We all know how important sleep is to health. Insufficient amounts of it can contribute to a host of physical and psychological issues, from depression to heart disease to obesity.
But science journalist Alice Robb argues that the PSAs about sleep miss something essential. Quantity isn’t enough. Quality counts even more — we have to dream, too.
“Dreams play a crucial role in some of our most important emotional and cognitive systems, helping us form memories, solve problems and maintain our psychological health,” writes Robb in “Why We Dream” (HMH Books), out now.
The number of labs devoted to sleep in the United States has ballooned from 400 in 1998 to 2,500 today, meaning we have more research than ever on what dreams can do for us. Dreaming about a traumatic life experience can help us move beyond it; dreaming makes us more creative, helps cement new memories and regulates our emotions.
But thanks to increasing use of alcohol, marijuana, opioids and antidepressants, which stifle REM sleep when the bulk of our dreams occur, we live in a dream-deprived world that University of Arizona psychologist Rubin Naiman calls an “unrecognized public-health hazard.”
No wonder Robb feels so passionately about our nighttime hours. She makes a convincing case for cherishing our dream worlds. If we don’t “it’s as though we are throwing away a gift from our brains without bothering to open it.”
Some of our best innovations came from dreamscapes. Elias Howe invented a lock-stitch sewing machine after dreaming about cannibals who threatened him with spears with holes at the tip, sparking the idea for needle holes. Dmitri Mendeleev put the elements of the periodic table into a logical order after a nap.