A forthcoming book by Alice Robb provides a revelatory foray into the new science of dreams—how they work, what they’re for, and how we can reap the benefits of our own nocturnal life.
If a third of our life is spent sleeping, why not spend that time fully aware and alive? In her debut book, Why We Dream (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, on-sale November 20, 2018), New York‘s science writer Alice Robb leads us on an exhilarating journey to unlock the power of dreams and the endless possibilities that lie within them.
While on a research trip in Peru in 2011, Robb mastered the art of lucid dreaming—the uncanny phenomenon in which a sleeping person becomes aware that she is dreaming. Finding her lucid dreams to be both stimulating and surprisingly addictive, Robb devoted her time to learning more about these nightly visions. As weird and nonsensical as they may seem, dreams help us to process new information, work through our anxieties, and confront our worst fears in a non-stakes environment. And for people who learn to lucid dream, all these benefits can be magnified.
In Why We Dream, Robb draws on revelatory research, and interviews with dream experts, lucid dreamers, and neurologists, to better understand the unruly and elusive nature of our dreams. She gives advice on how we can trigger lucidity—through methods like keeping a dream journal and taking “reality tests”—turn our nightmares into liberating adventures, and even live out our unspoken desires. And she takes us across the globe to dream conferences, virtual reality therapy sessions, and on a dream-retreat to Hawaii, where she lucid dreams with an eccentric group of dream enthusiasts. While it’s impossible to fully untangle them (hence their allure), Robb’s clear-eyed examination of the meaning and purpose of dreams will leave readers with a newfound respect for sleep and the lives we lead under its spell.
Some useful takeaways from Robb’s research:
- We all dream every night—even if we think we don’t. Healthy adults spend about 20% of our total sleep time dreaming, but most of us recall only a few dreams per week.
- Dreams help us generate new ideas and solutions to problems. For artists like Beethoven, Salvador Dalí, Charlotte Brontë, Paul McCartney, and William Styron, dreaming was part of the creative process. Mary Shelley credited dreams with inspiring Frankenstein, E. B. White, with Stuart Little.
- Dreaming helps us learn: practicing a task or a new language in our sleep can help us master it in real life. In one study, people enrolled in a French-language intensive had more dreams during the course than before or after it. Students who have nightmares about their exams outperform classmates who don’t.
- Dreaming can help us cope with grief and trauma. In one study, women who dreamed about their exes while going through a divorce were more likely to feel over the break-up a year later. People who are in mourning often have vivid dreams about the person who has died, and say these dreams help them accept the loss.
- There are simple steps you can take to recall more of your dreams. Before bed, remind yourself of your intention to remember your dreams. Every time you wake up—before doing anything else—write down as much of your dreams as you can remember (or speak them into a phone or voice recorder). Set your alarm clock to wake you up during or right after a REM period.
Alice Robb is a columnist for New York’s “Science of Us.” Formerly a staff writer at the New Republic, she has also written for the New Statesman, Foreign Policy, Elle, Vice, and others. She lives in Brooklyn.