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Holly Erskine

Friday, April 29, 2016

I've been writing down my dreams for years. I'm hooked. I love recalling my dreams but I can't exactly explain why I love it so. Most mornings I'll recollect at least a few tidbits, but on mornings where get up too quickly, details fade swiftly. Mornings where I wake with nothing to report leave me feeling let down, wanting.



Neutron watches the moon set over frozen Lake Michigan

Even if I can't remember every detail, I feel strangely satisfied just for remembering a portion. For example, this morning all I can recall was that I realized Tim and I would of course need not one but two rolls of paper towels for all of our elephants. And just that detail was enough to satisfy me. But why should dream recollection feel like an itch that needs scratching?

I have a theory that the process of recalling dreams is in itself a healthy brain exercise. During dream recall, it feels like one part of my brain is glimpsing another, more hidden part, and in doing so, connections are made. Strengthening connections between dreaming circuits and waking memory feels healthy in some inexplicable sort of way. I have no evidence for this other than it feels satisfying or refreshing.

At the very least you can say that strengthening your habit of dream recall is a form of memory exercise. There is, in fact, evidence backing up this notion. A few studies demonstrate that the process of successful dream recall mirrors EEG patterns of waking memory recall and that similar anatomical structures are involved.


But dream recollection feels deeper to me than a mere memory exercise. When I am able to remember, I experience significant satisfaction, even if the events in the dream were trivial or unpleasant.



Of course dreams also simulate creativity, for both art and problem solving. If I have a particularly memorable dream I might write a poem about it. I usually have what I call "dream music " which is a whole essay unto itself, so I won't go into too much detail here other than to say my dreaming brain spontaneously composes little repetitive ditties, usually around 2 measures long, almost always in a major key and in common time. (If you also have dream music, or have what researchers call a perpetual music track, you can read about this and find researchers that would love to know more about your experience.) While dreaming, I'll think, Wow! This music is fantastic! Then I'll wake, sing a few notes aloud, and think, Wow. That's boring! I'm easily impressed when I am dreaming.

But I record many of these dream ditties right after waking anyway, and I now have a file of hundreds of short motifs that I could develop into longer pieces if I could ever find the time to do that. If I were a more confident artist, I'd be tempted to sketch elements of the alien objects that I "saw ". It's just amazing to me that our brains can come up with this stuff while we are sleeping!

One scientific theory making the rounds in labs these days suggests dreaming is a form of creative problem solving. Our brains play with familiar memories, placing us in virtual simulation booths, forcing us to plan how to react to changing situations. Even though I have not taught college in years, I still dream of running late for a room full up impatiently waiting chemistry students, or I suddenly must teach chemistry in Spanish, or my school's administrators abruptly require that I switch to teaching a subject I know nothing about, like sewing. I know I am not the only teacher who endures teacher-specific nightmares.

My mother's mother was also a college professor, and studied under Ira Progoff, a student of Carl Jung's. With this training, Neva Daniel gave workshops around the country on dream and diary journaling. Ironically, I never took a class from my grandmother, but inherited, possibly genetically, her obsession for journaling and dreams. She did manage to teach me a few key ideas that stuck. First, it is essential to record the emotional states you felt throughout a dream. It's all too easy to talk about a dream's events, but if you overlook your emotional reactions to these events, you lose your dream's meaning entirely.

Also, Neva recommended a couple techniques for those occasional, disturbing dreams that infest your consciousness: re-dreaming and dialoging.

To re-dream, sit quietly, setting a timer for however long you want to work. I'd start with five minutes, for example. Close your eyes. Recall the key event in your dream that troubled you the most. To re-dream, redirect the events in the dream to have a better ending. It is a form of re-writing, or creative story telling. You use your imagination to watch a better ending until you are satisfied.

To dialog, imagine with as much detail as possible that you are facing a significant character from your dream. Ask yourself: What is their eye color? How tall are they? How old are they? What are they wearing? And so on. Now look them in the eyes and ask them what they want.

Jung suggested that all your dream characters are really aspects of yourself, so you have to trust that even if your character appears unwholesome, they might have a gift or information for you, if can you listen. Keep asking them until you get a good answer. In using this technique, I have been surprised how often a nightmare character turns out to be an ally in disguise.

I write down whatever I recall of my dreams every day that I have time to do so. Even the tiniest detail, if that is all there is, I report dutifully. The amazing thing to me about this process is often it is only during the process of writing it out will I see connections or metaphors about something I am doing in my life. At times those insights are really valuable.



Grab them before they vanish.
I've learned to keep a pad of paper and pen next to my bed, because if I don't write things down immediately after waking, details swiftly disappear. Time after time I have thought, "Of course I will remember that! " And I prove myself wrong. Dream recall has to happen prior to my talking, because there is something about bringing language back online that erases my dreams. Sometimes I'll tell Tim to hush, saying "Not yet! not yet! I 'm remembering my dreams." He is kindly patient until I write it all down. He knows how I hate to lose them.


Notice themes. I would not notice minor themes unless I wrote my dreams down every day. Recurring themes often arising for no apparent reason, then disappear to be replaced by new themes. Lately for example I have dreamt a lot about dogs, very friendly nice dogs. They are on my consciousness, but I have no idea why. And also about my father, doing sweet ordinary household tasks with my dad. Sometimes a color will arise as a theme for a while, that I notice. Lately I have been noticing orange and red things in my dreams, and that color palate is tied to a sensation of something deep and healthy-feeling, in my gut. Again, I have no idea what these themes mean, but I like to notice them.


