Mind in the Media: Netflix’s The Sandman and the Truth About Why We Dream

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Mind in the Media is an ongoing series discussing mental health and psychological topics in popular movies and television.

Spoiler alert! This article contains spoilers for the first season of the Netflix series “The Sandman.”

The first season of “The Sandman,” Netflix’s adaptation of the comic book written by Neil Gaiman, introduces Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), the mythical Sandman and the king of dreams and nightmares.

Morpheus is responsible for creating and controlling the dreams that people experience when they sleep, an essential function of humanity. However, the dreams and nightmares he creates can also go rogue in the waking world, as the personification of a nightmare, with teeth where his eyes should be called The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), does in “The Sandman.”

While the show offers a fantastical explanation for why we dream and where the content of dreams comes from, the fact is that scholars still aren’t in complete agreement about why we sleep or dream. Although we all need sleep and we all dream—whether we remember our dreams or not—the science of sleep and dreaming is still fairly young.

Still, Morpheus may be onto something when he observes that dreams and nightmares enable us to “face [our] fears and fantasies.” Here’s what we know so far about why we dream.

Why Do We Dream?

There are many theories about why we dream, including that there’s no reason at all, but according to clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Dr. Michael Breus, PhD, two of the most scientifically validated functions of dreaming are to:

  • Assist us in emotional regulation
  • Help with memory consolidation and learning by moving the new information we learned during the day from short-term memory to long-term memory

As we sleep we cycle through four sleep stages repeatedly throughout the night. It takes approximately 90 to 100 minutes to cycle through all four stages. While we can dream at any point during these stages, we’re most likely to dream during Stage 4 when we experience REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

Health psychologist and stress and insomnia specialist Julia Kogan, PsyD, notes that it’s during REM sleep that we process our emotions, helping reduce stress and improve our mood.

So if dreams help us consolidate our memories and regulate our emotions, why are they often so weird? In many other works of pop culture, dreams are presented as fantastical but coherent stories that unfold in our subconscious minds like a movie.

Michael Breus, PhD

Dreaming is a sifting of information—what you need, what you don’t—and then figuring out a way to keep what you need.

— Michael Breus, PhD

For example, in “The Sandman,” Jed (Eddie Karanja) goes on adventures as an all-powerful superhero in his dreams. These dreams are presented as a way to give the boy relief from the abuse he suffers during his waking hours at the hands of his foster parents.

However, there’s little evidence to suggest that our dreams are an oasis from our waking life. In fact, our waking life likely has everything to do with the content of our dreams, despite their strangeness.

As Breus explains, throughout the day, lots of information comes in through our five senses. “Dreaming is a sifting of information—what you need, what you don’t—and then figuring out a way to keep what you need,” Breus says.

“Here’s where the problem comes in: there’s so much information that your brain actually can’t store it all at once or the way in which it wants to. So sometimes things get a little messed up,” says Breus. So essentially our dreams become a little like a Mad Lib that reflect the memories that our subconscious minds are sorting and re-sorting during consolidation. That can lead to some pretty odd dreams.

Furthermore, Kogan observes that the content of dreams usually includes themes related to things we experience during the day, even if they aren’t an exact replica of those experiences. So while we may be using our memories, feelings, and experiences to create our dreams, it seems our subconscious imposes a theme and a structure on them that tells us something about what’s going on when we’re awake.

Recurring Dreams

One especially potent form of dreams that may help us understand our waking life are recurring dreams.

Of the characters whose dreams are shown in “The Sandman,” many appear to have recurring dreams. For example, the character Barbie (Lily Travers) has a recurring dream in which she’s walking with a beast in a tranquil fairytale land discussing a fantastical adventure.

Meanwhile, the character Ken (Richard Fleeshman), Barbie’s husband (they know), dreams that a furious Barbie’s caught him cheating and he has to beg her forgiveness as she sits in his sports car.

Breus suggests that while there are many reasons for recurring dreams, Ken’s dream may be more accurate to many people’s experience than Barbie’s. That’s because the most common reason for recurring dreams is stress. “Usually [recurring dreams] would indicate… that there are stressors or things going on that are probably not being processed during the day,” says Kogan. “Essentially if we fail to address stress when we’re awake, the mind will figure out a way to address it.”

Julia Kogan, PsyD

Usually [recurring dreams] would indicate…that there are stressors or things going on that are probably not being processed during the day. Essentially if we fail to address stress when we’re awake, the mind will figure out a way to address it.

— Julia Kogan, PsyD

Kogan and Breus both note that there are several common scenarios for recurring stress dreams, including people dreaming that their teeth are falling out, that they’re underwater, that they’re being chased, or that they’re falling.

While it’s not clear why people would experience similar dreams due to stress, one possibility is that people are stressed by common issues, leading our subconscious minds to arrive at similar dream content in response to these stressors.

