These Thoughts Are Not My Own. REVIEW: Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep’

It isn’t often that we find books that give a thoroughly decent and unbiased account of the scientific nature of sleep and dreams, but Matthew Walker’s (2017) Why We Sleep just does that. Whenever we see Freudian thinking being criticized by an academic I believe we should all rejoice! This informative and interesting book hits all the right spots. Now all that’s needed is a broader perspective that accounts for prophecies, visitations, and visions which show places never visited, and thoughts never thought.

Impact of Sleep

In his book, Why We Sleep, Professor Walker outlines modern research on how important sleep is to our health and well-being. Similarly to Walker, it is my opinion that – all dreams have a purpose. Fortunately, Professor Walker does not seem to naively think that: ‘dreams, like heat from a lightbulb, may serve no function.’ (p.205). He boldly states that dreams are no mere by-product of REM sleep and that they actually fulfil a specific therapeutic purpose that allows REM sleep to have the health benefits that it does.

Walker points to research that suggests that sufficient sleep can lower the likelihood of becoming diabetic, decrease the chances of getting dementia, stroke, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as lowering the risk of depression and other mental health problems. Optimal sleep can enhance our memory and increase mental alertness – and can thus prevent accidents from occurring which might physically harm us. In short, enough (and not too much(!)) sleep can prolong life-span.

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Matthew Walker holds his famous book

Sleep also plays an incredibly valuable role in contributing to improving our mental health and can impact on our every day interactions with others. For instance, it can help us correctly recognise the emotions of others, which might otherwise cause us to run into conflict, as we identify non-threatening facial signals as aggressive, when in fact they may not be threatening at all. Those deprived of their sleep could believe that: ‘…even gentle- or somewhat friendly looking faces were menacing.’ (p.216). Additionally, REM sleep allows for a ‘widening of memory aperture…’, meaning that we can come up with a larger array of thoughts in regards to key words, as demonstrated under experimental conditions in a word association game. This can allow us to better solve puzzles and to also far better comprehend the meaning of a lot of information when we ‘sleep on’ information.

REM sleep is very important for helping manage stress in our waking lives. As the stress produced molecule noradrenaline does not affect the brain during REM sleep, our dreams allow ‘overnight therapy’ so that we can:

‘(1) …[sleep] to remember the details of … valuable, salient experiences, integrating them with existing knowledge and putting them into autobiographical perspective, yet (2) sleeping to forget, or dissolve, the visceral, painful emotional charge that had previously wrapped around those memories.’ (p.208).

Noradrenaline plays a very important role in our therapy so that we can focus more clearly on otherwise more stressful issues. Overall, Walker’s work focussed on those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and showed how REM sleep and, crucially, the way noradrenaline’s effects are absent during REM sleep, are important for healing old emotional wounds in these people.

What’s more, as highlighted by Matthew Walker, it was shown by Dr Rosalind Cartwright, that in order for dreams to be effective at alleviating depression associated with trauma, the dreams must focus specifically on the emotional matter at hand. Otherwise, dreaming alone would not be enough to help move on from emotional trauma. So, it is the dream state, rather than sleeping only, that allows for us to heal. This definitely makes sense, and it is clear that dreams do have a positive impact on our emotional states. Yet, if we are so mentally complex compared to other animals and we need this extra therapy, then why do dogs dream?

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Dr Rosalind Cartwright

The History of Dream Interpretation – From a Scientific Bias

Walker takes us through the history of modern dream interpretation, discussing how it had moved from a popular understanding that saw dreams as having been celestial sent, towards a more ‘scientific’ outlook thanks to the thinking of Aristotle who: ‘dismissed the idea of dreams as being heavenly directed…’ (p.200). Later, Freud was to become more influential in everyday discourses on dreams. He believed that dreams were a ‘mental event’. Dreams to him were symbolic and simply stimulated mostly from our awoken experiences and based upon our everyday desires. To Freud, dreams are symbolic because they represent desires that we have managed to repress, whilst these desires remain wholly present in our subconscious minds.

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Aristotle

To my relief, Matthew Walker wholly disagrees with Freud’s analysis in regards to his theories regarding what dreams mean. Walker notes how such approaches often see different Freudian analysts give highly variable interpretations for the same dreams – therefore, these interpretations of the same dreams often cannot be replicated in different labs.

I believe that the Freudian interpretation of dreams gained much headway thanks to the man’s relationship with his nephew, Edward Bernays, who was the chief architect of state and corporate propaganda in the United States – having helped get more women to smoke by linking it with the women’s liberation movement, and helping the U.S. war machine by changing the name of the Department of War to the Department of Defense [sic].

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Edward Bernays – propagandist and author of book, Propaganda

Just as Bernays managed to create effective propaganda in order to affect the behaviour of large groups of people, his help made an entire generation in the West stop looking at their dreams! This moved away from the popularity at the time of keeping dream journals thanks to individuals such as J. W. Dunne, whose work I talk about here.

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What Happens When We Dream?

