To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
So you awoke this morning in a miserable mood. Well, maybe your special dream character didn't put in an appearance last night, or maybe there just weren't enough people drifting through your dreams.
If that sounds like far-fetched fantasy, consider these interesting findings that have emerged from eight years of sleep and dream research at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio:
While sleep affects how sleepy, friendly, aggressive, and unhappy we feel after awakening, feelings of happiness or unhappiness depend most strongly on our dreams.
Each of us has a special dream character, a type of person whose appearance in our dreams makes us feel happier when we awake.
What we dream at night isn't as important to how we feel in the morning as the number of people who appear in our dreams. The more people, the better we feel.
Our sleep influences our mood. Our mood, in turn, affects our performance. And throughout the day, our levels of mood and performance remain closely linked.
During the past two decades, research has greatly expanded our knowledge about sleep and dreams. Scientists have identified various stages of sleep, and they have found that humans can function well on very little sleep, but only if they dream. Yet the true function of sleep and dreaming continues to elude precise explanation.
In 1970 Milton Kramer and Thomas Roth, researchers at the VA Hospital and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, respectively, raised this question: Do our moods in the morning relate in any way to our sleep and dreams the previous night?
Human experience suggests that they do. Certainly we generally feel better after a good night's sleep. But Drs. Kramer and Roth sought a much more definitive answer. And that answer, though still evolving, is positive yes.
Kramer and Roth began by seeking to determine whether one's mood differs between night and morning, and whether this is related directly to sleep. They found that there is a difference, and its is definitely related to sleep. Then they explored the various aspects of mood and their relationship to the various stages of sleep and dreaming.
What does a good night's sleep mean to our mood? Generally we are happier, less aggressive, sleepier, and a bit surprisingly, less friendly. Being sleepier is easily explained. It simply takes a little time to become fully alert after awakening.
But why should we feel less friendly? Here the researchers must speculate a little. They suggest the answer may be the lack of association with other humans during the period of sleep.
Once the two doctors established scientifically what common sense and folk wisdom had long taught - namely, that there is link between sleep and how we feel - they set out to learn what parts of our mood are related to which specific parts of the sleep cycle.
Normal sleep is broken into five distinct parts - Stages 1 through 4, plus REM, an acronym for rapid eye movement. Much remains unknown about each of the five sleep stages. Most dreaming occurs during REM sleep, a period when the eyeballs move rapidly beneath the closed lids. And whether they remember or not, all adults dream, usually four to six times a night.
Three types of mood are strongly related to some specific stage of sleep. Our friendly, aggressive, and sleepy feelings all relate to Stage 2 sleep, which accounts for most of our total sleep hours. Our friendly and sleepy feelings, but not our aggressive feelings, are affected as well by Stages 3 and 4, and by how long it takes us to fall asleep.
This means that if you get less sleep than normal - and people vary a great deal in how much sleep they normally require - you awake more friendly, more aggressive, and less sleepy.
At this point, the doctors found themselves puzzled. They knew from their earlier work that sleep determines if people feel happier. Yet when they studied the various sleep stages, they found no correlation between sleep physiology and the unhappy mood. Clearly sleep made a difference, but that difference didn't relate to how much time one spent in each of the various sleep stages.
The two researchers decided the key to whether we feel happy or unhappy after sleep must lie in sleep's psychological component - our dreams. So they began studying dream content - what dreamers dreamed and who appeared in their dreams - to see how this affected mood.
Instead of sleeping through the night, volunteers now were awakened four times while in REM sleep. They were asked about such things as what their dreams were about; the sex, age, identity, and number of the people in their dreams; and what each person in a dream was doing.
Interestingly, Kramer and Roth found that being awakened four times a night didn't make a difference in the volunteers' morning mood patterns. But they did find that who appears in a dream has a far greater influence on mood than what occurs in the dream. "Who affects all the moods," Kramer says, "but primarily the unhappy mood."
Each of us, it turns out, has a special dream character, and if this type of character appears in our dreams, we are happier when we awake. "For people in general, how unhappy you feel after sleep depends on who is in the dream," Kramer says. "Who it is that makes you happier is different for you than for me." For some it may be an older woman, for example; for others, a young man.
Who appears in your dream isn't the only important thing. The more people who appear in your dreams the happier you are on awakening. It's a case of the more the merrier. "The bad thing in a dream is to be alone; you feel worse," Kramer explains. "You can relate this to wakening psychology, where being alone leads to more unhappiness. There is something about interacting with people that produces happiness."
A number of researchers have examined the relationship of mood and performance. The doctors also checked into this relationship, and they have found some interesting correlations.
"We found that the more friendly, more aggressive, more clear-thinking, less sleepy, and surprisingly, the more unhappy you are, the better you perform. That last one - the unhappy - I can't explain," Kramer says. Moreover, the level of person's moods and the level of his or her performance rise and fall together throughout the day.
Initially the two VA researchers worked only with men, because the dreams of men are far easier to study. Men and women dream differently. Indeed, sex is the biggest factor in accounting for differences in the people activities, locations and feelings that occur in dreams. Dr. Kramer says, "When you compare men and women, you get a greater difference in dream content than when you compare, say, 20- and 60-year-olds, or black and white."
Last year the VA researchers began studying the relationship of sleep, dreams, and mood in women. This work is continuing, but the initial findings reinforce what they had found in men.
"Overall, the women are just like men," Kramer says.