Dream a little dream

October 20, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

"It's just a dream," many a parent has said while comforting a child who is having a nightmare.

But maybe dreams shouldn't be so readily dismissed.

"What we do in our dreams profoundly affects future dreams and our waking minds," says Patricia Garfield, clinical psychologist, college instructor and author.

Garfield, whose books about dreams and dreaming have been published in 12 languages, is one of six co-founders of the Association for the Study of Dreams, a nonprofit, international organization dedicated to the investigation of dreams and dreaming.

She's kept a diary of her dreams for more than 50 years and says dreams can make a huge difference in the quality of one's life.


What is a dream?

Some scientists believe dreams are the brain's attempt to find meaning in the random signals it receives during REM - rapid eye movement - sleep, according to the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Web site at

REM sleep, the final of five sleep phases, was discovered by researchers 50 years ago. REM is the sleep stage during which breathing becomes more rapid and irregular, eyes jerk violently, heart rate increases and blood pressure rises. When people wake up during the REM phase of sleep, they often describe dreams.

We also dream in other sleep phases, says Veronica Tonay, author, college instructor and psychologist in Santa Cruz, Calif.

If you sleep eight hours, 20 percent of your sleep will be spent in dreaming. Dreams start short: Your first dream will last about 10 minutes, Garfield says. They get increasingly longer as your sleep progresses. If you sleep for eight hours, your last dream - the one you'll remember - lasts 35 to 40 minutes. If you sleep less, you'll recall less, she adds.

People dream more during certain periods of their lives, Garfield says. Increased dreaming occurs during adolescence. Teenagers sleep more and are experiencing hormonal changes. Pregnant women, undergoing hormonal changes and having psychological concerns - wondering what kind of mom they will be - have more dreams, Garfield says.

People also tend to dream more when they are learning something new. "Dreaming helps with the memory process," Garfield says.

As people age and get less sleep, dreaming decreases, Garfield says.

Do dreams have meaning?

There are many who believe they do. Dreams can be the source of profound inspiration, Garfield says.

"It's very difficult to impose one meaning on a dream," says Tonay, who has kept a dream journal for 25 years.

She counts on her dreams to help her know when her life is out of balance.

She has a place she loves to visit in England. When she dreams about it, she takes it as a sign that she's too busy, that she's not taking care of herself. She doesn't have to book plane tickets, but she knows that she needs some self-nurturing - even just spending some time in her garden.

"Dreams are good touchstones for me," she says.

Everyone is so busy, there is no time to reflect, Tonay says. Unexpressed feelings can cause dangerous emotional and physical unease. Humans are geared to feel things emotionally. If unexpressed, bottled up emotions will express themselves in dreams

It's important to pay close attention to the feelings in dreams, Tonay says.

The bulk of dreaming is solving problems, Garfield says. Every new situation - first grade, a new school - all are strongly reflected in what we dream.

Can you control your dreams?

Both Garfield and Tonay say you can.

Lucid dreaming - when you are somewhere between wakefulness and dreaming - can be helpful for people who are having nightmares. You visualize a different ending, Tonay says.

Garfield says you can get ready to dream, "re-dream" a scary dream - make it better.

She recalls a client who had a recurring dream in which her brakes fail while she's driving, and the car goes over a cliff. She and Garfield talked about steering the car down and landing gently. The next time the dream started she announced, "Dr. Garfield told me I can change this."

"Sometimes it's just the idea," Garfield says. By teaching people that they have choices, they are empowered, she adds.

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