Electric Dreams

How Are You Sleeping?

Linda Lane Magallón 

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Magallón, Linda Lane (2002 Nov). How Are You Sleeping? 
Electric Dreams 9

How Are You Sleeping?
© 2002 Linda Lane Magallón

Dreamers are such a deep lot
Then REMing with all that they’ve got
They enter just right
4 to 8 times a night
Whether they want to or not

The Stages Of Sleep

In the mid-twentieth century, laboratory scientists discovered that we experience our most vivid, detailed and movie-like dreams when our eyes are moving quickly back and forth underneath our eyelids. Hence the name, Rapid Eye Movement, or REM. The period of REM is longest for folks who are acquiring new information: infants and students, for example. It becomes shorter as we grow older and if we have fewer new experiences. REM sleep boosts memory and learning. People test better with a night of REM sleep than without. During REM sleep the large muscles of the body are relaxed, even paralyzed. The arms, legs and torso are limp. Breathing is irregular, brain temperature and blood flow soar, the muscles of the middle ear contract and the face twitches.

The time between the start of one REM period and the next is about 90 minutes. This is same “fantasy cycle” that occurs in the waking state, although we are usually not aware of it unless we are at rest and tracking our random thoughts. The peak of the cycle favors highly emotional thoughts and images, just the sort that result in dramatic dreams when we close out the outer environment during sleep. The first REM sleep period may be only 5 minutes in length, but it can last as long as an hour close to morning. The dream drama shifts from quick previews to a full-length feature film. In fact, about 50 percent of REM dreaming time will occur in the last 2 hours of sleep. So, when you are trying to recall dreams, this is the best time to retrieve them.

We can also dream in non-REM periods, although those dreams tend to be more thought-like and analytical. This is the ebb of the fantasy cycle. In the waking state, we are able to better concentrate on our immediate surroundings and concrete problems. In the dream state, we are more concerned with mundane life than imaginative fantasy. During non-REM sleep, there is little brain activity, steady pulse, regular heartbeat. And a lot of snoring. But in the lighter stages of sleep, motor activity is not blocked, so our bodies are free to move about, although we rarely do more than roll over in bed. Actually, a “restless night’s sleep,” is likely due to us coming to the brink of wakefulness, shifting around, then returning to the sleep state.

The entire sleep cycle is a trip through different states of consciousness. At the start of the night we begin at alpha, our drowsy, conscious mode and then slip through four stages of non-REM sleep. Each stage puts more and more distance between us and the external environment.

The last two stages are called delta. In delta, there are no large body movements, unless sleep-talking or sleep-walking occur. Deep, or delta sleep, is mostly non-dreaming type of sleep. Deep sleep helps battle infection and depression. It’s the rejuvenating sort of sleep that combats mental and physical fatigue and restores a sense of well-being.

Delta occurs during the first couple of sleep cycles. So, extending your stay in bed will produce only more shallow sleep. This is great for certain types of dream recall, like lucid dreaming, but not for good sleep hygiene. Despite romantic metaphor, REM is not a descent into the depths of the underworld of sleep. It’s actually quite close to the waking state of consciousness.

How To Get A Good Night’s Sleep

What’s the first step to dream health? I suggest you start at the most basic level - look to the condition of your body. Forget trying to dream. Get a good night’s sleep. Deep, deep, dreamless sleep. Allow your mind-body the chance to rest and recuperate from the pressures of the day.

Is this approach bad for dreaming? I don’t think so. In the laboratory, attempts to prevent REM sleep always produced a “rebound” effect. Once the inhibitor was removed, there was an extraordinary increase in REM. So taking a vacation from dream recall might actually encourage your psyche to return to dreaming with renewed vigor.

The dreamers I know try different tricks to lure slumber. Some are quite involved, others basic common sense. For instance, Colin told me, “If I’ve been watching an action TV program or the news, I’ll look at some nature video or something that’s more passive before going to bed.” I agree: the stimulus of our daytime existence can agitate us, and putting a buffer between daily life and sleep is very wise.

Kyla lies on her back, does deep breathing and repeats over and over, “My brain is very relaxed. My brain is very relaxed.” Nowadays my brain is *too* relaxed, so I have no problem there. It’s my body that needs to unwind, so if I used this mantra, I’d change the wording to “My body is very relaxed.” For me, body includes the brain.

