On my bookshelf sits a book entitled The Dream Encyclopedia. It was given to me on May 30th, 1997. I know this because it was inscribed by my Senior year high school Psychology teacher. She didn’t give me this gift because we had some creepy, torrid love affair. She gave it to me because she saw that I was fascinated by sleep and dreams during that section in the course. It was a graduation gift. Her last chance to foster the further education of an engaged student. I’ve always appreciated that. Some teachers teach seven hours a day, five days a week. Others are educators. Thanks for being the latter, Mrs. P.
My interest in sleep and dreams hasn’t changed much over the twenty years since I left high school. We are supposed to spend 1/3 of every day sleeping. 1/3 of our lives in this state. I don’t spend that much time eating or drinking, and I will die within days if I forego either of those. How could this thing that takes up so much of our lives not be interesting? How could I not want to know more about it?
There are five stages of sleep. The first four are difficult to keep track of, so pay attention. The stages are called 1, 2, 3, and 4. I had to bust out my old Psychology text to remember that. The fifth stage is known as REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement). If I lost you, I apologize. The scientists and/or psychologists who named these were arrogant pricks. They clearly wanted to prove how scholarly they were.
Each stage is marked by different changes in brain wave patterns. The initial shift from waking brain waves to those of Stage 1 elicits a sensation of falling. Have you ever fallen asleep at school, work, or on an airplane? That feeling that suddenly snaps you back to waking—usually paired with a generous amount of drool spilling from your cakehole—was you moving into Stage 1 sleep. Without getting too technical, Stage 1 results in theta waves. It’s a light sleep. During this stage, you can be woken easily by outside stimuli, such as a cat meowing for attention because your daughter went back to her mother’s house and is not giving him affection every single second, meaning you just want to close your bedroom door, but that will only intensify the meowing and you work in the morning and just want some damn sleep so you can earn enough money to buy the little bastard some more cat food.
Stage 2 is actually the most restful stage, although not the deepest. It is also marked by theta waves, but the frequency and amplitude increase. Because Stages 1 and 2 are such light sleep stages, if you are woken during one of these, you will probably not recall being asleep at all. Have you tried taking a short nap before and heard your alarm go off after not believing you slept, but still feeling slightly more relaxed? That is likely what happened.
Stages 3 and 4 are marked by delta waves. They’re pretty close to one another, apart from 3 having slightly fewer delta waves than 4. These are the deepest stages of sleep. It’s tough to be woken up from them. When you are, you wake feeling groggy and disoriented. They are also where sleep-walking and sleep-talking occur. Personally, I’ve never been known to sleep-walk. My oldest sister, on the other hand, used to do it occasionally during puberty. My step-dad once recalled sitting in the living room in the dark, watching TV when my sister stepped out of her room and stood at the edge of the living room while staring at him and not responding to any questions. For a few minutes. That anecdote made me realize my step-dad was a braver man than me. He neither cried for mercy nor loosed his bowels into his pants. If I were sitting in a dark room and a young girl in a nightgown did that to me, the result would have included both. I’ve seen The Exorcist. I know what’s up. While I don’t sleep-walk, I have been told I sleep-talk—or, more accurately, sleep-giggle. Yeah. I mumble something incoherent and then giggle like a little child. I may have just realized why I’m still single.
REM is the final stage of stage of sleep, also known as dreaming sleep. In this stage, brain waves are akin to those of being awake. Your eyes dart from side to side under your eyelids. Your face, fingers, and toes might still move sporadically. However, the muscles in the rest of your body become nearly paralyzed. This is your body’s way of keeping you from acting out your dreams. I once read about a man who had a rare condition. His body wouldn’t become paralyzed during REM. He dreamt that he stabbed his mother to death and woke up to find that he had actually done it. If there were an award for the worst dream ever, that guy won hands down.
Most scholars agree that REM is the most important stage of sleep, although they can’t necessarily explain why. Most believe it is in this stage that we compartmentalize our days. We sort and order our brains and the result is dreaming. How important is it? In a study done on rats, they were woken as soon as their brain waves showed movement into REM. After a long period of being deprived of that sleep, the rats died. Similar studies were done on humans. Most of those subjects began having waking hallucinations and exhibiting signs of insanity.
Naturally, this would suggest that REM sleep is imperative for intelligent, living beings. However, dolphins and whales don’t seem to have this stage at all. Meanwhile, the platypus, arguably the stupidest creature in the world aside from the “cash me ow-sie” girl, spends a great deal of its sleeping time in REM—more than any other animal.
What I find especially intriguing about REM sleep is that it auto-corrects. On average, we have 4-5 full sleep cycles per night. We move down from Stage 1 to REM. We then move back up through the cycles, with Stage 1 being replaced with REM again. Then back down and back up the same. The first REM cycle generally lasts only about five minutes. As the cycles go on, 3 and 4 become shorter while 2 and REM become longer, resulting in a REM cycle of about forty minutes just before waking. When subjects are denied REM, they often skip the other steps and jump right back into it, and for longer periods of time. Have you ever woken up because you were having a terrible dream, only to fall right back into it? That’s why.
Dreams are necessary.
I also discovered over time that they can’t be generalized. The Dream Encyclopedia offers interpretations for various images we might see in our dreams. Those interpretations are amazingly diverse. For example, water in a dream can be a reference to the unconscious. Because fluids are involved in sex, Freud believed it was a sex symbol (but, in fairness, that guy connected everything to sex). Some claim it speaks to a feeling of drowning. Others to an expanse of possibility.
The truth is that no book can tell us what a specific symbol or image means. It is represented within our own minds. A child dreaming of a clown might see it as joy and laughter. My youngest sister would probably see it as impending death. She claims I tied her to a chair when we were young and forced her to watch It. While I don’t recall that at all, her absolute phobia of clowns must be the result of something…And I was an asshole in my youth.
What about our waking time? Those dreams that exist not in our minds, but our hearts? Are those dreams really any different? They’re unique to all of us. I would argue that they are also necessary to maintain our sanity.
What is your dream?
Are you a painter? A singer? A writer? A doctor? A body-builder? A dancer? A parent? A soldier?
We often discard these dreams all the time. We toss them aside to “live in the real world” and spend our lives in some deep sleep in which we walk and talk, but have no memory of it. We convince ourselves that dreams evaporate and are forgotten.
But dreams are necessary. And they always auto-correct.