Get Better at Dreaming

Here's your guide to remembering dreams and figuring out what they actually mean.

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All my teeth fell out last night. In their place, metal corkscrews protruded from my gums. I peered into a cracked hotel mirror and struggled to jam a crumbling molar back in place. Meanwhile, my dentist — transformed somehow into my long-ago, chronically displeased math teacher — wouldn't answer my panicked phone calls.

It's happened before and it will happen again. What could this recurring dental nightmare of mine mean, except perhaps that I really should floss more?

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Every night, we pass hours and hours in a mysterious Alice in Wonderland world we barely remember the next day. Despite the fun-house quality of dreams, growing evidence suggests that they work hard for us, enabling creative leaps, improving memory, untangling rela tionship issues, and more. And experts say you actually have the power to improve the "mind repair" that happens every time you nod off. Let them teach you to sleep like a pro and…

We may assume that it's "lights out, no one's home" when we're sound asleep, "but actually, our dreaming brains are very active and focused on the same concerns we deal with when awake," explains Deirdre Barrett, PhD, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of The Committee of Sleep. "Dreams are thinking in a different biochemical state. Different neurotransmitters predominate, so our brain thinks much more visually and intuitively, and less verbally and logically. This gives us a fresh perspective that can help us solve problems."

Once you understand the big benefits of dreaming, you can make the most of your brain's night shift and wake up happier, calmer, even smarter.

Dreams Help You Remember What's Important

By day, you're bombarded with endless bits of information, and when you sleep, undistracted by the outside world, your brain has a chance to declutter. "Think of the brain as a filing cabinet," says Shelby Harris, PsyD, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. "When you're dreaming, it decides what it can shred and what it needs to keep and file."

Researchers theorize that when dreaming, your brain is not just storing the day's important haul but also making connections with your past experiences. Essentially, it's saying: I've dealt with something like this before. Let me think, where did I file that? So when faced with a crushing work deadline, for instance, you might dream about a tax deadline that sneaked up on you and the pressure you felt. It's a connect-the-dots game your brain plays that may help you cope with present challenges.

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DREAM BETTER: Your brain needs plenty of time to do this crucial maintenance, Harris says, so prioritize sleep over Netflix to get seven to eight hours. We do most of our dream-heavy rapid eye movement (REM) slumber (the stage where your eyes dart back and forth as if they're tracking imaginary lions) during the last third of our night's sleep, not when we first fall into bed."Your brain craves this stage," Harris says.

They Help You Work Through Stress

Your mother was right; you will feel much better about your problems after a good night's rest. During REM sleep, the brain's stress chemicals are at their lowest levels, allowing us to relive the day's stings — like that fight with a friend — so they no longer feel as upsetting. In one study, researchers showed two groups of people troubling images — a man aiming a gun, and a snake about to bite. One group was shown the pictures in the morning and then again that same evening; the other group saw them in the evening and then again after a night's sleep. Those who got the shut-eye rated the images as less upsetting, and MRI scans showed less reactivity in the amygdala, the "worry" part of the brain. The emotional impact of something you're going through may be softened if you give your brain a chance to process it during low-stress REM sleep.

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DREAM BETTER: This "overnight therapy" can be a nice benefit of snoozeville, but not when it takes the form of a recurring bad dream or nightmare. Harris teaches people how to stop those with a form of visualization called image rehearsal therapy. "We dream in pictures, so visualize a different plot for your bad dream that's more positive," she says. Take a few minutes each morning and night for several weeks to imagine the new, improved dream unfolding in detail. One of Harris's patients was plagued by a nightmare in which she was in the ocean surrounded by hungry sharks. She practiced imagining them transformed into playful dolphins. "It helped her feel in control of the nightmares, and they started to go away," Harris says.

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Dreams Spark Insights

To sleep, perchance to win a Nobel Prize: In 1920, German scientist Otto Loewi awoke with a eureka idea for the breakthrough experiment that helped the laureate prove how nerve cells transmit signals. Likewise, the idea for Frankenstein's monster came to author Mary Shelley in a nightmare. "I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the specter which had haunted my midnight pillow," she later wrote.

