THE BLOG

My Q and A With Sleep Specialist Rubin Naiman on Paying Attention to Our Dreams

03/09/2015 05:46 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

Dr. Rubin Naiman doesn't want to just raise awareness about the importance of sleep. He wants to change the way we think about it, by blasting through the assumptions and misunderstandings that have for so long defined -- and limited -- the conversation.

A clinical assistant professor of medicine at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, Naiman is particularly interested in dreams. In answer to my questions, he passionately and eloquently makes the case that we can truly benefit from opening ourselves to our dreams and meeting them on their own terms rather than trying to view them through the lens of waking life.

Why do we dream?

Great philosophers have taught that we routinely mistake the limits of our personal perception for the limits of the universe. Nowhere is this fundamental error more evident than in our posture toward dreams and dreaming. Because we live in a world where dreaming is so utterly misconstrued and commonly dismissed, we fail to recognize the critical role it plays in our health and happiness. I've come to believe our blind spot around dreaming is at the root of so much that is wrong with our world today.

REM sleep has been shown to be essential for learning and memory consolidation. In fact, diminished REM sleep is a hallmark of dementia, including Alzheimer's. REM sleep also actively regulates our feelings and moods. It's not a surprise that mood disorders, depression and anxiety, are frequently associated with a pattern of disrupted dreams.

Recent research suggests that REM sleep essentially functions to process waking-life experiences. Sometimes referred to as the second brain, our gastrointestinal system intelligently processes -- or sifts through, digests and assimilates -- the food we consume. Likewise, in REM sleep the brain sifts through, digests and assimilates the vast array of information and experiences we "consume" by day. Acting like a second gut, it selects what will be purged and what will be permanently assimilated into our long-term memories -- into who we are. We are remade and updated nightly during REM sleep.

Just as updating a computer requires temporarily shutting down its operating programs, REM sleep takes us "offline" by inhibiting the use of most of our senses and voluntary muscles. We are disconnected from the world around us, functionally disembodied as our sense of self is updated nightly.

Personal dreams are a portal to an intriguing inner world. The nightly REM-sleep process of updating our sense of self appears to be reflected symbolically in the images and narratives of our dreams. Freud taught that dreams are "the royal road to the unconscious." Could it be, however, that they are the actual territory? Do we really need to translate the unconscious into waking-world language before acknowledging its value? Maybe dream work is less about resolving childhood-rooted conflicts between dynamic parts of our selves and more about resolving tensions between who we think we are and who we are becoming.

From the perspective of ordinary waking life, the dream is typically viewed from a utilitarian perspective. We want to juice it, analyze and interpret it and use it as a resource to better our waking lives. We relate to the dream the way we have historically related to the environment: with limited regard for what it actually is. We presumptively attempt to understand the meaning of a dream without first addressing the fundamental question of what dreaming is. This is like trying to interpret a painting before we understand what art is really about.

I don't believe there are useful maps of our personal dream territories. Dreaming is, more accurately, an off-road experience that winds through a vast personal and transpersonal wilderness. Alternative perspectives on dreams from anthroposophy, Tibetan Buddhism and a range of shamanic practices, for example, suggest that there are different kinds of dreams that traverse different levels of consciousness. There may be, for example, ordinary dreams that are low-flying takes on waking consciousness, and there may be more lofty kinds of dreaming that provide a high-altitude and spiritual view of our lives.

Describe your Jungian and archetypal perspectives on dreaming.

In contrast to Freud and other common views of dreaming, Jung and archetypal psychologists saw dreaming not as a strictly personal psychological experience but also as a transpersonal, social, shared experience that encompassed what we call reality. "In the deepest sense," said Carl Jung, "we all dream not out of ourselves but out of what lies between us and the other.

In our modern world of rugged individuation, however, we easily lose sight of this critical social context of dreaming. Just as we all share a single global environment, a spiritual view of dreaming suggests that we all share in a larger dream world. We would certainly benefit from a new environmentalism of the dreamscape.

What do we lose by not paying attention to our dreams, and what steps can people take to become more tuned in to their dreams?

My greatest concern as a psychologist and sleep specialist -- in fact, my greatest concern as a person -- is the widespread decimation of the dreamscape and its ramifications for our health, welfare, relationships and spirituality.

