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In The Twenty-Four Hour Mind, sleep researcher Rosalind D. Cartwright writes about dreams as a means of regulating distressing emotion.
She also shares what research has discovered about rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in people who are depressed.
Cartwright believes that dreams, which occur during REM sleep, come from the interplay of our new experiences and the memories we have stored. Dream images are generated as a pattern recognition between recent emotionally charged events and memories that have a similar emotional flavor.
An emotionally charged experience, by interacting with relevant memories in a dream, diffuses its emotional charge. This process also alters or updates our memory files with new experiential information.
Sleep is a busy time, interweaving streams of thought with emotional values attached, as they fit or challenge the organizational structure that represents our identity. One function of all this action, I believe, is to regulate disturbing emotion in order to keep it from disrupting our sleep and subsequent waking functioning. ~ Rosalind D. Cartwright
Unfortunately, people with depression tend to have abnormal cycles of REM sleep. This gums up our dreams' work of emotional modulation.
Researchers have discovered several sleep differences between severely depressed individuals and those who are not depressed:
Another interesting fact to come out of brain imaging research is that antidepressants dampen REM sleep. This might be why depressed sleepers have poor dream recall and could be why antidepressants are often effective in relieving depression.
The question remains whether depression is caused by sleep abnormalities or depression triggers sleep abnormalities. Either way, it does not mean “life is but a dream,” though for people with depression it might be said that “a good mood is but a normal dream cycle.”
Photo of electric ladybugs by John Nyboer
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