re editing a podcast and it’s running long, you’re going to have to cut, you’re not quite sure what to cut, you’re not going to do it tonight, you’re going to do it tomorrow. Your brain goes to sleep and it says, “Okay, how are we going to deal with all these unanswered questions?” What a psychologist would call current concerns. Okay? I’m worried about my relationship with my wife, with my son, with my boss, with my neighbor. I’m worried about this project and that project and the other one, and they’re all sort of hanging around in the back of my mind. That’s the phrase we use.
0:22:36.6 BS: Now it’s interesting, when you go to sleep, as you’re lying there in bed trying to fall asleep, all these concerns go flashing through your mind again, right? It’s sort of super speed and sometimes it gets stuck on one for a while, but they just go floating through. What we think is happening is the brain is literally re-contacting all of those concerns to decide, which ones am I going to work on tonight? When our dreaming brain is working on it, it’s trying to ask the question, “What other information do I have stored away that might be useful, and what information in particular do I have that might be useful that I would never think of during the day?” Say I get a job offer. It’s a fantastic job, but it’s in a really lousy location and the question is, “Do I try to convince my wife that we move the family to this new place because it would be such an incredible job?”
0:23:33.7 BS: And we tend to make this list, right? Reasons to go, reasons to stay, and the list gets longer and longer, and it never really helps us. Instead we say, “I’ve got to sleep on it.” We know that, as a culture, that somehow that tends to work. When we’re dreaming, our brain takes some concern and looks for weakly associated memories, ones that you would never notice when you’re awake. Like the comment your mother made to you about how your father would never be able to take it if you moved far away. And you had heard that 10 years ago and you had put it out of your mind and you hardly even remember it. But there you are sleeping and your brain says, “Oh, look what I found. Maybe that’s something that’s relevant.” Then the brain has to decide, it’s a funny thing, it has to decide, “Okay, I found these associated memories, associated this way or that way, is it really useful?”
0:24:39.3 BS: It turns out that the way the brain does that testing, whether we’re awake or whether we’re asleep, is to build a what-if story. I mean, if you’re awake and thinking about something like that, you imagine what would happen if you call your mother and say, “You know what, we’re moving.” You start to play that all through and you watch your own emotional reaction to that story that you’re constructing, and that emotional reaction impacts how you would think about and how you decide about making that move, how to actually carry out that action. In your dreaming, you do the same thing. You take that new association, you build it into a narrative, we call it a dream. The brain plays it for us. We as a dream character participate in it, and we react to it emotionally. The brain’s looking at those reactions, and if they’re strong enough the brains says, “Okay, I don’t know if this is really useful but it feels potentially useful.”
0:25:45.6 BS: It literally strengthens the connections between those two memories so that the next day when I’m talking with Debbie, my wife, about maybe taking this new job, for some reason that I have no idea why, I say, “My dad’s not going to like this.” I don’t even know why I thought of that, but this connection has been strengthened during the dream, and that connection is now stronger the next morning as well. It turns out that the only way the brain can do this sort of planning is by imagining, and to imagine, you have to do it in consciousness, so if you’re going to do it during sleep, you actually have to dream. It’s not that the dream is something of a by-product, that the brain is doing these calculations and whatever. The mind happens to be able to see some of it. That conscious experiencing of it and that emotional reaction, those feelings that you feel as the dream character are critical for that evaluation of the usefulness of the connection, so we have to dream.
0:26:49.7 CS: I love that part of your acronym opens us up to possibilities and potentials. We’re not able to think about these, digest it and comprehend potentially possibilities in our future selves, right?
0:27:03.1 BS: Right. And it’s not trying to answer the question. At the end of the dream, the brain hasn’t said, “Okay, Bob, you’re moving.” It’s just saying, “Okay, look… ” It’s like a good teacher helping students see connections, see possibilities. And not saying to the student, that’s right, that’s the important connection, but to say, well, think about that, how does that feel to you? Does that feel like it’s important or not? So it’s allowing our waking brain and mind to make the final decisions, but now with this new information that we got from sleeping. You mentioned patients or clients or people you deal with who have PTSD or other trauma disorders, and one of the hallmarks of PTSD is that they have these dreams, which are close to veridical replays of the trauma memory.
