Monday, April 18, 2011

Anatomy of a Nightmare

I apologize to both of my readers for being away for so long- I recently deployed and just got back. I didn't have the time to get blogging as I'd like to.
Nightmares have always fascinated me- they've always seemed to me as a symbol of the demented masochism in human nature. The twisted and distorted halls of dreams, filled with beasts of untold horror and hair loss, are a bit of a blessing to me- they're a place where I can feel strong emotions. Fear. Panic. The fear I feel in the dreams is the purest emotion, even if it's not the most pleasant at the time. For me, the dreamscape of a nightmare is a hallowed, if harrowing, place for me to revel in humanity sometimes just out of reach in my waking life.
A quick primer on what a nightmare is. At night, you go through cycles in your sleep. The REM, or rapid eye movement phase, is where most of us dream. And most of our dreams are bad ones, full of fear and anxiety. They aren't nightmares, though- nightmares are the dreams bad enough to make you wake up. Your brain is almost completely active during REM sleep, including the parts controlling your body, sending signals to your arms and legs and so forth. While you sleep, a tiny part of the brain keeps your body frozen, so that you aren't injuring yourself while running away from Cthulhu. While you dream, your primary visual cortex and the neo-cortex are largely quiet. The secondary visual cortex is wide awake and working hard, however, making our dreams largely visual.
Why we dream is a sticky question, and to my knowledge there wasn't, and isn't, a definitive answer by any means. The one I was most familiar with was the notion that it was random cinema being played inside the skull on the sleeping visual cortex- a garble of random thoughts and raw emotion.
However, there's a fairly old story (October, 2007) I just stumbled across that says something quite different. Basically that our dreams may be a way of "scrubbing" our fears, allaying them by ludicrously persistent confrontation. Despite my original hypothesis, I like this new one. And it seems to make sense: older people have progressively less nightmares as they get older, their fears gradually fading. Even the apparent evil of nightmares have some purpose, some value for good. I also find it upsetting that I may be dreaming even less in the future, but knowing that it is because my waking fears are assuaged gives me some measure of hope. And, given that people continue dreaming their whole lives, I can expect more pleasant dreams as I age. Some tips for inducing (or avoiding, if you reverse them) bad dreams:
  • Eat spicy food or any food that will cause indigestion. This makes you sleep more fitfully, and you'll wake up, sometimes in the midst of REM sleep, where you'll be more likely to remember your dreams, negative or otherwise.
  • Drink lots of water. This will have a similar effect to the above suggestion, waking you frequently.
  • Alcohol in moderation, just before sleep.
  • Keep a dream journal. Write down your dreams, and you will train your mind to remember them, at least for a few more minutes each morning.
Remember, what you're dreaming about may have direct implications in your waking life- if you're always dreaming about being late to work, you're probably worried about the consequences. If you confront these directly, you'll likely see the nightmares fade more quickly.
So, dear reader, sleep well, and dream.

Now playing: Avenged Sevenfold - Nightmare (Official Music Video)
via FoxyTunes

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