Published in The Huffington Post
Dr. Rubin Naiman doesn’t want to just raise awareness about the importance of sleep. He wants to change the way we think about it, by blasting through the assumptions and misunderstandings that have for so long defined — and limited — the conversation.
A clinical assistant professor of medicine at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, Naiman is particularly interested in dreams. In answer to my questions, he passionately and eloquently makes the case that we can truly benefit from opening ourselves to our dreams and meeting them on their own terms rather than trying to view them through the lens of waking life.
Why do we dream?
Great philosophers have taught that we routinely mistake the limits of our personal perception for the limits of the universe. Nowhere is this fundamental error more evident than in our posture toward dreams and dreaming. Because we live in a world where dreaming is so utterly misconstrued and commonly dismissed, we fail to recognize the critical role it plays in our health and happiness. I’ve come to believe our blind spot around dreaming is at the root of so much that is wrong with our world today.
REM sleep has been shown to be essential for learning and memory consolidation. In fact, diminished REM sleep is a hallmark of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. REM sleep also actively regulates our feelings and moods. It’s not a surprise that mood disorders, depression and anxiety, are frequently associated with a pattern of disrupted dreams.
Recent research suggests that REM sleep essentially functions to process waking-life experiences. Sometimes referred to as the second brain, our gastrointestinal system intelligently processes — or sifts through, digests and assimilates — the food we consume. Likewise, in REM sleep the brain sifts through, digests and assimilates the vast array of information and experiences we “consume” by day. Acting like a second gut, it selects what will be purged and what will be permanently assimilated into our long-term memories — into who we are. We are remade and updated nightly during REM sleep.
Just as updating a computer requires temporarily shutting down its operating programs, REM sleep takes us “offline” by inhibiting the use of most of our senses and voluntary muscles. We are disconnected from the world around us, functionally disembodied as our sense of self is updated nightly.