Everyone dreams, whether or not they remember dreaming, but perhaps the question should really be, Are you dreaming enough?
Yes, it does sound a little bit like, Are you getting enough sleep, and that’s part of the issue, but let’s explore. Why do we need to dream, what happens if we don’t pack sufficient dreaming time into our sleep, and are there circumstances that can disturb or stop our dreams from time to time?
Dreams can occur at any time during sleep, but they are at their most vivid during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. During REM you are protected from acting out those vivid dreams by sleep paralysis, a process that blocks your voluntary muscles from moving more than a twitch or two. Your eyes are not subject to sleep paralysis, and their fast movement is easily seen below your closed eyelids during this phase of sleep.
It’s also during REM sleep that your brain is at its most active compared to the rest of its sleeping time, sometimes more active than while you are awake, which may seem strange given that your body is largely inactivated by sleep paralysis. Your brain is at its most lively while your body is slumped in totally relaxed abandon. This is why REM sleep is also known as paradoxical sleep.
The science, for humans, is that under normal conditions you fall asleep and traverse through four stages of sleep before you arrive at the fifth stage, REM, after about 90 minutes. The four stages of sleep are collectively referred to as NREM, Non-REM sleep. While some dreams may occur during NREM, they are usually less vivid, the main energy of NREM sleep being directed to deep physically healing sleep and consolidation of memory and motor skills.
During an eight-hour sleep, you’ll have about five REM periods, five periods of vivid dreaming. The sleep cycle through NREM to REM gets shorter as your sleep progresses, and the REM period gets longer, so the last couple of hours of your sleep are rich in REM dreaming. In his book, Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker puts this in context: You might imagine that if you have a six hour sleep instead of eight you would lose 25% of your REM dreaming time, but in fact you lose 60-90%!
So if you’re burning the candle at both ends and trying to get by on six hours sleep, you’re losing out on 60-90% of the dreaming time you would have if you slept the eight hours that has been shown to be the natural amount of sleep people need.
You might think, Well, that’s a relief, as I have too many bad or frustrating dreams and I’m very happy to be spared more by hopping out of bed after just six hours. Consider that one of the reasons you may be experiencing bad or frustrating dreams may be that they reflect your struggles with not getting sufficient sleep to allow your dreams to do their natural processing of your daily experiences and help you awaken to solutions to challenges you’re facing. Remember, too, that bad and scary dreams are pure gold if you can recall them and work with them to understand yourself and your life more deeply.
Whether or not you remember your dreams, REM dreaming is vital to your health and wellbeing on all levels: physically, physiologically, mentally, and emotionally. This has been shown through experiment and observation in sleep labs, as well as through experiments with animals. Deprived of our REM sleep – and dreams – we would become very sick and then die.
We need to dream to stay alive, to be healthy. We need to dream to process our conscious and unconscious experiences of the last 1-2 days to update our mindset, comparing those recent experiences with our past experiences, and projecting our expectations into the future. We dream to lay down memories, update beliefs, process our emotions, build and practise using our unique mindset to prepare for the future, and find solutions to problems.
Sometimes we do this remarkably well. Sometimes we endorse or create memories and beliefs that limit our growth, block our potential, fail to come up with solutions, but, despite this, the dreaming process itself ticks the healthy checkboxes. The bonuses accrue when you remember your dreams and work with them to understand yourself more deeply, resolve issues, and use dream alchemy techniques to reprogram limiting beliefs. But first, you need to have sufficient dreaming time!
Maybe all that was the good news.
Maybe all you need to do to make sure you have sufficient healthy REM sleep and dreams is to get eight hours sleep every night.
Alcohol and some drugs suppress REM sleep. If you drink a lot of alcohol you’ll have REM-less dreamless sleep until the alcohol blood level drops. If you stay asleep long enough you may experience REM Rebound, which is where your sleeping brain tries to fit in all the missed REM sleep at the end of the sleeping period. In REM Rebound your dreams will be wildly vivid, not only because they’re overdue but also, perhaps, because they’re processing the overindulgence and toxic onslaught.
Alcoholics, when drinking every day, risk having very little REM sleep at all, but the need for REM sleep and dreaming is so intense that the brain begins to dream while the person is awake, resulting in hallucinations, delusions, and psychosis (delirium tremens, the DTs).
It’s not only alcohol and other hard drugs that can deprive you of REM sleep and dreams. So can caffeine. So can anxiety and stress in general. So can any common disorder that interrupts solid sleep, such as sleep apnoea (sleep apnea) and insomnia. People with autism have been shown to have a 30-50% reduction in REM sleep, though the reasons for this are not understood.
So, does everyone dream every night? Yes, unless you are a very heavy alcohol or drug user in which case you may dream awake in the form of hallucinations or psychosis. But are you getting enough dreaming sleep? You may now be able to answer that question. What first step could you take to get your full dose of healthy dreaming sleep every night?