In the Old Testament, Jacob, on the run for his life from the twin brother he betrayed, beds down for the night in the wilderness and there dreams of a ladder stretching between heaven and Earth, of angels ascending and descending, and of God assuring him of an auspicious future. With his head on a pillow of stone – symbolic of matter in its densest form – Jacob dreams of a structure linking the material and ethereal worlds. Jacob’s ladder is a story about an archetypal passageway between a rock and a soft place: between earthly troubles and sacred transcendence; waking and dreaming; consciousness and the unconscious.
From a sleep science perspective, Jacob’s ladder might represent the structure of REM sleep – a neural network linking the upper and lower regions of the brain. And the movement of angels could symbolise the process of dreaming, an ongoing dialogue between the waking world and the world of dreams. REM sleep and dreams represent two divergent takes on the same process: one is physiological; the other, phenomenological. One occurs in the body and brain, the other in the mind. To fully appreciate REM sleep and dreaming, our understanding of each must be triangulated into a new higher-order concept I will call REM/dreaming (I will continue to use the terms REM sleep and dreaming separately when referring to their distinct features). Part-waking and part-sleep, REM/dreaming is a hybrid state of consciousness, a borderland between the material and ethereal worlds, between the body and mind.
Research about REM/dreaming began in the mid-1950s and accelerated sharply with advances in neuroimaging. We now know that, independently of sleep – that is, of non-REM sleep – REM/dreaming plays an essential role in learning and memory, mood and immunity, as well as in creativity and artistic expression. Just as important, REM/dreaming stretches, expands and reshapes our very consciousness. From Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, REM/dreaming effectively morphs our fundamental sense of self.
From a hard-nosed neuroscientific perspective, the subjective dream is merely an incidental, meaningless side-effect of REM sleep. It’s just a dream. The phenomenological study of dreams, however, which dates back millennia, has yielded a vast and intriguing literature of psychological, cultural and mythological observations. What might an integration of the science and subjectivity of REM sleep and dreaming reveal? [Continue reading…]