The quality of dreams
Dream experiences: REM periods
The ordinary waking state is not the only one accessible to consciousness, even though it is what usually absorbs most of our mental energies. We can indeed be conscious witnesses of more or less intense experiences, whose origin can only partly be attributed to stimuli coming from the external world, determined by forms of mental activity independent from what happens in the objective reality of the environment in which the body is. While not involving an exchange of signals, stimuli and information with the outside world, and therefore also with other human beings, some of these experiences may have for the Ego an impact and a depth even higher than the experiences in the ordinary waking state, and can leave an indelible and lasting trace in memory, which remains active and present throughout life.
All of us, apart from the chronic sleepless, alternate to the waking state periods of sleep, characterized by states of total unconsciousness interspersed with periods of REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movements), during which we dream. Upon awakening, we can remember one or more dreams, or none. Some people think that they do not dream, even if they actually dream but do not remember their dreams. The REM periods during which we dream are interspersed with about 90 minutes of deep sleep, without dreams, but the interval of time that passes between a period of dreams and the next is reduced as the hours of sleep increase: the most intense and more complex dreams usually occur in the early hours of the morning, before waking up. It is also easier to remember a dream if you wake up (or if you are awakened) during a REM period or at the end of it. The recognition of the fact that we all dream during REM periods derives from laboratory investigations conducted on human subjects and other mammals (it seems to be ascertained that only mammals dream), from which emerged a coherent psychophysiological scheme related to the dream state (about this topic you may see the works of the French Michel Jouvet and the American Stephen LaBerge). Even people who claimed not to dream, awakened during some experiments at the end of a REM period, were able to remember their dreams. So there is almost always a dream state of consciousness active during the dream, while what changes from one person to another is the connection between the dream state and the waking state: some people very easily remember the dream experiences in the state of waking, recording in their memory the dream story like that of other events of everyday life, while others have greater difficulties or are completely unable to remember their dreams.
As in all activities determined by the human brain, also in the case of dreams and their registration there is the rule of natural talent and improvement of performance through exercise: the latter requires a certain dedication (in terms of time and energy ), only possible if there is an adequate interest. In fact, we can improve ours performance both in terms of remembering our dreams and in terms of the intensity and quality of the dream experiences. The condition for this improvement to occur is to regularly perform some exercises, in which it is necessary to invest a little of that time and of those energies which are becoming less and less available in today's hectic life. In the absence of a precise interest in the dream experiences, a person will hardly commit himself in this direction, but there are also dreamers (both women and men) with natural talent and adequate motivations, who are able to develop the dream activity at the level of an art. According to some studies, the mental activity that determines dreams consumes a lot of energy, even more than the concentration required for people who study or work in the waking state. It seems that this is the reason why REM states are interspersed with 90 minutes of deep sleep, almost as if you had to recharge the batteries to produce the energy needed to tune new dreams. This could also explain the fact that children, more rich in freely available energy than adults, are almost always good dreamers. Even imaginative people can make and remember more interesting dreams than those whose attention and energies are fully absorbed by the problems and the interests of daytime reality.
Oneiric state of consciousness
Those who want to take an active interest in the dream world by improving their performance as a dreamer must necessarily divert their energy from other activities, first of all by dedicating an appropriate period of time to sleep and dreaming, and then creating the right conditions for recording dreams, at least the most important ones, and some reflection on them. It is a matter of creating a bridge between the ordinary and the oneiric state of consciousness, creating the conditions for an exchange and a better collaboration between these two dimensions. In the past there has been a trend, still quite widespread, aimed at favoring the so-called interpretation of dreams: in the light of the most recent researches, this interpretative tendency represents a constraint and is more an obstacle than an advantage for the evolution of the dreams' quality and for the expansion of the range of related experiences. Although it may be helpful in stimulating the conscious Ego to turn its attention to oneiric experiences, it becomes an obstacle when it evaluates these experiences in the light of the problems and needs of the waking state. The latter is characterized by the limitations due to the needs we must face every day and the constraints that reality imposes on us. Our claim to use dream experiences according to an interpretation based on our ordinary state of consciousness risks to prevent the dreaming mind from practicing autonomously, expanding the range of experiences accessible in the dream dimension. Those experiences, memorized and integrated in the waking state, can constitute an autonomous and even rewarding heritage with respect to the limits and dissatisfactions of the psychic contents activated by ordinary reality.
