science of us

We’re in a ‘Dream Deprivation’ Epidemic

Photo: Dalina Rahman/EyeEm/Getty Images

My mom keeps odd hours. Around 9:30 p.m. every night, she goes to bed; after that, she goes exploring. Once, in a dream, she ran through dewy grass, jumped into the moonlit sky, and cleared the roof of a barn. Once her dream self walked to a mall just to people-watch. Another time she dreamt she met a group of people she’d never met before at a swimming pool she’d never been to; a week later, she found herself at that pool, and — she swears — met those same people.

Suffice to say my mom’s sleeping hours are unusually rich and eventful. She likes to keep it that way. “I consider my dreaming life just as important as my waking life,” she told me when I was younger.

My mom, I have since realized, is perhaps the only person in my life who is not “wake-centric” — who views her sleeping state, particularly her dreams, as essential. It’s a term I didn’t even know until I read a paper on dream loss published this August, titled Dreamless: The Silent Epidemic of REM Sleep Loss. The author, University of Arizona psychologist Rubin Naiman, makes two primary arguments. One, modern humans are deprived of dreams. Two, this is not only sad from a existential perspective, it’s also a public health crisis, one brought on by a combination of lifestyle factors, substance use, sleep disorders, and, “indirectly, a dismissive attitude about the value and meaning of dreams.”

To understand where he’s coming from, it’s first important to know that we still aren’t entirely sure what a dream really is — an ambiguity that’s allowed different disciplines to focus on the elements that are most relevant to them. To sleep scientists, dreaming is the neurological process that happens when our minds enter rapid eye movement (REM) sleep; to psychologists, it can be a meaningful experience. Naiman believes the divide among professionals leads to a reductive, destructive interpretation of dreams. As for the laymen, he writes: “Today, too many of us view dreams the way we do stars — they emerge nightly and seem magnificent, but are far too distant to be of any relevance to our real lives.” Some people don’t remember their dreams, or view them as a casual phenomenon that doesn’t warrant much thought once daylight comes around. Only a few think of them as something like magic, devoting space in our waking brains to remembering and reliving them.

To Naiman, dreams are equal parts magic, science, and mystery. Mostly, he defines dreams by what happens in their absence: irritability, depression, weight gain, hallucinations. Erosion of reason, memory, and immune system functions. A loss of spirituality. In the paper, Naiman notes that we’ve known of these consequences since the 1960s: When researchers ran experiments depriving subjects of only REM sleep, they found that most of the negative side effects mirrored those of total sleep deprivation.

Alarm clocks are a common enemy of dreams, Naiman notes, because waking up to the trill of an alarm clock “shears off” our dreaming periods (“Imagine being abruptly ushered out of a movie theater whenever a film was nearing its conclusion,” he writes). So are alcohol and cannabis, which can disrupt REM sleep significantly, and even sleeping pills, which increase light sleep at the expense of the deeper, more high-quality stuff. Artificial light from digital screens, lightbulbs and city lights cut into REM, too. Finally, sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea have increased in recent years — likely due to the same factors as sleep deprivation, he notes.

What Naiman doesn’t say, but feels relevant, is that it is especially hard to safeguard our dream sleep because there’s so little social or financial incentive to do so. For most of us, sleeping falls lower on the priority list than both work and play. And getting the recommended amount of sleep — seven to nine hours a night — isn’t as trendy as so many other wellness-focused habits. This could be because sleep isn’t inherently commodifiable; it doesn’t make businesses money the way that a spin class or a kale smoothie can. Spurred on by the constant reminders of other things we should be doing to better ourselves and increase our productivity, we habitually push sleep aside, delay it, demean it.

Naiman’s argument outlines the situation pretty clearly: It’s us and our dreams against the modern world, with its LAN light bulbs, its shrill alarm clocks, its pesky “wake-centric bias.” It’s a fight to preserve a state that enriches our waking life much more than we give it credit for. And he implores us to join him, indicating the true weight of the stakes by opening his paper with a well-placed quote from a Rolling Stones song.

“Lose your dreams,” the song goes, “and you will lose your mind.”

We’re in a ‘Dream Deprivation’ Epidemic