Dream Interpretation and Dream Therapy

“The Sandman” never makes it clear why someone would have one of the dreams Morpheus manufactures instead of another, however no matter what kind of dream we have at night, we tend to be fascinated by their content and, more importantly, what that content could mean.

People have assigned meaning to their own and other people’s dreams throughout history. One of Sigmund Freud’s most famous books is even called “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Yet, there is no firm scientific evidence for dream interpretation.

As Breus states, “Every single thing that happens in your dream you manufacture, you know absolutely everything that goes in said dream.” As a result, “Your dreams mean something only to you.” Yet, while dreams may not tell you anything you don’t know on some level, they can offer valuable clues about how you’re feeling, especially if you’re experiencing recurring stress dreams or nightmares.

Kogan says that “if we pay attention to recurring stress dreams, especially how we feel during them instead of their content, it can help us recognize when we might be avoiding issues in our day-to-day life that are causing us to feel anxious, distressed, or unsettled.” She advises people to check in with themselves and examine the areas in their lives where this stress could be coming from.

If you’re not just stressed in your dreams but having nightmares from which you’re waking up terrified, that’s when it may be time to see a mental health professional, particularly one who specializes in dream therapy. Breus explains that dream therapy can be especially valuable for people suffering from nightmares due to Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Hollywood vs. Reality

“The Sandman” never makes it clear why someone would have one of the dreams Morpheus manufactures instead of another, however no matter what kind of dream we have at night, we tend to be fascinated by their content and, more importantly, what that content could mean.

People have assigned meaning to their own and other people’s dreams throughout history. One of Sigmund Freud’s most famous books is even called “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Yet, there is no firm scientific evidence for dream interpretation.

When you wake up from a dream, you stop the emotional processing that was happening during it. This is why dreams and especially nightmares tend to stay with us when we awaken while they’re in progress.

Dream therapists work with people to continue their dreams, using the dream as a therapeutic intervention. “A dream therapist… create[s] a safe space in their office for you both physically and mentally. Then they ask you to start to recall all of the aspects of the dream that you can remember,” Breus describes.

“Then you start building the dream in your head, and you start walking through all of the aspects of the dream that you can remember…Once [you] get to the point [where you woke up, the therapist asks you to continue] the dream while you’re in a wakeful, somewhat conscious state [in order to get] through it so you can process that emotion and get on the other side of it.”

Negative Impacts of Sleep Deprivation

According to Breus, “If you want to have good, healthy dreams, you need to have good, healthy sleep.” Unfortunately, many people today suffer from sleep deprivation. Breus notes we’re impacted physically, cognitively, and emotionally when we’re sleep deprived, leading to a plethora of negative consequences. Some examples include:

  • Physical: We become less efficient, our reaction time slows down, and testosterone and other hormones are compromised.
  • Cognitive: We have trouble paying attention and focusing and have difficulty memorizing things. People may also be more likely to take risks.
  • Emotional: Anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions get worse.

Clearly sleep is vital to healthy physical, mental, and psychological functioning. However, just how much sleep a person needs is specific to the individual.

Kogan points out that if you’re only getting seven hours of sleep a night but you wake up feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, you don’t have to worry about sleep deprivation.

On the other hand, if you’ve gotten seven hours of sleep and are still exhausted and groggy, you’re not getting adequate rest.  

How To Improve Your Sleep

Unlike in “The Sandman,” there is no king of dreams who can regulate our dreams and help us rest easier. As a result, those hoping to have a more fruitful experience in Morpheus’ land of the Dreaming will have to make their own adjustments to ensure they get adequate sleep.

Sometimes that can be as simple as turning off our electronics and going to bed earlier. However, Kogan also notes there are many things that disrupt our sleep, from eating heavy meals before bed to consuming caffeine, alcohol, and recreational drugs.

Even certain SSRIs, the drugs that are typically prescribed for depression, can disrupt sleep. Sleep can often be improved by changing medications or cutting back on when and how much of a given food or substance we consume.

Some people also suffer from sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea. While sleep apnea is a physical condition that a medical doctor is likely to treat, insomnia is usually psychological. Kogan observes, for those suffering from insomnia, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia is a gold standard treatment that, within just six to 10 sessions can be more effective in helping people improve their sleep than any medication.

Breus says that if there’s one thing he’d advise people to do to improve their sleep it’s to wake up at the same time every day including weekends. Waking up at the same time daily “keeps your circadian rhythm in sync and then your brain knows exactly when to wake up, when to go to sleep, and what to do. And that’s really where you’ll get an increase in what’s called dream mentation [or mental activity].”

No matter how you improve your sleep, however, it’s clearly worthwhile. Better sleep ensures better dreams as well as better physical and mental health.

Read the full article here

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