Most of us are significantly more dream-deprived than we are sleep-deprived. Because we fail to adequately discriminate between actual sleep and REM-sleep loss, many of the problems we attribute to sleep deprivation likely result from dream deprivation. Many common cultural values, expectations and lifestyle practices persistently interfere with healthy dreaming.

Unfortunately, medical science views dreaming in much the same way it does the human appendix: as a peculiar vestige of something that was once functional but is superfluous today. There is virtually no recognition of, let alone concern about, the widespread use of substances and medications that significantly suppress REM sleep and dreaming.

It is striking that virtually all antidepressants, as well as antianxiety medications, limit our dreams. Other commonly used classes of medications, such as anticholinergic drugs, significantly suppress dreaming. Ironically, most sleeping pills also tamp down our REM sleep. Additionally, excessive alcohol consumption regularly interferes with the dreams of many millions of people. Sleep disorders, especially maintenance insomnia, the most common form of sleeplessness, also diminish dreaming. And last but certainly not least, the ubiquitous overexposure to light at night, a known cause of sleeplessness and disrupted circadian rhythms, compromises our REM sleep.

To make matters worse, our most common social posture toward dreaming is dismissive. We view dreams the way we do stars: They come out at night and are certainly magnificent, but they're far too distant to be of any relevance to our real, waking lives. We devalue, avoid and overcompensate for dream loss.

The notion that we might routinely awaken from REM sleep in an unconscious attempt to escape or avoid challenging dreams is not a new one. Shakespeare's Hamlet acknowledges this in his famous soliloquy, "To sleep, perchance to Dream...."

We can argue that dream loss, or maybe, more accurately, the misinformed drive to restore our dreams, is a factor in the modern epidemic of substance and process addictions. When we lose our ability to naturally expand consciousness through dreaming, we inadvertently seek to do it with excessive indulgence in alcohol, drugs, food, sex or work. Addictions can be viewed as a spiritual quest gone awry. This kind of counterfeit dreaming functions to help us escape the trappings of mundanity but fails to deliver us to a bona fide dreamscape.

Years ago Mick Jagger warned, "Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind." The epidemic of dream loss compromises the digestion and assimilation of our personal experiences, resulting in a kind of psychological constipation. I believe chronic dream loss is also a critical and largely overlooked factor in the modern epidemic of depression.

The reduced REM-latency pattern most commonly seen in individuals with mood disorders is strikingly similar to those of human and animal research subjects who have had their REM sleep selectively suppressed. Many psychologists have long conceptualized depression in terms of a loss of one's dreams. It would make sense, then, that healing depression would call for a restoration of healthy dreaming, not a suppression of it.

Dream loss results in spiritual malnourishment. With the chronic devaluation of our dreams, the color is slowly bleached from our lives, contributing to depression -- waking life devoid of its naturally expansive and mysterious context. In many Native American traditions dreaming was considered an expression of divinity. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce warned that the Western work ethic kills dreaming. "My young men shall never work!" he said. "Men who work cannot dream, and wisdom comes in dreams."

I believe the chronic loss of dreaming is an unrecognized public- and spiritual-health hazard that is silently wreaking havoc with our lives. I cannot envision anything that would have a more powerful and positive impact on our health and happiness than the restoration of our dream lives.

You've worked with everyone from Fortune 500 CEOs to professional athletes. How do you incorporate an integrative-medicine approach to their sleep?

An integrative-medicine approach to sleep and dreams integrates modern, scientific with traditional, spiritual views. It's a body-mind-and-spirit approach that not only is more effective in healing sleep problems but opens personal and spiritual paths to a much richer view of life itself. More specifically, integrative sleep and dream medicine restores the lost regard for our personal, subjective or phenomenological experience of night consciousness. In doing so, it invites us to seriously reconsider the world of dreams. One of the most important features of an integrative-medicine approach is reintegrating dreaming into sleep.

Too many of us report only rarely if ever dreaming. Others are aware that they are dreaming but only infrequently remember their dreams. In reality we all dream and normally do so four or five times every night. We don't remember our dreams for three reasons: We don't sleep well, we allow lifestyle factors to impede them and we don't offer them sufficient regard.

