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Nightmares becalmed

9 0 0
12.04.2021

Most of us have had a nightmare or a few. They’re a normal response to stress. But for a significant minority of people, they’re so frequent – about 5 per cent of the population experiences nightmares on a weekly basis or worse – that the disruption to sleep can be severely harmful to mental health, increasing symptoms of anxiety, depression and even suicide risk.

People who experience frequent nightmares can feel helpless, doomed to relive disturbing dreams on any given night. Common recurring themes include out-of-control vehicles, falling, being chased or attacked, teeth falling out, and being late or unprepared for an exam. Here’s a typical example:

For people who experience frequent nightmares, sleep becomes a constant source of fear and restlessness rather than respite. Repeatedly waking from nightmares is a shock to both their body and mind: heart racing, hyperventilating, palms sweating, with emotional distress that can persist well into the day and further disrupt sleep the following night.

I’m a dream scientist. One of the goals of my work is to help nightmare sufferers. I study dreams to better understand how they work, and what happens when dreaming is disrupted, including by the experience of recurring nightmares. I want to uncover ways to repair nightmares and, in their place, engineer dreams for healing.

Over the past decade, I’ve worked in sleep laboratories all around the world. I’ve watched hundreds of people sleep so that I can wake them up to ask them about their dreams. Today, I work at the University of Rochester’s Sleep and Neurophysiology Research Laboratory in New York state, which happens to be where I fell in love with this research field as an undergraduate intern in 2008. That same year, in my dorm-room bed, is when I had my first ever lucid dream – when you know you’re dreaming and you can exert some control over what’s happening. In this lucid dream, I opened my eyes, turned around, and saw that my body was still lying asleep! I was literally beside myself, as I realised I was inside a dream. I remember being amazed at how vivid and real everything looked, and that this alternative reality was being created inside my mind.

When I woke up, I knew that this was what I wanted to study; I wanted to explore the world of dreaming through scientific sleep research. And since beginning my career as a graduate student in the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory in Montreal in 2011, I’ve done just that, studying the science, psychology and practice of dreaming.

Expressions during sleep, such as smiling or laughing, correspond to the emotional content of a person’s dreams

Researchers in my field typically conduct studies in sleep laboratories using polysomnography, which involves measuring a person’s eye movements, brainwaves and heartbeat while they sleep. This approach began in 1951 when the American physiologist and pioneering sleep researcher Eugene Aserinsky placed electrodes on his eight-year-old son’s scalp and around his eyes, and discovered that there were periods of the night where his son’s eyes were moving, which corresponded with changes in brain activity. If awakened during these periods, which are known today as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, participants are much more likely than at other sleep stages to report vivid sensory, emotional and bizarre dreams (while dreams are more likely to occur, and are more vivid, during REM sleep, it’s not true that they occur only during REM sleep, as used to be believed).

To influence dreams, dream engineers need to understand the processes that shape dream content. For a long while, a conventional view was that dreaming is a simulation of waking life generated purely by brain activity. However, evidence is mounting that the rest of the body also contributes to dream generation, which has huge implications for dream engineers seeking ways to shape dreams.

For instance, consider a recent study of lucid dreamers by the neurologist Isabelle Arnulf and her team at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. Arnulf and her colleagues asked their lucid dreamers to hold their breath within their dream, and found that, as they did so, there was actually a cessation of airflow in the real sleeping body, as measured by a sensor placed in the nostrils. This provides evidence that, at least in lucid dreamers, the physical body is manifesting dream content in real time. There’s also a correspondence between the body and more emotional dream content. Another of Arnulf’s recent studies suggests that a person’s expressions during sleep, such as whether they are........

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