Sleep and dreams

One of my interests is sleep. Some of this is personal; I  used to think I was a “bad sleeper”, until I discovered that thinking you are a bad sleeper makes you a bad sleeper, and also that my sleep pattern wasn’t as bad as I thought (one of the advantages of a sleep diary approach)

Some of this is professional. Sleep problems are a major contributor to and marker of mental distress, and a warning sign of relapse in mental illness. Empowering someone to sleep better often makes a massive difference to people’s live.

Overriding all this, however, is a sense of wonder that this universal human experience is so little understood and so unknown to our conscious self. Unlike eating or drinking, the physiological function of sleep is unclear. We notice its lack, but what is it we are noticing?

On this blog I have tried to collect various passages from works, usually not explicitly “about sleep”, that touch on what it is to sleep. The literature on dreams is vast , that on sleep itself is less. A major reason for this is obvious; the experience of sleeping is not open to us, whereas that of dreaming is (to a degree)

The contemporary medical/scientific conception of dreams is that they are either meaningless or at most reflect the emotional state of the dreamer. This is one of the most dramatic breaks with most of human history, during which dreams were seen as messages from the Divine, or or prophetic. Freudian dream interpretation – with its idea that dreams are the Royal Road to the Unconscious – was perhaps, despite Freud’s atheism, the apotheosis  of the significance of dreams in culture.

Anthony Clare once said to me (among other psychiatric trainees) that people expect psychiatrists to explore two lines of questioning we rarely actually do explore – their sexual life and their dream life. While psychiatry, psychology and neuroscience are now unlikely to set much store if any on dreams, a vast popular literature still exists on their interpretation. A lot of this is probably spurious, but also reflects a thirst for meaning, and a cultural continuity with the status of dreams in most of human history.



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