Your logbook
I find it easiest to record dreams on my computer, because I type faster than I can write longhand. But there is nothing wrong with writing long hand. (In fact I have an article in progress about recent brain research supporting how longhand writing is superior to keyboard writing for encoding memories. The mindless speed of keyboard note taking is what seems to prevent memory encoding.)

And in order to remember the dreams, I must jot shorthand notes of whatever I remember first thing on paper, so I have to keep a stack of paper handy next to my bed, along with a red-tinted headlamp to see, if it is dark (see Douse the Light, below.)

If you keep a physical notebook, it should reflect your personality in a respectful way. My grandmother was fond of telling the story of how her frustrated student balked at using a journal. Neva noticed her journal had a big Mickey Mouse on its cover. Do you like Mickey Mouse? Neva asked her. Not really, her student admitted. Neva encouraged her to swap it for something more dignified. Switching notebooks proved the magic trick for erasing her reluctance to touch her journal.


Animals on the bed. Ah, there are few things in life more sweet than having a pile of warm and furry pets covering your blankets, while you read a riveting book or have a nice snooze. It took Tim and I many years to relish the even sweeter deep sleep we were rewarded with when we mustered the discipline to force a cat exodus from our bedroom, before we turned the lights out. (Cat treats have made this all too simple and now it is expected if not demanded.)  Prior to this, our beloved angels gleefully tortured us, at odd hours of the night, Alberio scratching at the blinds, Neutron would commence noisily eating my magazines with goatlike gusto, and it was always import for a number of them to stage a mock battlescene on top of our legs prior to 4 AM. We do let them drape their purring bodies all over  us during our bedtime reading hour, which everyone enjoys immensely.


Stories and sticky notes help. Speaking of storytime, for generations our ancestors sang, dance, or spoke stories to the tribe in the evening. Story time is not the morning, not the middle of the day, but the evening. It sets your mind for dreams. There is nothing like a fictional story, which lifts you out of the issues of your life, to get you ready for sleep. I have a pile of magazines, too, but reading nonfiction articles just don't relax me the way a story does. If I have a bought of insomnia, spending a little time reading a story, rather than a nonfiction article, really helps get my mind off things. Another trick if you are stuck thinking about real life is to write all your thoughts down next to you. It frees up your working memory so you don 't have to work to keep remembering them, which keeps you awake.


Certain chemicals are bad for sleep and thus bad for dreams. Here I'll put on my hat as a doctor of medicinal chemistry and try to avoid standing on my soap box for too long. If you have trouble sleeping and drink alcohol, consider switching to tea, cocoa or some other alcohol-free treat. I enjoy drinking on occasion, but when I do, it predictably causes what I jokingly call wine-somnia. There is a physiological explanation for why alcohol wakes you in the middle of the night.

Also, I despair over the easy, over the counter availability of "PM" medications, such as diphenhydramine, or Benadryl. These are part of a large class of medications called anticholinergics. There has been growing concern that anticholinergics are risky for long term use, especially for those at risk for dementia. Anticholinergics are also commonly prescribed as antihistamines, and for overactive bladder. I won't digress further. If you are not sure that you need an anticholinergic, ask your health practitioner about alternatives, or at least for versions that don't cross the blood brain barrier readily.

I'm not sure how well melatonin works for everyone, but it might be one of the few things I'd recommend trying for insomnia, or perhaps a dissolved, powdered magnesium supplement, as a bedtime beverage. (A lot of people are magnesium-deficient, anyway, and certain over the counter drugs like acid suppressors may exacerbate this.) A number of prescription sleep aids and antidepressants have come under the gun of recent research studies for increasing the risk for dementia. What prescription sleep aids will reliably do is cause amnesia, so you don't remember not getting a good night's sleep.

During a non-chemically induced sleep, you accelerate the clearance of junk proteins out of your brain using a newly-discovered system dubbed the glymphatic system. Without restorative natural sleep, your brain gets filled up with toxic junk proteins that kill brain cells. There is a strong link between insomnia and dementia risk. There is a reason why insomnia feels terrible. It hurts your brain in a literal sense.


Douse the Light! Consider eye-blinders. Uncomfortable eyelid smashing once put me off using them, but masks that softly bubble out from your eyes without touching your lids are now available. I was skeptical years ago, but immediately became a convert once I discovered how much deeper my sleep is with blinders. Light penetrates your closed eyelids to hit these wake-up receptors that have recently been discovered. (And investigated by my sister-in-law's father-in-law, in fact, and we thank you Dr. Kripke! Small world.) Light, even through your closed eyelids, reduces your brain's production of the sleep hormone melatonin.

Blue light wakes you up the most. TVs, smart phones, and computers blast this wavelength into your eyes. Some folks even resort to wearing amber-colored goggles during their evening rectangle-gazing sessions, to prevent this. Lots of people will be happy to sell you amber goggles and amber lights. I think it's easier and far more pleasant to go low tech: read a book, you know, the old-fashioned kind made out of paper.

If you must look at your computer before bed, try a downloading a dimming program like F.lux. I love that particular program, which I downloaded free. It keeps track of the time, and when evening comes, it turns my monitor's light subtly pink. It soothes my eyes, and I'm so used to it that if it isn't running, the light hurts my eyes. Certain smartphones are starting to include similar programs.

I use a headlamp to read at night, to avoid disturbing my sleeping hubby, who usually conks out before I do. I've learned that using a red LED light is really soothing. In a pinch, I have covered over flashlight lenses with clear tape that I color over with a red ink pen. Presto-chango, you can turn a flashlight into a red light. Cheap, but it works.


I'd love to hear from other dreamers! What works for you?