A scale for the evaluation of dreams
Within the dream experiences there is a series of levels starting from the lowest degree, in which dreams are evanescent, inconsistent and fragmentary, up to the highest, in which consciousness manifests the same features of the waking state, or even surpasses them, reaching a high intensity concentration and lucidity. Therefore, in evaluating the oneiric activity we must not think that all dreams – typically subjective experiences – have the same characteristics, or that the dreams of others are necessarily similar to ours: what makes the difference is not only the content, but also the level of consciousness with which the dream is experienced. In the context of the ancient Tibetan esoteric tradition, a particular discipline called yoga of dream was practiced, whose purpose was to demonstrate to the adepts the illusory character of the real world, bringing their oneiric consciousness to such a level that the events of their dreams became indistinguishable from those of the real world.
At the lowest level dreams are fragmentary and evanescent, they are remembered with difficulty, and what is remembered is usually a person, a scene or a situation. What happens in the dream has no depth, the emotional involvement may be more or less intense, but leaves no trace in the waking state, and never exceeds the threshold that obliges to remember the dream for its emotional content (as instead it happens, for example, in the case of nightmares). Furthermore, it is not possible to remember the visual details of the dreamed environment. At the second level the dream is no longer a series of confused images or of more or less disconnected scenes, but a short story. It is more easily recalled if we pay attention to it, especially in the state of drowsiness before thefull awakening. Not all details are clear, but some are vivid and can be reconstructed mnemonically with some degree of accuracy. We may review the events as they unfold, the eventual characters involved and their behavior. Even sentences or dialogues can be remembered with a certain precision. The course of the dream is arbitrary, often the dream fades into a different dream, and the emotional involvement never exceeds a medium-low level.
The main feature of the dreams of the third level is that they do not need to be remembered, but impose themselves on the memory, at least until other events of the waking state of consciousness do not make the memory fade away. Their vivid aspect is evident: the dreamer knows immediately that he/she has made that particular dream and is able to retrace the whole process, or at least the phase of it that has shocked him/her. This can happen both due to the dreamer's intense emotional involvement, and to certain characteristics of coherence, intensity, length and lucidity of the dream itself. A typical example of emotionally engaging dreams are nightmares, especially those that oblige the dreamer to wake up, while coherent dreams resemble more or less long movies, in which the plot has a consistent and articulated evolution, and the visual and chromatic elements come to attention for their richness and for observable and recognizable details. The behavior of the characters is significant, and usually the emotional involvement, often pleasant or positive, is intense.
Dreams of the fourth level are a further evolution of this last type of dream. Although still arbitrary in their content, they have a considerable duration and are extremely coherent in the development of the plot. There are no abrupt changes of scene or interferences, the behavior of the main character (usually the dreamer) and of the other characters follows a continuity very similar to that of the events of the real world, but above all the richness of observable elements is amazing for the stability and accuracy of the details: when the dream is recalled to memory, landscapes and settings can be reviewed with the same precision as the places visited in the real world, of which a vivid memory is kept. You can perform extraordinary or impossible (in the waking state) actions, such as flying, associated with a very intense state of consciousness. The emotional involvement of these dreams, positive or negative, is always high. They impose themselves on the memory, continue for several days to draw attention to themselves even during the activities of daily life, and their salient details remain fixed in long-term memory for a long time.
Exercises to remember your dreams
To remember our dreams, as we have said, it is necessary to do some exercises that allow to progressively activate the channel that connects the dream activity to the consciousness of the waking state. A first exercise consists in observing our mental activity when we fall asleep: falling asleep consists of a series of phases during which the consciousness of the waking state progressively fades away, until it is extinguished. In case of intense fatigue the loss of consciousness can be very rapid, so that we fall asleep almost suddenly, but if we are not so tired, from the moment we go to bed to that in which we fall asleep some time passes, during which the mental contents can be observed: at first they are thoughts, memories of events of the day, sensations, which gradually fade into a pre-dream activity characterized by hypnagogic images. It is a borderline mental activity neither awake nor sleepy, and in an attempt to observe what happens we pass without realizing it into the state of relaxation that characterizes sleep: it is as if our mental processes, which we continue to feel, were no longer connected to the Ego that is watching them. Sometimes it happens to feel a sudden return of consciousness, a kind of temporary awakening, when we realize to have lost contact with what we were observing. Falling asleep therefore consists in this loss of consciousness by the Ego, which is unable to maintain the connection with mental activity. During dreams the waking Ego is replaced by another reference center, a oneiric Ego, which has different operational and functional characteristics with respect to the Ego of the waking state. The exercises of observation of mental activity at the time of falling asleep stimulate the attention of the waking Ego, throwing a bridge that connects it to the oneiric Ego.
