Information on Sleeping and Dreaming Part 2

A look at the various aspects of sleeping and dreaming including different stages, disorders research and REM sleep.


The importance of REM sleep was first demonstrated in a study made by Dr. William Dement of Stanford University in the early 1960s. Volunteers were interrupted from their REM phase by a buzzer. As the experiment continued, the subjects became increasingly hard to arouse. They seemed to be fighting the deprivation of REM sleep, although they were getting the usual amount of the other sleep phases. They became short-tempered and irritable in the morning. When those volunteers were finally allowed to sleep through the night undisturbed, they compensated for their loss by having a night filled with dreams.

Sleeping pills generally lose their effectiveness by the end of the first month in their normal dosage. In the end, they actually prove more harmful than beneficial, for they can dramatically reduce a person's REM sleep. Alcohol also reduces this vital phase of the cycle. Once an alcoholic is detoxified, he will find his sleep at night saturated with vivid and sometimes terrifying dreams. According to one theory, the hallucinations of the d.t.'s are actually a concentrated dose of REM dreams spilling over into waking life.

Sleep disturbance is one of our most common disorders. For example, an estimated 30 million people in the U.S. suffer from chronic insomnia. Brain-wave recordings have shown that poor sleepers generally spend much more of their total sleep time in the transitional light phase of sleep than average sleepers. They also spend much less time in the REM period. Physiologically they are closer to waking than the good sleepers.

Many people sleep little at night, but recoup their loss with naps during the day. Napoleon, Winston Churchill, and Thomas Edison are famous examples of light sleepers. Edison, who slept only three or four hours a night, took a dim view of the whole experience. For him, the eight-hour sleep cycle was a waste of precious time, "a heritage from our cave days." He hoped that his electric light would help reduce our dependency on this barbaric nighttime custom.

The record for sleeplessness was set in 1977 by Maureen Weston of Peterborough, England, who stayed awake for 449 hours during a rocking chair marathon.

During 1963 and 1964, a study of mental patients was made at Yale Medical School. A psychiatric team issued questionnaires to several hundred patients with psychoses, depressions, and other mental ailments. From the beginning, they discovered a close correlation between mental stability and healthy sleeping habits; about 81% of the patients suffered from sleep problems. The Yale study also found an intriguing connection between suicide and dreams. An unusually high proportion of the suicidal were people who normally dreamed but who had recently found that they had stopped dreaming or else simply could no longer remember their dreams.

According to Dr. Rosalind Cartwright of the University of Illinois, dreams follow their own internal order. Our first dream is usually short, concerns an immediate problem, and is really a kind of curtain raiser for the ones to follow. The next two dreams generally shuffle the past and the present. The fourth one is often set in the future and is frequently a wish-fulfillment dream, along Freudian specifications. The fifth is usually the final one, and it is a grand finale, incorporating elements from the previous dreams but finishing in the present. This final dream can sometimes last as long as an hour. The duration of an action in a dream usually corresponds to the time it takes to perform that action in reality.

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