0:28:03.6 BS: Whereas you or I, if we have some traumatic event happen, think 9/11, think Challenger explosion or think failing some major exam, we would tend to get over that in a week or so or a few weeks, because our brain is processing that information every night. It does that by finding these associations and learning how to understand the traumatic event in light of other things that have happened in our past, things we can imagine happening in the future, what we know from memories of other people’s experiences. The brain is integrating all that information for us, and you see that in our dreams. We don’t dream about the planes flying into the World Trade Center, we dream about being on an airplane and feeling scared. We dream about being in a tall building and not wanting to look out the windows. We dream things that are related to it or maybe we just dream about a boat that’s getting hit by a tidal wave or something.
0:29:11.9 BS: It’s sort of these bizarre, related events that we dream about, but people with PTSD can’t do that. In fact, in some ways, that might be why their traumas develop into PTSD, and we talk about this at some length in our book. This kind of emotional processing normally happens in REM sleep, and to get into a full REM state, one of the things the brain has to do is shut off the release of a neurotransmitter called noradrenaline in the brain, which is related to adrenaline. Noradrenaline is something the brain uses to keep us focused and alert. Normally when going to REM sleep, the brain completely shuts off the release of it, but people with PTSD never shut it off. They’re hyper-vigilant and their brain says, “Uh-uh, there’s no way, even while we’re asleep that we’re going to shut that down.”
0:30:14.9 BS: So two effects of that are, first of all, they don’t enter full REM sleep. Second of all, they can’t really find those sort of more distant, weaker associations, because you have to shut off noradrenaline release to allow your brain to reach those more distant associations, and so you end up just replaying the memory over and over again. If you talk to therapists, that’s the worst thing you can have a client do. If they’re only telling the trauma story over and over again, they’re not giving themself room to learn about it and to grow and to get past it. So again, dreaming seems to play a role in helping individuals learn how to connect trauma memories to other events in their lives, to other memories in a way that allows them to move on, to get past it in the jargon of their culture.
0:31:19.1 CS: Yes, that was a big light bulb moment for me and something that I didn’t know. The reason why they’re not getting over their trauma is because they can’t enter a stage of sleep that will help them heal and process this experience, and so healing is about how to break that cycle. I know people are looking at those pieces, but it seems like we should put this information in the forefront of any trauma, but I don’t know if you’ve had some thoughts on that.
0:31:47.4 BS: Well, one way is to get trauma therapists more aware of the importance of it. There are trauma therapies like EMDR, which I know about because my wife is a practitioner with a mostly trauma clientele. Interestingly, EMDR, which is Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, is famous because Prince Harry is now talking to Oprah about his use of it. It involves following a moving finger. It’s got the eye movements like in REM sleep, and it’s very possible that what that’s doing is sort of a kick-start, a push start of those REM processes, even while we’re awake and sort of doing a workaround for the failure of being able to enter a full REM state when we’re asleep. In some cases, it’s inadequate sleep, in other cases, it’s that they’re getting good sleep, but their brain doesn’t feel safe enough to let them sink fully into a REM state. I’m not sure that we have ideas about solutions for that at this point.
0:33:00.4 CS: Yes, the awareness is a first step. I have a lot of patients who had a lot of success with EMDR, so I’m glad you brought that up. Is there anything else that you would want to add around what’s happening to the limbic system during REM or during dreaming?
0:33:18.2 BS: So again, I mentioned the change in noradrenaline that happens, serotonin release is also shut off during REM sleep. We think that might be involved in getting the brain biased towards taking these weak associations and calculating that they’re useful. This sort of biases the brain towards saying, “Oh, that’s potentially useful. I’m going to strengthen that connection.” Because remember, these are associations that we would never think of when we’re awake. So, at face value, they’re goofy. I mean, it’s the bizarreness of dreaming, right? That all these crazy things are put together and you have no idea why. So you sort of want the brain to be biased towards thinking, “Oh, maybe this is useful.” So, seratonin is shut off.
