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Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Walker’

My recent re-reading of Antonio Machado, which continues to be rewarding but slow work given my sluggish Spanish, has reminded me of how important working on dreams has been in my personal and professional life.

Among the most resonant of his poems about dreaming is the one that begins this way (Antonio Machado Selected Poems translated by Alan Trueblood – pages 90-91):

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé, ¡bendita ilusión!,
que una fontana fluía
dentro de mi corazón.
Di, ¿por qué acequia escondida
agua, vienes hasta mi,
manantial de nueva vida
en donde nunca bebí?

And ends.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé, ¡bendita ilusión!,
que era Dios lo que tenía
dentro de mi corazón.

Alan Trueblood’s translation reads:

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a fountain flowing
deep down in my heart.
Water, by what hidden channels
have you come, tell me, to me,
welling up with new life
I never tasted before?

. . . . Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamed it was God I’d found
deep down in my heart.

Dreams were obviously important to him at that stage in his life. Why were dreams so important to me? I’ll try and explain this now by drawing on material from an earlier sequence of posts and adapting it slightly to present purposes.

Daniel Kahneman

Why Dreams?

I have come to believe, as Machado implies, that dreams sometimes connect us not just with the subliminal, but with the transcendent.

I am, in the first two parts of this treatment of dreams, going to keep as best I can within a framework of evidence that does not draw on the transcendent while plainly proving that we have modes of thought which cannot be reduced to Kahneman’s  System 1 (instinct) and System 2 (intellect). It also provides an area of experience that every single one of us can test out for ourselves if we are prepared to give it enough time. It’s far too tempting for me to add that if you are not prepared to test this out yourself over a period of months, at least resist the temptation to assume it’s valueless.

My main line of argument for now is that we can consult with our dreams. What does this mean in practice?

Dreams clearly come from a different part of our beings than our usual daytime conscious thoughts. Visual elements predominate. Even verbal ones are often tinged with the surreal. The best way to conceptualise dreams for our present purposes is to see them as originating from a level of consciousness that is usually below the threshold of our awareness – subliminal in other words. None of this is incompatible with the generally accepted view of dreams as being involved in a process of consolidating memories from short-term to long-term store. This function gives them a special role in alerting us to the meaning of what is called ‘day residue.’

I am writing this in full awareness of Matthew Walker’s recent book on sleep, which, while it explores the scientific support for the importance of dreams in consolidating memory, processing traumatic experiences and producing creative solutions to hitherto unsolved problems, is profoundly sceptical about the value of dream interpretation. As I will discuss at points later I am equally sceptical of the value of his prime target in this respect, Freudian theory.

Walker’s scepticism about examining one’s dreams is slightly qualified by what he adds, not quite as an afterthought (pages 202-03):

I want to be clear, as this all seems dismissive. I am in no way suggesting that reviewing your dreams yourself, or sharing them with someone else, is a waste of time. On the contrary, I think it is a very helpful thing to do, as dreams do have a function… Indeed, journaling your waking thoughts, feelings, and concerns has a proven mental health benefit, and the same appears true of your dreams.

So, undeterred, I’ll blast on!

Once you accept the idea that dreams come from below the threshold of normal consciousness, it becomes possible to see how useful they can be in problem-solving. This is because they come at a problem from a completely different angle from Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2, and it will also become apparent that they can bridge the gap between the material and spiritual aspects of consciousness, drawing therefore in my view more easily upon the transcendental. I have chosen to focus on dreams because not even the most reductionist scientist would deny we dream, even if he never remembers one, and because I have personally experienced the power dreams potentially have to unlock doors in the mind resistant to ordinary unassisted waking consciousness.

Also, dreams highlight a key problem, which permeates this whole area of human life: there is a world of difference between an experience and the interpretation of that experience. Nevertheless, it is not good science to dismiss the experience just because you don’t like the explanation that someone has pinned to it. Dreams undoubtedly exist. They are an unusual state of consciousness. What they mean and where they come from is open to interpretation. As such, therefore, they are potentially perfect illustrations of what I am hoping to convey.

At the most basic level you have the possibility that they can bring to our attention purely physical factors that were below this threshold of consciousness during the day. One such example is of the man who had a recurrent dream that a tiger had its claws in his back. After several frightening nights of this he asked his wife to check the skin there where he couldn’t see it. She found suspicious blemishes which a visit to the doctor and subsequent tests confirmed was a form of skin cancer. By paying attention to his dreams, he had been alerted in time and was cured.

One of my own experiences was less dramatic but none the less helpful for all that. I dreamt that I had been electrocuted by my turntable. When I checked the record player the following day I got a slight shock from the metal arm and, when I looked at the plug, I discovered that the earth wire was disconnected. During the previous day I had presumably had a shock from the arm but not noticed it consciously.