Another important moment to establish a connection between the two states of consciousness is that of awakening. A sudden awakening, for example with an alarm clock, followed by an immediate resumption of daily activities, should be avoided as much as possible. In the days when we do not have to go to work, we can anticipate the awakening of about half an hour with respect to the usual time, using a device (such as a radio or a smartphone) capable of transmitting soft music to our liking, starting with a moderate volume, but sufficient to cause awakening. In this way we try to guarantee a period of calm of about 20 minutes, in which we can remain completely immobile, in the position in which we find ourselves at the moment of awakening. We are likely to remain in a state of half-sleep in which we can remember what we have dreamed of: in this case we will try to memorize as many details as possible about our dream. Immediately afterwards we can turn on a soft light to write down everything we remember about the dream. We will mark the date and give the dream a title, as incisive as possible (as if it were the title of a movie).
The most important elements of this technique are the soft awakening and the possibility of lingering for a while in a state of half-sleep. The best way to wake up is the spontaneous one, but if you use a clock radio the volume of the music should be kept low, in order to have a stimulus able to gradually cause the transition from the state of sleep (and eventually of dream) to the waking state. Keeping in mind that the REM phase, during which dreams are produced, takes place about every 90 minutes, and that its duration increases with the hours of sleep (from 5 minutes or so of the initial dreams, to 20 or 30 minutes for dreams occurring after 8 hours of sleep), it should be quite likely to wake up during, or at the end of, a dream that can be remembered. To remember the dreams, the mind must be able to hook some elements that recall the dream itself. Therefore the consciousness should not immediately focus on the thoughts and concerns of every day, but remain in a state of relax, allowing any fragments of dreams to emerge. If this does not happen, we can recall the thoughts or hypnagogic images recorded before falling asleep, or can make associations of thought related to those symbolic elements that could most easily have influenced our dreams: the landscape, the house, the friends, family members, workmates, meteorological events, just to give some examples. With a little dedication, eventually some dream, or at least some fragments of dream, will emerge to our memory, and then we can take a note of them.
The diary of dreams
The dreams noted in the morning should then be transcribed, in the same day, in a dedicated diary, which has not only the purpose of helping us remember what we dreamed (in this respect, it may offer many surprises already after a few months) but also the function of attributing a certain value to the dream itself, so that the dreamer who is in us is stimulated to produce dreams of more advanced quality. How? Probably because if the conscious Ego, in the waking state, is willing to devote time and attention to a profound evocation of dreams to the point of looking for the words, and in some cases also for the images, more apt to describe the dream situations in their development and to express the emotions felt, this means that a particular value and consideration are attributed to dreaming. Through the attention a form of energy is thus channeled towards our oneiric alter ego, which responds to our interest by increasing the quality of our dreams day by day. Just try to verify.
Dreams can be transcribed in a notebook, or even at the computer. If we are not able to transcribe them immediately after waking up, we can take quick notes, but as far as possible incisive and complete, on a sheet of paper, to copy and integrate them later. There are people who learn to write in bed, in the dark, with pencil and notes, so as not to disturb those who sleep with them, and in this way they are able to take full notes of their dreams. Others use a portable recorder or another voice recording device. It is also a matter of personal inclination: I, for one, have always preferred to write rather than to speak for myself. When it is transcribed on the notebook or on the computer, each dream is accompanied by a progressive number, date and title, which must be as incisive as possible, and can also be strong, emphatic or rhetorical, just like the title of a movie which is carefully chosen to attract the viewer. In any case, it must identify the dream in order to recall its contents to memory. A four or five word title works well, adjectives are effective, quotes from real or imaginary places are good. Here are some examples taken from my personal dream diary: «Adventures among the Tuareg», «A bar in Oslo», «The window on the other world», «The Persian dictator and the constitutional lawyer», «The Cathedral of the sarcophagi and the whores of Madrid».
In addition to the title, I add a few other notes: the time of the night when I think the dream occurred, its presumed duration, the quality of the dream and its emotional tone. By quality of the dream I mean its level of vividness and coherence, the scenographic richness or the elegance of the elaborate story, and the degree of consciousness. If it is a lucid dream, a conscious dream, or an OBE, I take note of it. The emotional tone is given by the type and level of the emotions aroused by the dream, in relation to the involvement in which the Ego finds itself both during the dream and upon awakening. This emotional involvement is important, because while dreaming we can have very intense experiences of different quality and in some cases even higher than those to which we have access in the waking state. In fact, it often happens that, over the years and because of the existential weariness caused by the events of life, our emotional palette becomes poorer: that's when the dream reveals itself as a surprising tool, able to revitalize our psychic tunings and make us live or relive all sorts of emotions. Anyway, if at least two or three dreams a week are recorded in the diary of dreams (according to the mentioned criteria), re-reading after six months what in the meantime has become a booklet of about fifty dreams, we will be amazed by the discovery of how our oneiric life has become much more varied, exciting, complex, profound and exciting compared to everyday reality.