0:34:03.4 BS: A region of the prefrontal cortex called the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, it’s a horrible name for anything, it is really involved in executive decision-making, in logical reasoning, and in impulse inhibition. That shuts off during REM sleep too, so that your brain is freed to be a little bit irrational, to sort of make choices that it would normally say, “No, I shouldn’t. That’s goofy. I’m not going to think about that.” So that’s those weak associations coming forward more. Another thing that happens is that the limbic system, that whole midline system of brain structures is cranked up in REM sleep, more active even than it is during waking. So, here we have a system that’s sort of primed for being emotional. It’s primed for being bizarre. And it’s exactly what those dreams look like. So, all of those pieces seem to be part of an evolved mechanism of getting the brain into a state where it can do this kind of processing.
0:35:10.3 BS: So again, I didn’t talk about it in relation to those more basic forms of memory processing, but if we’re just taking things we memorize during the day, think French, irregular French verbs, it’s your deep stage three non-REM sleep that’s important for strengthening those memories, because all you want to do is strengthen the memory in the exact form that you learned it. But if you’re trying to discover patterns or if you’re trying to figure out how to file something away, or if you’re trying to get insight into a problem, those kinds of tasks seem to correlate with how much REM sleep you get. So again, the different stages of sleep serve different functions in terms of memory processing with those sort of more creative aspects of memory processing and dreaming all being optimized for REM sleep.
0:36:11.0 CS: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the various sleep tools, but some of them, like sleep tracking devices such as the Oura Ring or sleep sensors are actually giving quantitative information of how much deep sleep and how much REM sleep someone is getting. Do you feel like that’s a step forward in our understanding?
0:36:37.9 BS: Well, it’s kind of funny, it’s fascinating to have that information, but on some level, you sort of get that information and then you say, “well, what am I going to do with this information? It’s telling me that I only get half as much REM sleep as the average person. What can I do about it?” And I don’t have answers for that. I can’t say, “Well, take this drug, which I would never suggest, to help you sleep. It’ll give you more REM sleep.” So I think the main value of those sleep monitoring devices is that they [help you actually understand] how much sleep you get. It’s one of those things where if I asked someone, “So how much sleep do you get at night?” They say, “Oh, probably seven and a half, eight hours.” I say, “Oh, okay.”
0:37:33.0 BS: “And how much sleep did you get last night?” And they said, “Oh, that was a funny night. I actually stayed up and I binge watched. I probably got five and a half hours of sleep last night.” And I say, “How about the night before?” And they say, “Okay, okay. I get it. I probably don’t average seven and a half hours.” Most of us probably try to convince ourselves that we’re getting more sleep than we are. And so, I think these devices can be really helpful in showing us how much that’s not the case and how much variability we have. It’s interesting because variability in total sleep time is a real problem. Do you remember I said you get most of your REM sleep in the last half of the night? Well, how does your brain know when the last half of the night is, right? Well, it does that in essence by averaging the last half dozen nights or so.
0:38:29.8 BS: The brain says, “Okay, you see, I’m getting seven hours, seven-and-a-half hours of sleep. I’m going to go heavy into REM sleep after four.” And then, that night, you only get five hours of sleep and you miss almost all of your REM sleep. But don’t worry. Your brain says, “Whoa, okay. We’re going to have to change, we’re going to have to move our REM sleep earlier, not so much slow wave sleep, not so much of that deep, non-REM sleep early on, we’re going to have to do more REM.” And then, that next night, you get 10 hours of sleep to make up. Your brain is sort of going on and saying, “Okay, more REM sleep, more REM sleep. I wish I had known this earlier, I would have given you more slow wave sleep.” It sort of sounds funny, but when we’ve done studies looking at college students, and looking at exam scores, it doesn’t depend very much on how many hours of sleep you get at night, but it depends a lot on how much variability you get from one night to the next.
0:39:25.0 CS: The consistency, right? Having a bedtime…
0:39:27.4 BS: Yes.
0:39:27.5 CS: Like your mom might have said, right? Having a bedtime routine.
0:39:30.8 BS: That’s right, that’s right. “Now this is when you go to bed, you won’t to stay up ’til 2 o’clock on the weekend and then make it up some other time.” And again with the memory learnings and memory effects, you can’t make it up if you don’t get it that first night, you’re not going to get the benefit. So the consistency of sleep length is something that those sleep devices can also help you monitor. In some cases, it can pick up sleep disorders for you and give you a hint that you should talk to your doctor about it.
0:40:06.2 CS: So Bob, you have a whole chapter in the book around lucid dreaming. People might not even know what we’re talking about when we say lucid dreaming. What is lucid dreaming?
