3:40am Monday morning partner and I both woke up; nightmares. I didn’t get where I am today by being a nightmare person. I like to think that I laugh in the face of nightmares on the rare occasions that I remember them. Partially this is the result of having learnt a few years ago to take a modicum of control over nightmares and banish them from my lifestyle.

Usually not only do I not remember my dreams (and nightmares) but nothing can wake me. In a different life, a burglar happily sat at the bottom of my bed (with me sleeping in it) trying to find (without a lot of luck as it happened) some money in my wallet. In a still earlier existence the roof of my house blew off, the chimney crashed through the roof. Through both occasions I slept as snug as a hibernating baby log.

Now, I am not going to tell you exactly the content of the two nightmares in question. We own the copyright of these nightmares and if I told, a proportion of you would no doubt download them without paying the licence fee. I can reveal that partner’s and mine were of the same theme: a kind of Children of the Corn meets The Exorcist, and we were both petrified.

By 3:43am you could find us, unnerved, pale and scared, sitting on the kitchen worktop drinking tea. The atmosphere was not helped by the screaming of partner’s cats out in the yard. I will never see what she sees in them, but at this moment their territorial battles sounded like the screams of soulless children.

In the face of such events, my usual (and often unwelcome) recourse is humour. I commented that this must be the Sabbath of evil children (my Y chromosome precludes learning), but this made matters temporarily much much worse, unearthing that half-hidden belief we all share that dreams somehow put us in touch with a spiritual world. Various looks exchanged, I was then encouraged to be the resident psychology pundit. This is what I am really here to share.

The mental health world traditionally approaches the subject of dreams and nightmares from two different directions. One looks at the way that the brain behaves during sleep. The other looks at the psychological (the meaning given to dreams, the reaction of the dreamer when considered later). A third approach gives dreams a spiritual and predictive value; I am about as spiritual as Bart Simpson, hence the first two interest me.

First, though, I have to be a bit pedantic and give you a few facts. Fact one: pretty much everyone dreams several times a night. Even if we can’t remember them we still do it. Fact two: all of your thinking and perceiving happens in the largest part of your brain, called the cerebral cortex (the cortex is divided into halves called hemispheres). Fact three: sandwiched between the two hemispheres is a part of the brain called the hippocampus (Greek for sea horse, because someone once thought it looked like a seahorse).

There is a point of view which says that the hippocampus takes all of the experiences of the day, and during dream sleep sends signals to the cortex. For the sake of argument we’ll say that as you go through the day you collect little snippets of information, some of which are relevant, some totally useless. The hippocampus collects all of these, then during dream sleep feeds them to the cortex like individual pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The useful stuff (which tends to connect to more useful stuff) gets kept, the useless stuff (which doesn’t tend to be connected to anything) may end up trashed, languishing on its own or going to the same place that lost ball-point pens end up. The cortex’s job is to organise experience and make it meaningful; whilst the hippocampus is feeding it information, the cortex busily tries to make sense of it. As a good proportion of the information that is being fed in is relevant to day to day life, about relationships, about general hassles and so on, it comes as no surprise that when you wake, a good deal of dream material seems significant and important.

If we think of the psychology of dreams, clients will often ask what in my opinion their dreams mean. The last thing I do is turn to a dream dictionary; more often than not I ask them to think what the dream might mean to them. This is the great advantage of being a psychologist over just about any other profession. Imagine for a moment how much easier a harassed GP’s life would be if they could say things like, “How would you like to think about your varicose veins?” or “Your feelings about your infection are more important than anything medicine can come up with”.

Dreams of being chased or of being frightened can happen when one is feeling generally under pressure. So now I have calmed down sufficiently, back to the Children of the Corn/Exorcist dream. What did I learn? Well, I promise never again (until the next time) to devour half a pound of Lindt chocolate hearts, a quarter of Stilton and two bottles of red table wine before bedtime. Partner, however, was unable to agree to this condition. Perhaps not my next nightmare, but my next article should be on chocolate addiction.

Have you ever suffered from nightmares? Does Tim’s article strike a chord with you? Why not comment and tell us?

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