Breakthroughs in brain imaging have, on the surface, helped us better understand why we dream, and some results have surprised scientists. Matthew Walker notes how MRI scans of people in deep sleep show some areas of the brain are much less active when we dream than first envisaged. The frontal cortex, which has been called the ‘control centre’ of the brain, has very little input when dreaming. The hippocampus which is related to memory on the other hand is shown to be very active, and so too is the amygdala; related to emotion. These discoveries are important for Walker’s theory of why and how dreams are crucial for bettering our mental health, which I will detail further on. I think it is important to note however, that just because dreams can be mapped from within the mind, it does not mean that they are not stimulated from elsewhere. Yet, I feel many scientists take these measurements as evidence of there being no soul – in a similar vein to when scientists measured the weight of a human body before and after death to attempt to prove that it didn’t exist if the body did not lose weight – the rationalist assumption being that the soul must have weight.

Decoding Dreams

However, such brain imaging could previously only really give us clues about the nature of dreams. Walker (2017) states that:

“As revolutionary as it was to predict the general form of someone’s dream (emotional, visual, motoric, etc.), it left a more fundamental question unanswered: can we predict the content of someone’s dream – that is can we predict what an individual is dreaming about (e.g., a car, a woman, food), rather than just the nature of the dream (e.g., is it visual)?” (Page 197).

This leads to one of the most intriguing parts of Walker’s book that describes the terrific work of Dr Yukiyasu Kamitani, who was able  decode our dreams from the sleeping brain to the world of wakefulness. By mapping the waking brain’s precise responses to different images, a brain scan can now roughly tell us if someone experiencing REM sleep is dreaming of a dog or a tree.

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Dr Yukiyasu Kamitani whose trailblazing research into dreams was a breakthrough

Nonetheless, despite the importance of such a discovery, it is also pointed out in the book that we still cannot determine whether somebody is dreaming of a red car or blue car, or a Mercedes or a Mini Cooper. Perhaps these secrets are best kept to the dreamer – as Walker hints, as he warns of possible privacy and accountability concerns with the monitoring of dreams.

The above is a very good point as it is entirely relevant to what I and what many others also do – should somebody be sectioned or declared insane for dreaming the type of dreams that clairvoyants have in regards to seeing murders which would otherwise only be deemed evidence of a sick mind? Yet, whilst scientists admit there is still much to learn, could not their (at least a good majority of scientists) own surety in atheism lead them away from dreaming’s possible Godly/Other worldly nature? Perhaps when scientists can tell me what I will dream tonight I may begin to believe that another Godly realm does not have an impact on our dreamscapes – and I’ll get on my knees and pray to science only. But I do not think that day will ever come.

Studies on the Content of Dreams

Walker points to the excellent work of Robert Stickgold, who showed how in a study of 299 people over a two week period that only 1-2% of the dream content they recorded in a dream journal were of reliving recent daily events, whereas 35-55% of dreams were of emotional themes they had in waking life (p.204). These results suggest that dreams can be explained mostly by things that we experience and feel every day, and therefore, it is implied that these events are caused by and stem from within our body only.

This approach is strongly misleading. It should be noted that just because dreams are linked to our bodily produced emotions, every day experiences, and that they stimulate particular regions of our brain related to memory and therefore are bodily produced, it does not mean that the dreams themselves are merely bodily stimulated – even if they can be measured inside the brain as such. Whereas memory is used in dreams, I believe that our memories are a tool used by others to communicate with us. Therefore, a memory of a football team called Blackburn, may actually refer to a person named, for example Tony Blackburn, or a street named Blackburn Lane. The ways that scientists approach dreams are mostly wrong and misguided. What if we dream of another person’s emotions that we link to our own? How many different emotions have you experienced in the last month alone? I can say that I have had many different emotions over the past few days, let alone several months. It may not be too much to say that most people may link emotions that they experience in dreams with the multitude of emotions they have had throughout the study period – even if these dream-state emotions are not their own.

What’s more, if there are spirits and/or other forces that care about us and who can manipulate dreams as many people and civilisations have thought, surely they would send us dreams to help us solve problems that we relate to emotionally – it does not mean, as scientists suggest, that the emotions themselves generate the dreams or that they stem from a bodily need to resolve them – even if we do personally want to resolve them ourselves.

Finally, whilst many of the parameters measured by scientists make much sense when trying to understand dreams, they do not seem to measure for future predictions from dreams, and discount them entirely, even before attempting to approach the matter objectively. Further, they often do not consider God into the equation – expecting God to appear on command in their lab – exactly when they blow their whistle. It is possible that we are designed so that God may communicate with us. Perhaps, faith is an integral part of the life process, which is why our dreams are in code.

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So despite the surety of such claims linking dreams to a machine-based garbage-in garbage-out mentality, the smoking gun is the figure that 46/47-66/67% of dreams do not originate from our own emotions, nor from our daily experiences. So where do these other dreams come from and why the focus on only the minority of dreams that can be recognised by these researchers?

I can only conclude that it must be such a shame to only view the world through a scientific lens. Imagine if there were a God, angels and spirits, but your own thinking would not allow for such amazing things to be seen or investigated. Wouldn’t it be a waste to get to the end of your life to view the world only through science, when there is always so much more to discover and know! Life does not begin and end in a lab.

I hope you enjoyed my article! Please feel free to leave any comments and to get in touch.

#Follow your dreams.

Copyright © 2020 Daniel J Taylor

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