We have all heard of other examples where complex problems were solved by dreams (see link for more examples):

Kekulé discovered the tetravalent nature of carbon, the formation of chemical/ organic “Structure Theory”, but he did not make this breakthrough by experimentation alone. He had a dream!

Working with Dreams

There are reported to be cultures which, when the community has a problem, encourage everyone to seek dreams that yield a solution. Apparently this works.

There are books that explain ways in which we can all learn how to tap into this subliminal reservoir of creative thought to find a way through our problems. We can for example, before we sleep, deliberately ask for guidance in our dreams. As most of us, until we have practised it, fail to remember our dreams it is advisable to have a notepad and pencil handy by the bedside to record any dreams we are aware of when we wake during the night or as we wake in the morning. They need to be noted down right then because they fade so quickly that by the time you have got downstairs to make a cup of coffee you will have forgotten them.

Different books have different advice about how best to understand what you have dreamt. Personally, I never got much out of any material that claimed to give me standard interpretations of dream symbols. Our imagery is too personal for that to work most of the time.

I found two approaches useful, the second more than the first.

Calvin Hall recommended recording sequences of dreams and looking for the meaning in the sequence rather than in any one dream. That is probably good advice but not very practical, though I did manage to keep a detailed dream diary for about a year, recording the dreams on filing cards. In the end though I tended to just look at one of the more striking and significant dreams and ignored the rest.

This caused me to abandon Hall’s method. I took an immediate liking to Ann Faraday’s approach once I found her book The Dream Game in 1977. I still have my very battered copy of her book in the Penguin Edition.

There are two stages to her method. The first is uncontentious for the most part, once you accept the importance of dreams. Stage 1 focuses on how to record your dreams. Stage 2 is concerned with how to understand what they mean for us as the dreamer. We are a long way from System 1 and a fair distance from undiluted System 2 already.

Stage 1 – Catching the Dream

There are nine elements to capturing what you need to hold on to about a dream. This is a brutally simplified summary (pages 48-54):

  • Have the means to record your dreams within easy reach at night;
  • Date it in advance;
  • Prime yourself to dream by suggestion or prayer;
  • Don’t delay. Record every dream as soon as you wake;
  • Don’t dismiss a dream as too trivial to record;
  • Record it as fully as possible;
  • Enthusiasts should invite the next dream before going back to sleep!
  • Transcribe your dream the following day; and
  • Relate the dream to the events of the day before or that period of time (this does not mean that it is only an echo of them).

Stage 2 – Recording the Dream

Much of the rest of the book concerns how to decode the dream. Rather than simply regurgitating what she describes, which can best be experienced and understood by reading her book, I thought it would be more interesting and helpful to share the approach to dreams I came to rely on during a difficult period of transition in my own life. Much, but not all of it, came from her approach. At the core is the belief that dreams are not couched in some esoteric and deliberately mysterious language of symbols. We may think we don’t understand images very well, but this may simply be an easily remedied mistaken assumption (The Dream Game – page 62):

When the dreaming mind expresses itself in movie terms, cutting out all the “as ifs” and showing us literally crossing roads and bridges when we are facing major life decisions, or literally being devoured when we feel “eaten up” by something, it is using the most fundamental of all languages, shared by men and women of every age and race.

1. Transcribing the Dream

After I recorded a dream, when I was transcribing it to work on, I would write it in the present tense. ‘I am sitting in my living room. The radio is on. Even so I hear the sound of movement from the kitchen through the open door. I turn and look and to my horror I see a large and shambling figure walking out of the full length fridge-freezer and turning to come towards me.’ And so on.

2. Noting the Possibly Related Event(s)

I would note at the bottom of the transcript the ‘day residue’ and any other previous or pending events that might have triggered or influenced the dream. I found that dreams are not just sensitive to what has happened the day before but also to what I am aware has recently happened or is going to happen, like a recent trip or a forthcoming job interview. Even the events of a week earlier can leave traces in a dream. It is all a question of whether their meaning is still alive in the mind in some way.

I would then spend a little time deciding whether simple implications of the ‘day residue’ probably exhausted the dream’s meaning, or whether there were other resonances. For example, the electric shock from the record player arm seemed to be the main point of the dream. It was a simple warning. I fixed the earth wire. There was nothing else to think about. However, even if my fridge had needed fixing, the figure stepping out of it was clearly not reducible to a loose wire somewhere, except possibly in my head.

3. Giving the Dream a Title

I followed the advice to do this even though it was inconsistently effective. Sometimes I was right about the key theme and caught it in the title I created. Sometimes, though, I was hopelessly off the mark. When it was close it helped: when it was wrong it could slow down the process of arriving at a true understanding of the dream.

Next time comes the really interesting part: decoding the dream.