0:40:14.5 BS: Lucid dreaming at its core simply means being aware of the fact that you’re dreaming while you’re dreaming. I mean, you become lucid, right? You say, “Ah, look, this is a dream.” For most people, most of the time, that’s as far as it gets. You know, within 10 or 20 seconds, they wake themselves up because, “Wow, that’s so exciting.” To become lucid, your frontal cortex, which is quieted down while you’re sleeping, has to sort of come back online more for you. When you’re lucid you sort of sit on this knife edge where one side is waking up and the other is slipping back into non-lucid dreaming. You forget that you’re dreaming and just go back into the dream. Learning to stay on that knife edge is a bit of a talent and it comes with practice for those people who put the time and energy into it, and when they do, they start to be able to control aspects of their dreaming. It’s really interesting, they can control what they do, they can fly, they can’t really control what other people in their dreams do, which is kind of funny because it’s their brain.
0:41:30.7 CS: Right.
0:41:31.1 BS: Right? Running those other characters in their dream, but as a lucid dreamer, Tony Zadra, who’s the co-author of When Brains Dream with me, he loves to see if he can get the other characters in his dreams to do things for him. He says, “If I become lucid, I want to ask them, so, what do you think of me? What kind of a guy do you think I am?” And see if they’ll give an answer. “What do you think I should do about this problem I have” and see if they’ll give an answer. It’s really hard to get anything back, they’re not very cooperative. It’s easier to fly than change the scene, which is kind of funny. If you’ve been to Paris, you can probably close your eyes now and sort of picture yourself on Champs-Élysées and see the Eiffel Tower or see the Arc de Triomphe whichever one is on the Champs-Élysées. If you’re in a dream and become lucid, you can’t just say, “Oh, okay, I’m going to be in Paris now.” You say that and you’re still where you are.
0:42:34.8 BS: But people who are experienced lucid dreamers have discovered that if you’re in your house, if you open the door and walk outside, you can be in Paris, or if you’re already outside, if you walk around the corner where there’s a building that you can’t see around the corner, you can walk around the corner and be in Paris. Other people have discovered if you just stand still and spin around in your dream and then stop, you can be in Paris. So you can control the scene if your brain has to create a new scene anyhow.
0:43:10.6 CS: Wow.
0:43:10.7 BS: Because you’ve opened the door and walked outside, you’ve walked around the corner, you’ve spun around, so you can’t see much of anything about where you are, and then you stop, now the brain has to create a new background scene, and it can be Paris, so it’s this funny kind of control.
0:43:29.3 CS: Do you find that there’s any benefit to lucid dreaming or anything biologically beneficial that you’ve seen?
0:43:37.5 BS: Well, so first of all, nobody spends much time in lucid dreaming. People have asked me, “Do you think it can be detrimental because your brain’s supposed to be doing these other things and dreaming is supposed to be working in this sort of automatic way, do you think you’re preventing the brain from doing what it needs to do?” I doubt that anybody is lucid more than 10 minutes a night, and that’s out of two hours of REM sleep and probably six hours of dreaming all together, out of an eight hour night, so I don’t worry about that. There has been some evidence that you can instigate some of the memory processing that the brain does anyhow. So if I have taught you a task that you’re going to get somewhat better on tomorrow when you re-test, if during the night you become lucid and say, “Okay, I’m going to really think about that test,” you can show even more improvement the next day.
0:44:33.5 BS: I think what’s most interesting is people who are trying to see if it can be used with individuals who suffer from really severe nightmares, to help them learn how to control the content of those nightmares. So sort of not doing that same kind of imagining, it’s kind of funny, you’re in a dream, so it’s already something that’s in your imagination. But in that imagined scenario, you could imagine dreaming about whatever the topic is that tends to be the source of your nightmares, whether it’s being chased, whether it’s fires, whether it’s tall buildings, whether it’s insects, you can sort of try while lucid to bring that content in and try to gain control over how the dream progresses, how the nightmare would have progressed, except that you sort of short-circuit that process.
