Matt’s back with part three of his series on the science of dreaming! In this episode, he discusses how he and other scientists have discovered that dreams are not simply an unintended by-product of REM sleep. Instead, dreams provide at least two essential benefits for human beings.
The first of these functions involves nursing our emotional and mental health and is the focus of this episode. Matt helps us understand that what makes a memory emotional is that, at the time of the experience, we release a visceral, emotional reaction. This wraps itself around the memory and red flags that memory/experience as important, and tags and bonds itself to the information, creating an “emotional memory.”
Years ago, Matt and his team discovered that it’s not time that heals all wounds. Instead, it is sleep, that helps the brain divorce the emotion from the memory, offering what Matt has described as, “a form of overnight therapy.” Dreaming of these emotional events allows mental-health resolution, keeping our minds safe from the clutches of anxiety and reactive depression.
Earlier work by pioneering researcher Dr. Rosalyn Cartwright addressed the latter condition of depression. Her remarkable work studied the dreams of people showing signs of clinical depression due to difficult emotional experiences. Through her research, Dr. Cartwright found that only those patients who had been dreaming about their painful experiences went on to gain clinical resolution from their depression.
When it comes to resolving our emotional difficulties it’s not enough to have dreams. Instead, we seem to need to dream of the events themselves to benefit from that emotional therapy.
Now if you’re not remembering dreams of difficult experiences you’ve been going through, don't worry. If Matt brought you into his sleep center and woke you while you were having REM sleep, your dream reports would most likely reflect that you are doing exactly what you need to be doing in terms of your emotional processing.
In other words, all of this work tells us that one of the functions of dreaming is to serve as a set of emotional windscreen wipers! As a result when we wake the next morning after a night of dreaming, we are dressed in a very different set of psychological clothing to that we went to sleep in--a less ruffled emotional outfit, free of the sharp creases of painful emotions.
What Matt and his team discovered is that it’s not time that heals all wounds, but rather, it is time spent in dream sleep that provides emotional convalescence.
To sleep, perchance, to heal.
Please note that Matt is not a medical doctor, and none of the content in this podcast should be considered medical advice in any way, shape, or form, nor prescriptive in any way.
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