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Friday, February 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Decoding our dreams: What do your nighttime visions really mean?

The Hartford Courant

Looking for a low-cost path to self-knowledge? A way to mine your subconscious for clues to your motivations, desires and fears?

No need to undertake years of therapy or analysis. Just look to your dreams.

"You can ignore your dreams, which most people do, but you are really doing yourself a disservice," said Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, a dream analyst in Nashville, Tenn., and the author of "So, What Did You Dream Last Night?" (Dream Zone Cos., $19.95). "By ignoring your dreams, you're letting red flags pass you by, letting great ideas and inspirations pass you by. You are not tapping into your full potential."

While there are sleep researchers who claim that dreams are nothing more than random nerve impulses in the brain, others believe dreams are more directly related to our moods and emotions and can serve as tools to self-understanding.

Charles Lambert McPhee, who has a syndicated radio show, "The Dream Doctor," said dreams can help people in practical ways, providing them with insight into romantic and family relationships, career advancement and self-improvement.

"People have no idea whether or not dreams mean anything," said McPhee. "They associate dreams with astrology and tarot cards and horoscopes. That's the disaster portion of what's happened in the field.

"What I'm working on every night on the show is to reposition the understanding of dreams. ... As a rule, no dream is random. There is always a relationship to what is going on in the dreamer's life."

Some basics about dreams


Short of dreams? You can train yourself to dream more and recall your dreams more vividly.

When you go to bed, remind yourself that you want to recall your dreams. When you wake, don't jump out of bed. Instead, lie there in half-sleep, and try to recall what you were dreaming about.

In that state, you'll have a much better chance at recalling more of the dream. Then write it down immediately.

If you wait until later to try to recall it, you'll often forget much or most of the dream.

Dream incubation. Yes, you can play a role in what you dream. When you're going to sleep, tell yourself what you want to dream about, whether it's a solution to a problem or simply a pleasant experience. This simple step often results in useful dreams.

Dreams and depression. Did you know that REM, or dream sleep, is associated with depression?

Although it is counterintuitive, if you deprive a clinically depressed person of dream sleep — by waking him up whenever he dreams — his spirits improve. Antidepressants work in part by reducing the amount of REM sleep a person gets.

Talking to kids. Comparing dreams is a great way to talk to kids, particularly when they become less communicative as adolescents. Often they are more interested in chatting about their dreams than in answering the conversational turn-off: What happened in school today? And you just might learn something about them from their dreams.

The science of sleep

Dreams occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) cycles of sleep each night. For adults, that means about every 90 minutes. The first period of REM sleep may be short, 5 to 10 minutes, followed by progressively longer stretches, eventually reaching an hour or more in the fourth or fifth period.

When people are dreaming, brain scans show a lot of activity. "The brain is online during dreams. The experiences you have during the day are codified and associated during dream sleep," said Edward O'Malley, director of the Sleep Disorder Center at Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut.

"If people are awakened from this state, they are ready to go," he said, their alertness improved by their dreaming.

As for the contents of a dream, O'Malley said, "the coinage of the realm has to do with emotions."

People we know or experiences we've had at different times in our lives may collide bizarrely in the same dream. On the surface, the connection between these people and events may seem remote, but with thought, often an emotional theme can be uncovered.

What does it mean?

AmyBeth Gilstrap has had the same recurring dream since Hurricane Katrina drove her and her daughter and friends out of New Orleans. Gilstrap, who now lives in Farmington, Conn., said, "It's always spies. My job is to get people to some place sneakily — to get this family and get them somewhere, but the government can't know."

She's certain the dream is related to her effort in the aftermath of the hurricane to help several families leave. Sometimes her cats also are part of that dream. She believes that's because she sneaked back into New Orleans, before it was allowed, to rescue her pets.

"I don't know when these dreams will stop, but they are very annoying," said Gilstrap, who has long paid close attention to her dreams. "Dreams tell me what I missed when I was awake," she said.

She found that dream dictionaries offered a good start to understanding her dreams, but you then need to understand your own symbolism.

"In my case, the most blatant one is I have a lot of water dreams," she said. Sometimes the waters are dark and murky, which Gilstrap believes signifies emotional distress for her. Other times she'll be riding a current or wave of water, "a beautiful flood," which she says signifies positive emotions.

Dream theory

Perhaps best known among dream theorists was Sigmund Freud, who claimed that dreams are based on repressed longings.

Carl Jung, a colleague of Freud's, said the images and symbolism of dreams are found in a collective unconscious of archetypes that all humans share.

Today, scientists look to brain scans to better understand why dreams occur. These scans have shown that the portions of the brain that control emotion and long-term memory are active during REM sleep.

McPhee said this lends credence to the idea that dreams aren't simply the result of random electrical impulses. However, McPhee said that since Freud and Jung, no one has done much to advance the knowledge of dreams in a popular format.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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