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While You Are/n’t Sleeping

Dr. Rosalind Cartwright has dedicated her life’s work to the study of sleep, and in her new book The Twenty-four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives she proposes a new theory on the confluence of our dreaming and waking selves. Cartwright discussed the film Inception with us a few weeks ago, and here she answers a few more questions I had about the unconscious mind.     –Michelle Rafferty, Publicity

1.) In your book you say that our unconscious  improves our memory—how does this work?

Think of all the times you tried to remember the name of someone, or a song, or a place that was on the tip of your tongue but was elusive. Then sometime later when you were focusing on something else it suddenly pops up into your consciousness. That is your unconscious working away to retrieve that name while your conscious mind had given up. That is a positive use of our unconscious in waking. There is also a dark side, when we jump to a judgment without making a rational conscious choice.When we cannot say why we don’t like someone when we first meet them and can’t explain why. Often there is an unconscious motivation which with a little detective work you can understand, for example, you have made a silly association to someone else who also had red hair and made fun of you.

2.) What about during sleep? Is the unconscious working to improve our memories then?

Yes it is. It changes places with the conscious mind which dominates waking time. The unconscious only comes up into the surface during our waking hours if we daydream and let our mind wander freely. In sleep the unconscious selects new experiences to save in memory, particularly new experiences that have an emotional charge. If you worked hard to learn something new you will remember it better after a period of sleep than if you stay awake before you need to remember that new learning. If you are taking a driving test and must learn the rules of the road, the best advice is to study, sleep and then take the test.

3.) In your book you say that dreams down-regulate negative emotion overnight. Why is it then that we get nightmares, sometimes ones that get stuck on repeat?

Nightmares are defined as a vivid dream with strongly negative emotion that wakes the sleeper abruptly, with a clear memory of the dream. The awakening aborts the natural process of down-regulation of negative emotion. Therefore the dream is not completed and the process will repeat until some other experience allows the downloading of the negative emotion to take place. That is why small children have more nightmares than grown-ups. To children many experiences are frightening until we develop more coping skills. Once we learn the way home we will not be terrified of being lost and alone in a hostile world. A nightmare is useful in cuing you about what issue is too overwhelming to be handled in sleep. We need safety, and when that is threatened we can expect a repetitive nightmare until we can learn how to cope successfully.

4.)  Is there a treatment for nightmares that keep repeating?

Yes. There is a new medication that works well especially when paired with a psychotherapy that trains the person to identify what the negative emotion is in response to. What is the fear? Or the anger? Or humiliation? Once identified, the person must name the opposite emotion, and develop an image to represent that alternative. If the nightmare is one of fear of being attacked, the dreamer is instructed to create an image of the opposite emotion: for example, relief over an escape. So, to overcome a nightmare it is important that the dreamer:

1) Identifies why the nightmare was so strong that it woke them,
2) Name the opposite feeling,
3) Create an opposite image to represent that good emotion,
4) Practice that new image several times a day until it is easy to experience it at will. This image rehearsal is very successful with nightmares once the person feels “in charge”.

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