0:45:28.9 BS: It’s a little bit like what a therapist will do where they try to make sure that you’re grounded and aware of the fact that you’re in my office, you’re working with me, I’m here supporting you, that that thing you’re afraid of, that thing that happened in the past is not going to happen here now, but you can look at that thing that happened. In EMDR therapy, they’ll say, “You can just be a passenger on the train, watching it go by as the train goes down the tracks and not be involved in it.” The question is, can we use lucid dreaming to get that same sort of dual attention to the fact that you’re safe and you’re in control, and then confront the sources of terror that come up in your nightmares. There’s talk about trying to use it in that same way with PTSD or trauma in general, even if it hasn’t progressed to PTSD. Those questions are still unanswered, those studies really haven’t been done yet.
0:46:31.8 CS: Bob, is there anything we haven’t covered that you feel we haven’t fleshed out around your model or your understanding? We’ve covered so much, and so I, of course, want to point people to your book When Brains Dream.
0:46:49.1 BS: I guess the one thing I’d like to add is, from an evolutionary point of view, it’s quite clear that whatever benefits dreams give us or dreaming gives us, happens in the moment while we’re dreaming and isn’t dependent on our remembering the dreams at all. That doesn’t mean that remembering our dreams can’t be fun and useful. I like to take the example of the heartbeat. We didn’t evolve so that our heart would make a sound, it evolved to pump blood, and if you’ve ever been around a pump, pumps make noise. But given that it does make noise, cardiologists or your general practitioner can listen to those sounds and learn a lot about how your heart is functioning. And so in that same way, we can take those dreams that we do remember and either just revel in the foolishness or the fun or the excitement or the bizarreness of them or look at the insights or ideas that they give us when we wake up and use that productively to tell you, “Oh, this seems to be what my brain is thinking about. What does that tell me about myself? How come I’m always dreaming about this ex-girlfriend who I couldn’t care less about?”
0:48:13.1 BS: Something doesn’t quite fit there. Does it mean it was a mistake to break up? It says that my brain is still spending a lot of time on that, and maybe I should too. Sometimes we get real insights from our dreams, and I tell people, never quit a job and never get divorced because of a dream, but maybe the dream suggests that you should take a look at those areas during your waking state.
0:48:38.9 CS: And you all write about the dream incubation technique.
0:48:45.1 BS: So sleep onset is a very curious time because the dreams there tend to be very short and very focused and very strongly connected to what was going on in your mind immediately before you fell asleep. So you can think about things that you would like your brain to process, and as you’re falling asleep there’s a decent chance that when you fall asleep, your brain will dream about that. It can dream about it in quite bizarre ways, people like Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali have written explicitly about using this technique. The trick is, you have to wake up and remember the dream. They both developed techniques of sitting in armchairs and holding a fork in Thomas Edison’s case or a key, a big old key, in Salvador Dali’s case, over a tin pan and then as they fall asleep, the muscles in their hand relax and the key or the spoon falls and hits the plate and wakes them up.
0:49:53.2 BS: Well, Adam Horowitz, who was a student at MIT in their Media Lab, which is a place of crazy innovation, has developed a device called Dormio. Dormio is the Latin word for ‘I dream,’ and it involves a glove that you wear and an app on your phone. The glove detects when you fall asleep and then the app wakes you up, calls to you, talks to you, wakes you up, and then you report what you were dreaming and the app records it.
0:50:28.7 CS: Oh wow.
0:50:30.2 BS: And then the app says, “Okay, remember you were thinking about moving to Iowa, so think about moving to Iowa and go back to sleep.” It’ll do this a half-dozen times in the first half hour of your night and it’ll record all of your little dreamlets, these short dreams that you have, and then in the morning you download them, and you’ve got some insights into that problem.
0:50:56.5 CS: That’s a really wonderful way to research in this process.
0:51:01.6 BS: Yes. Now there’s a downside to that, it turns out, because evil corporate America has read our paper, and Coors beer, for the Super Bowl, tried to get people to sign on to what they called an experiment, which was really an advertising gimmick where they would get a coupon for 50% off on a 12-pack of beer if the person would agree to watch some videos about Coors beer with music in the background and then play the soundtrack while they were asleep. And the soundtrack was supposed to reactivate the memories of those film clips and without them ever saying so, act on the brain to convince it to buy Coors beer.
0:51:54.1 CS: Oh wow.
0:51:57.8 BS: Adam Horowitz, who is the person who came up with this, has been getting more and more phone calls and emails from big corporations saying, “Can you help us set this up?”