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I found myself staring outside my window earlier today, but not the same day that triggered my recent poem on the death of trees. I looked past the silver birch immediately outside, with most of its green or golden leaves in place, to the bare branches of the denuded sycamore, left with only a handful of its leaves on this cold but sunny November day. As I looked the words of the sonnet penned 400 years ago came floating into my mind:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Shakespeare, of course: sonnet 73.

That led me to Don Paterson’s reflections from his book on ‘Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: a new commentary.’ A later line of the sonnet reads: ‘Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.’ Paterson observes (page 212) that ‘WS is referring to night, though Death’s brother has long been sleep, whom he’s also invoking indirectly.’ Inevitably, we go further yet. He adds, ‘Remember Macbeth’s Come seeling night,/Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day.’ He reminds us that ‘seel’ is to ‘stitch the eyelids shut, as one would a hawk’s.’

The reference to Macbeth reminded me of the fascinating book that I had just finished reading: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.

He couldn’t resist wheeling out Macbeth either (page 108):

Ironically, most of the “new,” twenty-first-century discoveries regarding sleep were delightfully summarized in 1611 in Macbeth, act two, scene two, where Shakespeare prophetically states that sleep is “the chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

He argues that our industrialised society is chronically sleep deprived. And he harvests acres of evidence to prove (page 107) that sleep, amongst other things, ‘enhances memory,’ ‘makes [us] more creative,’ ‘protects from cancer and dementia,’ lowers our ‘risk of heart attacks and stroke,’ and leads to our feeling ‘happier, less depressed, and less anxious.’ We need to wake up to the danger we are in by not sleeping enough.

Three examples

Because I’m still a clinical psychologist at heart, to prove the value of the book I want to focus on his discussion of three problems: Autism, ‘Schizophrenia’ and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I have called them problems rather than illnesses or disorders because I am deeply sceptical, as I have explained elsewhere, about the value of such labeling.

But I can set aside such quibbling for now and focus on his demonstration of how much sleep can do to mitigate such problems and how much the lack of it makes them worse.

Autism

His link between autism and sleep abnormality is dramatically strong (page 82):

Autistic individuals show a 30 to 50 percent deficit in the amount of REM sleep they obtain relative to children without autism.

A word of explanation might be necessary here.

During waking hours, in terms of information, we are in reception mode, he argues. Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep performs a kind of reflective function (page 52) and stores and strengthens the ‘raw ingredients of new facts and skills’ whereas rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (dreaming sleep) integrates the information, ‘interconnecting the raw ingredients with each other, with all past experiences, and, in doing so, building an ever more accurate model of how the world works.’

He accepts that this correlation does not prove that the sleep problem in humans is the cause of autism or vice versa. However, research using animals suggests that when infant rats are deprived of REM sleep ‘aberrant patterns of neural connectivity, or synaptogenesis’ occur in the brain, and the rats affected ‘go on to become socially withdrawn and isolated.’

He adds that, since ‘alcohol is one of the most powerful suppressors of REM sleep that we know of’ it can ‘inflict the same selective removal of REM sleep.’ ‘Vibrant electrical activity’ is the detectable sign of REM sleep. The infants (page 83) ‘of heavy-drinking mothers showed a 200 percent reduction in this measure of vibrant electrical activity relative to the infants born of non-alcohol-consuming mothers.’ However, even when pregnant mothers consumed only two glasses of wine (pages 83-84), it ‘significantly reduced the amount of time that the unborn babies spent in REM sleep, relative to the non-alcohol condition.’

While he acknowledges that for humans (page 85) ‘we do not yet fully understand what the long-term effects are of fetal or neonate REM sleep disruption, alcohol-triggered or otherwise,’ the abnormalities caused in adult animals is clear.

I also feel that the evidence adduced by Raine in his masterly book The Anatomy of Violence may be partly explicable in these terms, though Walker makes no reference to it. In this study of violent offenders, Raine finds that foetal alcohol exposure is very much a factor needing to be taken into account, and not just with violent offenders, the main focus of his book, as it has implications for cognitive functioning including memory as well as impulse control in general (pages 163-164):

Part of the reason for this is its effects upon the hippocampus. The hippocampus patrols the dangerous waters of emotion. It is critically important in associating a specific place with punishment – something that helps fear conditioning. Criminals have clear deficits in these areas. The hippocampus is also a key structure in the limbic circuit that regulates emotional behaviour . . .

This impairment then interacts with early experiences of attachment, and disruptions to attachment make the likelihood of later personality problems much higher. Sleep strongly impacts upon the functioning of the hippocampus as Walker explains (page 155):

The very latest work in this area has revealed that sleep deprivation even impacts the DNA and the learning-related genes in the brain cells of the hippocampus itself.

So, whatever the exact direction of causation, and regardless of what other factors may or may not be involved, REM sleep disruption and autism are undoubtedly linked.