It goes without saying that to dream well, we must first sleep well. Dreams are energetic currents that flow through the dark, sweet waters of sleep. We need to be both capable of and comfortable with a nightly descent into these waters. As a first step in recalling our dreams, we must firmly commit to effectively addressing any sleep concerns we may have. Obviously, to dream well, we must also curtail the use of REM-suppressant substances and medications.

It is helpful to set an intention to become receptive to our dreams by first considering that there is something worthy of our attention in our sleep. As we slip into bed, turn out the lights and close our eyes, it is helpful to be mindful of where our attention goes. Most of us routinely think about the next morning, the next day: What will I wear? What will I have for breakfast? What do I need to get done tomorrow? We can instead allow ourselves to consciously descend into the sea of sleep with our "third eye open." Rather than setting our sights on the shoreline of tomorrow morning's awakening, we can allow the deep currents of our dreams to carry us through the night.

With increased sensitivity to and awareness of our dreams, we are in a better position to recall them. To do so, we can practice arising slowly in the morning. What we call grogginess is actually an exquisite hybrid state of consciousness -- part waking, part sleep and part dream -- which we must tap into to access our dreams. Lingering in our grogginess with eyes closed for a few moments allows bubbles of dream images to arise naturally into awareness.

Upon finally awakening, we must practice bridging our dream experiences and the waking world. This can be accomplished by journaling or jotting notes about our dreams and/or by talking about them with a receptive bed partner. Morning dream sharing is a common and revered ritual in many indigenous cultures around the world. Dream journaling or sharing restores the natural bridge connecting the dream and waking worlds. This will not only improve our dream recall but gradually help restore a sense of continuity between the dream and waking worlds and contribute to our feeling more whole.

If we are interested in compensating for REM suppression or directly potentiating REM sleep, we might also consider using melatonin. Although melatonin is best known as a sleep and circadian-rhythm supplement, it also appears to support REM sleep and dreams. Unfortunately, although melatonin is readily available as an over-the-counter supplement in the U.S., consumers and health professionals alike are generally misinformed about its use. I suggest consulting a knowledgeable health professional before using melatonin.

If we choose to attend to our dreams, they will inevitably call for even more attention -- for analysis or interpretation. Contemporary neuroscientists typically view the personal dream as an artifact of nightly neurophysiology that is completely devoid of meaning. But because we cannot prove a negative, this is little more than reductionistic arrogance masked as science. The common, limiting cultural tendency to view dreams solely as reflections of waking life is based on a similar bias.

This critical bias, largely reinforced by both pop and professional psychology, effectively downsizes the dream. It is a cultural blind spot that reduces dreaming to a distorted, fun-house-mirror image of waking life that we can readily dismiss. It encourages us to examine the dream with our daytime, waking-world eyes, which is tantamount to looking at a glorious night sky through dark sunglasses.

Such an approach can be comforting because it imposes a sense of familiar, worldly meaning on the ethereal and, at times, unsettling world of dreams. But it does so at the cost of our creativity and spirituality. It chokes off our expanded sense of consciousness, our larger sense of self. And it corners us into a shrunken and constrained life mired in mundanity. At best, it views the dream as a veiled account of daily life that must be carefully decoded to have any utility.

This dream blind spot stems from a kind of pervasive wake-centrism: the presumption that waking is the primary or most valid form of human consciousness. Dreaming, then, is viewed as a secondary, even subservient, state of consciousness. Wake-centrism is clearly evident in the most popular contemporary approach to dream interpretation, the dictionary approach, which assigns meaning to images in one's dream based on the meaning of those images in waking life. As it is below, so is it above.

As an alternative, we can choose to meet the dream on its own extraordinary terms. We can open to a conversation with mystery, spirit and substance -- with uninhibited sensuality, impassioned creativity and palpable spirituality. We can venture into the wilds of consciousness to experience the depths of our nature.

When we approach the dream without presumptive biases, we begin to sense a greater order behind its strangeness. We experience curious patterns, recursive themes and ineffable intuitions. And if we resist the temptation to dismiss all of this as mere coded reflections of waking life, we can open a door to another vast, spacious and extraordinary world where the mundanity that plagues so many of us begins to ease.

We come to realize that dream interpretation is less about a clever analysis of dream narratives and much more about a direct and open experience of them. It becomes clear that as interesting as dream interpretation can be, more important than knowing the meaning of any particular dream is simply knowing that dreaming itself is meaningful.