The loose associations that characterize our REM dreams set the stage for aha! brainstorms and creative leaps, says Barrett. "That's because the brain's prefrontal cortex — the logical thinking part — is damped down," she says. "There's no inner censor saying, 'This isn't the way we do things!' "

DREAM BETTER: Try "dream incubation," Barrett suggests. "Once you're in bed, tell yourself you want to dream about your problem, then attempt to visualize it." You can even arrange objects connected to the problem on your night table to remind you before you doze off — for example, a measuring tape if you're wondering how to squeeze furniture into a smaller apartment. It sounds a little woo-woo, but it helped the Harvard students in an experiment of Barrett's: She asked 76 undergrads to contemplate a conundrum before bed, and about a quarter of them had a dream that contained a satisfying solution.

They Help You Rehearse Something New

Your dreaming brain may continue to practice a skill you're trying to master even after you hit the hay. In a study in Current Biology, people were asked to navigate a video game maze. When retested after sleeping, those who reported dreaming about the maze did 10 times better on the task than those who didn't.

DREAM BETTER: Reviewing something you want to learn or remember right before bed might just increase the odds that your brain will, for instance, spend the night boning up on a presentation. Interestingly, the maze dreamers didn't require a full night of sleep to get a memory boost; 45-minute naps did the trick. Trying to memorize PowerPoint slides? A nap could help the information stick!

Dreams Give You Perspective On Your Relationships

We often think of them as bizarre fantasies — so there was this talking unicorn…and he was beside me in a hovercraft — when in fact, dreams are typically focused on much more down-to-earth concerns. "The vast majority are about social interactions with the important people in your life," says Patrick McNamara, PhD, a neuroscientist at the Boston University School of Medicine who has studied thousands of written accounts of dreams. This may have evolutionary benefits: "In our ancestral environment, who we made alliances with was crucial to our survival," he says.

DREAM BETTER: Keep your own dream journal, and jot down everything you remember after waking. Then look back for patterns and you may be able to suss out, say, buried tension in a relationship. One example: a friend confided in me (as people do when you tell them you're writing about dreams) that when she'd been struggling with whether to divorce her husband, she dreamed they were working hard on renovating a house together. She awoke and the translation came to her easily. The relationship was worth fixing: she decided to stay. That's what I'd call a sweet dream.

Want to Remember Your Dreams?

Talk to yourself.

Before sleep, lie in bed and think, I would like to remember my dream tonight. "Often, as soon as you start paying attention to dreams, they start flooding in," says McNamara.

Wake up gently.

Whenever possible, don't use an alarm. When we rise naturally it's typically right after REM sleep, when dreams are easier to remember.

Follow a thread back.

If you can summon even a small detail ("I was in a blue car"), you may be able to reconstruct the rest.

Keep a pad and pen on your nightstand.

If you wake up at 3 A.M. and jot down the dream you caught, it will be there for you in the morning.

So What Does That Dream Mean?

"Dreams are not Magic 8 Balls that command you to do or not do something," says Kelly Bulkeley, PhD, the creator of the Sleep and Dream Database, a digital archive of thousands of dream reports. "They're a mirror of our emotional concerns, what we hope for and fear, what matters to us." The trick is to tease out their personal meaning for you:

Think about which seem most vivid.

Not all dreams are profound. Concentrate on the ones that practically shout at you, like if you wake up with a rapid heartbeat or sweating.

Ponder the objects in your dreams.

"They can be helpful metaphors for what's going on in your waking life," says Harvard professor Deirdre Barrett. If you dreamed about a big black dog, for instance, ask yourself: Did it make me feel threatened or playful? Does that feeling remind me of anything, or anyone, in my reality?

Pay attention to dreams on repeat.

"Recurring dreams are often about central issues in your life," says Barrett. They can be a signal to examine the activities and relationships they're connected with. Bulkeley agrees: "They're your body's way of saying, 'Hey, this is important!'"

This story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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