‘Schizophrenia’:

Even though I worked in mental health over thirty years, until I read his book I never realised fully the important role of sleep in the problems I was looking at, even though I used to explain to lay audiences that psychosis, as it is termed, was a kind of waking dream, which, I used to say, meant that we all became psychotic at night, whether we remembered our dreams or not.

There is an additional twist to the role of NREM sleep here (page 89): ‘Of the many functions carried out by deep NREM sleep… it is that of synaptic pruning that features prominently during adolescence.’

He goes on to explain how important adequate sleep is for the adolescent brain, given that it is critically involved in determining what synapses (neuronal connections) are removed to mature the brain appropriately. Then he makes his key point early on in the book (page 92):

Individuals who developed schizophrenia had an abnormal pattern of brain maturation that was associated with synaptic pruning, especially in the frontal lobe regions where rational, logical thoughts are controlled – the inability to do so being a major symptom of schizophrenia. In a separate series of studies, we have also observed that in young individuals who are at a high risk of developing schizophrenia, and in teenagers and young adults with schizophrenia, there is a two- to three-fold reduction in deep NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. . . . Faulty pruning of brain connections in schizophrenia caused by sleep abnormalities is now one of the most exciting areas of investigation in psychiatric illness.

He does not deal with this here except in terms of correlation. This therefore does not exclude the possibility that there are other causative elements at work.

Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is on a continuum with Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

I am well aware, for example, of the strong evidence for the role of trauma in the development of so-called schizophrenia. His treatment of trauma is quite separate from his discussion of schizophrenia, as he is content to term it, and he relates the persistence of nightmares in the aftermath of trauma to the failure of the brain to suppress noradrenaline, a failure that keeps the terror alive. Normally the brain suppresses noradrenaline in sleep so that dream experiences do not create strong feelings of fear and the mind is desensitised to the terror by the calming dreams – a very different process from the NREM one he is describing here.

None the less, the correlation is significant and potentially valuable therapeutically. I would hope that future research is less diagnostically naïve and includes other potentially relevant factors in the mix.

Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

His exposure of the way in which sleep deprivation is ignored as a fundamental factor in ADHD was music to my ears. He launches it by saying (page 314):

An added reason for making sleep a top priority in the education and lives of our children concerns the link between sleep deficiency and the epidemic of ADHD. … If you make a composite of the symptoms (unable to maintain focus and attention, deficient learning, behaviourally difficult, with mental health instability), and then strip away the label of ADHD, the symptoms are nearly identical to those caused by a lack of sleep.

The drugs we prescribe to treat it further prevent sleep.

He is not claiming there is no such thing as ADHD, simply that many people to whom the diagnosis has been attached are simply sleep deprived. The treatment makes it worse not better. He quotes the figures (page 316):

Based on recent surveys and clinical evaluations, we estimate that more than 50 percent of all children with an ADHD diagnosis actually have a sleep disorder, yet a small fraction know of their sleep condition and its ramifications.

And more than that. Because our society undervalues sleep (ibid.):

Well over 70 percent of parents [believe] their child gets enough sleep, when in reality, less than 25 percent of children aged 11 to 18 actually obtain the necessary amount.

He points to early starting times in schools as one of the culprits and late bedtimes as another. This blind spot in our culture is damaging lives, he argues. We have to change.

Dreams

I can’t resist a quick postscript on dreams. Oliver Burkeman, in a recent Guardian article, nails the difficulty I have with Walker’s reductionist approach, which he describes accurately: ‘recent work by researchers including Matthew Walker, author of the new book Why We Sleep, strongly suggests dreams are a kind of “overnight therapy”: in REM sleep, we get to reprocess emotionally trying experiences, but without the presence of the anxiety-inducing neurotransmitter noradrenaline. In experiments, people exposed to emotional images reacted much more calmly to seeing them again after a good night’s dreaming.

He rightly argues that Jung would not have agreed that this was all there was to it, and neither would I. He even provides a counteracting argument that retains the magic of dreams even while conceding they might be random:

So you wrote down a dream, then studied it, with or without a therapist, trying out different interpretations, and if one rang true – if it gave you goosebumps or triggered strong emotions – you pursued it further. What’s striking, you may have noticed, is that this approach would work even if Jung were wrong, and dreams were just random. If you treat them as potentially meaningful, retaining only those interpretations that really “click”, you’re going to end up with meaningful insights anyway. I’ve dabbled in this, and highly recommend it. To ask what your dreams might be trying to tell you is to ask deep and difficult questions you’d otherwise avoid – even if, in reality, they weren’t trying to tell you anything at all.

Walker’s disappointing take on dreams does not for me diminish one jot the fundamental importance of his book. Sleep really matters and he marshals convincing evidence to prove just how vital it is that we recognise this and act accordingly. It’s a compelling, accessible, credible and critically important read.

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