Healing the Mind through Dreaming

THROUGHOUT ANCIENT HISTORY, dreams have been seen in terms of divinity – as messages from the gods. In Ancient Greece, dreaming was associated with healing and ailing seekers would practice specific rituals such as sleeping in temples devoted to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, in the hope of calling in a cure. These kinds of practices were also seen in ancient Egyptian and Babylonian cultures. Such rituals may seem mythical now, yet modern neuroscience is revealing insight into the mechanics of our brains and how dreaming may work to heal our minds. It was discovered in the 50s that REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep often coincides with dreaming. Since then we have found out that the limbic system is especially active during REM, in particular the amygdala (a small, almond-shaped mass in the temporal lobes of the brain linked to emotions).

In 2011, a study at the Department of Psychology, UC Berkley built on previous evidence that during REM sleep, our memories are being reactivated, integrated and put into perspective. 35 healthy volunteers were divided into two groups and each were shown 150 emotional images twice, using an MRI scan to measure their brain activity. Each group had a 12 hour interval between their viewings – one saw the images in the morning, then again in the evening, staying awake in between. The other viewed the images in the evening and again in the morning after a night’s sleep. The group which slept showed a marked decrease in their emotional reaction to seeing the images.

Also the MRI scans showed a big reduction in amygdala activity, allowing the prefrontal cortex (known as the rational part of the brain) to take control of reactions. In addition, electrical brain activity of the participants was measured while they slept and it was found during REM dream sleep, when certain electrical activity patterns decreased, there were reduced levels of stress neurochemicals. It’s thought this creates a ‘safe’ environment for emotional reactions to the previous day’s experiences in the brain, resulting in the sleepers’ ‘soothed’ feeling next morning.