0:52:10.0 CS: Wow.
0:52:10.2 BS: To the point that a group of us have, just today, put on the Internet a sort of a manifesto calling for the banning of this type of advertising. Science Magazine is going to have an article this coming Monday, which will be the 7th talking about this problem, and we’re aiming to talk to legislatures about actually getting a ban on dream incubation advertising. It’s interesting, the Federal Trade Commission has banned subliminal advertising on the grounds that it’s deceptive practices, that basically they’re tricking people into thinking things without them even knowing that they’re doing it. So we’re trying to get a similar ban on this dream incubation advertising. Like with all good ideas, there’s a potential dark side.
0:53:05.6 CS: Yes. Well, I’m glad you guys have the foresight and the insight to share your concerns in hopefully putting a stop to that. I mean, we have so much information coming at us, we need to have our sleepy sacred time, where we can be in our own consciousness, right?
0:53:27.6 BS: Right. If we can’t have our sleep time to ourselves, we’ve got nothing left.
0:53:33.4 CS: Very true.
0:53:34.5 BS: But at the same time, it’s important to say that this dream incubation technique is not only known to be valuable for creativity, but again in terms of dealing with depression, in terms of dealing with trauma, it might be a really powerful tool, if used appropriately and ethically. I think that’s a really exciting direction that dream research is going towards.
0:54:00.6 CS: Yes, thank you for sharing that. I was going to end on asking if there’s any other exciting points of research or anything that your lab’s doing that you were curious about that you just wanted to share with the audience on dreaming.
0:54:13.6 BS: No, I think that dream incubation is the big stuff now, other groups are doing stuff with lucid dreaming, where they’re working on two-way communication during dreams. So when you’re in REM sleep, your body is paralyzed. You can’t move, but you can move your eyes, obviously, for the rapid eye movement. Stephen LaBerge, back in the 1900s came up with this technique for lucid dreamers, to signal out to a researcher that they have become lucid, by doing eye movements left, right, left, right, left, right. You can see it in the recording. You can say, “Ah, right then is when he became lucid.” Researchers are now using that signaling to actually ask dreamers questions when their subject becomes lucid, they signal with their eyes that they’re lucid and then they can ask them questions. They can literally speak questions to them.
0:55:20.2 BS: In the early studies, it’s been things like, what is six minus three? Then the dreamer signals out with three left right eye movements or they can be told ahead of time that one means one eye movement and a pair means yes, and two means no. And they can ask them questions like “do you speak Spanish” and get them to signal out one or two. We really don’t know how far they can push this but the thoughts are that they can use this technique to really explore what the dreaming brain is able to do. Like, if Bill is taller than Tom, can Tom be taller than Bill? I mean, that’s a very simple logic question. You know the answer is no but can a dreaming brain figure that out? So what kind of associations, what kind of logical questions, what kind of cognitive abilities are available to the dreaming brain? And what kind of emotional processing can be done by the emotional brain, by the dreaming brain? I think that’s another area of research that’s really opening up now that people are really excited about.
0:56:42.1 CS: Wow. Well, thank you for sharing that insight. And thank you for your time today, I learned so much and my curiosity is piqued in many different areas, with how I can support my community and my patients to integrate this information, especially around the trauma work. I think that this is a really big piece. Again, thank you so much. It’s really a pleasure getting to know you and I appreciate your time today. I’d love for my audience to know a little more about where they can find more about your research.
0:57:08.0 BS: The book When Brains Dreams talks both about all of my research looking at sleep and memory and dreaming. That would give them links to everything. The book came out in January so it’s pretty up to date. If you have questions, the simplest thing to do is just sleep on it.
0:57:24.9 CS: Love that, love that. I’m going to teach my daughter that. Well, again, thank you so much Bob, for your time. And thank you again for being on the podcast.
0:57:34.7 BS: You’re welcome. It’s been a great pleasure.
0:57:38.9 CS: Thank you for listening to the Spectrum of Health Podcast. I hope you enjoyed my conversation today with Dr. Bob Stickgold. Please check out his book, When Brains Dream, and if you want to learn more about Somnium and the educational talks that we’re doing about sleep, please check out my website, the link is in the show notes. Thank you so much and have a beautiful day.