Thoughts by Richard Bleil
My dreams have not been good of late. It’s just kind of a bad time of year for me, filled with bad memories and, this year being the first that I’m not teaching, regret and loss. But honestly, dreams have always fascinated me. To this day, our knowledge of the actual mechanics of the brain is so rudimentary that we still do not know the purpose of dreams, although there are a lot of hypotheses.
There are some things that are known about the effects of failing to have dreams. Lack of sleep has been linked, for example, on serious health issues such as high blood pressure, stroke and even heart attack. When denied the time for sleep, people can also go insane.
During the sleep cycle, there are various levels of sleep, the most widely known being deep sleep and the proverbial REM (for “Rapid Eye Movement”) light sleep. Dreams occur in the latter, and it has been suggested that the eye movement is akin to watching a movie on a screen. Typically we do not dream in deep sleep, although it is during this cycle that nightmares occur if indeed we have them (as I have of late). Nightmares are not the same as dreams, as dreams cannot cause physiological changes, while nightmares can such as sweats, increased heart rate and high blood pressure.
It’s been suggested that the brain needs a break. It’s highly complex, and seems to need time to periodically reset, and yet, typically we sleep at night. This gives rise to another hypothesis that perhaps sleep evolved as a means of protection from nocturnal hunters. In restful sleep, we typically lay very still, very quiet (except for my father whose snores triggered several earthquake alarms in Ohio through the years), which might have made it harder for predators to find us.
The brain doesn’t exactly shut down, either. There’s a constant filter as it continues to listen for dangers. I have an air conditioner that tends to kick on with quite a noise, and yet, I sleep through it. My brain does hear it but filters it out as a routine and harmless sound so it does not disturb my sleep. And then there are dreams.
Dreams seem to be a way to plow through problems of the day, sorting and working them out. While taking math classes, there have been times that I would wake up with the solution to a problem I couldn’t quite get the previous day. I think this is a fairly common experience where there is something we’ve been struggling with and waking up with the solution.
Some believe we are visited by spirits in our dreams. Okay, I’m not sure that I believe this, but on the other hand, I’m open-minded enough to accept it as a viable possibility. One of the dangers of being a scientist is the “nonsense” syndrome wherein scientists often dismiss anything that cannot be proven by the basic tenants of science. I’m probably a little bit different, because I know enough to know that there are things beyond my knowledge. Last night I had a dream of Bella, my first pet, a loving hundred-pound mutt (three-quarters lab and one quarter German shepherd). I was probably hugging my pillow, but in my dream, we were snuggling and playing. Some would say that the dream was the spirit of my long-lost lovely puppy checking in with me. I cannot accept that as absolute truth because there is no way to prove it, and yet, it’s a comforting thought, so I choose to believe it to be true.
Recently, I must confess, I published a comment on my social media page saying that I’m afraid of my pillow. This prompted a series of well-meaning and yet wholly unhelpful bits of advice to throw it away and get a pillow of this type or another. In fact, what I meant was that lately I’ve been having nightmares all too regularly, making it difficult for me to want to go to bed. The nightmares, no doubt, stem from the fact that school is starting back up and, frankly, moving on without me. It’s a sad thing to think that you’re are so disposable that not only are they so very quick to let you go, but that life just moves on as you’re stuck where you are, at least emotionally. I am happy to report that I am indeed fighting back. Today (as of the writing of this post) I had my first guitar lesson, and I’m continuing to learn piano. Hopefully, learning about something new will help me re-boot my brain.