Into the arms or Morpheus: The science and mystery of dreaming
By Erin Smith
Morpheus, the god of dreams, is the son of Hypnos, the god of sleep, and Pasithea, the goddess of rest. The ancients tell that Morpheus dozes in a cave of poppies and, lulled into trances by the flowers’ soporific effects, transmits messages from the gods through human dreams. The Greeks referred to deep sleep as lying in the arms of Morpheus. They warned against ignoring the omens Morpheus brings to us in the night.
I’ve been having the richest dreamlife of my existence during quarantine. My nights seem filled with especially lucid, unforgettable dreams that follow me into my waking day. I dream in vivid color, which is interesting since I am colorblind when awake (I have special colorblind glasses that have shown me what colors look like, so my hippocampus now pulls these memories into my dreams. How cool is that?).
Most of these pandemic dreams are also upsetting, filled with stressful themes. In one, I wander through a large house, opening doors and descending staircases, looking for something I can never locate. In another, Izzie is in some unnamed danger and I am unable to get to her. Sometimes I am being chased or pursued.
What if I told you that this sort of stressful, lucid dreaming is actually good for me? That it’s my brain healing itself against the stressors of my waking life?
Science used to largely teach that dreams were merely electrical brain impulses firing at random. The activation-synthesis hypothesis holds that dreams are completely meaningless. This widely-accepted neurobiological theory states that humans construct stories when we awaken in an attempt to make sense of those electrical impulses.
As we learn more and more about our magnificent brains, we are starting to understand that there is much more happening when we dream than random firing of the neurons. Many neurologists and psychologists have now adopted the threat simulation theory of dreaming, which states that dreaming is an ancient biological defense mechanism that actually protects us from anxiety and depression.
Let me explain. Those really vivid, bizarre and emotionally intense dreams we’ve been having during the pandemic? When they occur, our brain lights up like a Christmas tree in the amygdala, that animal brain that processes emotional reactions and is solely concerned with our survival. Dreams help us process emotions by encoding and then constructing memories of those emotions.
But dreams are a totally safe place to process these emotions because the brain is calm, even though the dream might feel intense. Sleep involves five distinct phases, which we cycle through several times during the night. The first four phases are shallow, dreamless sleep; we’re only in the arms of Morpheus in the fifth phase, or REM sleep. REM, or rapid eye movement, is the sleep cycle when we dream. And REM sleep is the only time when our brain is completely devoid of the anxiety-triggering molecule norepinephrine. So think of deep sleep as the perfect time to process the negative emotions from your day. The emotional memory reactivation happens in a brain that is free of stress chemicals, letting us process our stress in a safe, calm environment.
When we spend more time in REM sleep at night, we have lower fear-related brain activity the next day. That’s just a fancy way of saying that if we don’t get a good night’s sleep, we don’t have the opportunity to process the stress of the day, and it bleeds into a more stressful tomorrow.
We are collectively under a lot of stress right now, so getting enough sleep is crucial to our mental health. The longest periods of REM sleep happen during the final hours of sleep. If we are going to bed too late and getting up too early, then we are cutting off our restorative REM sleep. Check back here next week for some advice in getting deeper, more restorative sleep.
Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness” and the online host of the OM channel.