Over time, I learned that I could get a good night’s sleep if I took some basic precautions.

• Close the window to keep out noise. Alternately, let the fan or heater create “white noise” to mask background sounds. In addition, an oscillating fan can simulate rocking motions, which lull even a baby to sleep.

• Make sure the bedroom had plenty of fresh air circulating–if not from the window, then open the door to the rest of the house. Extra oxygen stimulates the brain.

• Set the heater at a lower temperature and use extra covers instead. (Layers allow me to adjust temperature without rising. I flip the blankets over with my feet, while my torso lies still.)

• Cover the digital lights on the clock and computer accessories. Make sure the hall light is turned off. (Even with my eyes closed, I can sense the light.)

• Make an extra effort to have good sleep during the nights before a big day. (On the eve of such a day, I can experience loss of sleep from planning, worrying or too much excited anticipation.
And if the day runs long, I won’t have my usual amount of sleep.)

• When the body is under-stimulated, exercise more, but not enough to strain or cramp muscles. You get sleepy due to the fall of body temperature. Thus exercise four to six hours prior to bedtime will initially cause your temperature to rise; when it falls, you’ll get drowsy and be more prone to sleep. (This helps on days when I’ve been engrossed in computer work.)

• Use progressive relaxation for physical tension (that’s relaxing each part of your body, starting with your toes and working your way up to your head). Some relaxation tapes are useful to this end.

• “Sing” to sleep with soothing tunes from a hand-held tape or CD player. This is the adult version of a lullaby.

• Dull an active mind or distract yourself from worries with repetitious tasks prior to sleep. (Counting backwards from 100 to 1 or counting sheep are such exercises. Mantras and chants work, too.)

• Switch from logical thinking to fantasy, which is a type of thought pattern more closely related to sleep, especially dreaming sleep.

Almost all sleep researchers agree that sleeping pills are virtually useless and their addictive proclivity makes them a potential problem. Unfortunately, some drugs, like alcohol, barbiturates and momoamine oxidase inhibitors, actually suppress REM if used over an extended period. They also tend to keep you at lighter levels of slumber. Due to the lack of deep sleep, your body can take longer to repair and your mind, more time to clear. So while you’re on medication, you may sleep longer. People who suffer from minor illnesses, influenza and colds are subject to increased non-REM sleep.

Catnaps during the day throw off the sleep rhythm of the body and thus should be avoided unless they occur during times when REM sleep probability is high. If you rise in early morning, your peak for daytime REM is late morning. The probability falls until the onset of night sleep, about 12 hours later.

If you do have trouble sleeping, it might be physical arousal: feeling restless, tossing and turning, sweats and hot flashes. Or aliments, upset stomach, headaches, wounds, strains and pains. High stress, premenstrual tension and pregnancy equals the need for more sleep. As you get older, you don’t sleep as deeply as an infant or child and, often, not as long as you used to.

Or your problem may be mental arousal: rumination, planning, worrying and difficulty controlling thoughts. The best solution is to get up and do something physically active.

Check List For A Good Night’s Sleep

What factors influence your sleep? I suggest you use a check list like the one below to review them. As I considered each item on my list, I judged whether each factor had, overall, a positive, neutral or negative impact. Some factors I couldn’t do much about, except be aware of their influence. The rest alerted me to areas where I needed to initiate action. As you read these items, keep track of your own score. What can you do to improve your sleep? Where can you just relax and snooze?

1. Genetic endowment (+)

How long do you sleep?

2. Circadian rhythms (-)

Are you a night person (owl) or a morning person (lark)? Do you take daytime naps? Go to sleep at a regular time?

3. Insomnia (0)

Do you have trouble falling asleep or difficulty staying asleep?

4. Medical condition and medication (-/+)

How’s the health of your body and brain? Do you take sleeping pills, herbs or any medications that influence sleep?

5. Food and drink (0)

When did you last eat? Does hunger or a full bladder awaken you?

6. Alcohol, tobacco and caffeine (+)

When did you last indulge? If you do, it’s best several hours before sleep, perhaps before or with a meal.

7. Environment (+/-)

Do you sleep with a person who snores or with someone who has bad sleep habits? Are you willing to banish pets from your bedroom when they infer with your sleep? What’s the condition of your bedding?

8. Location (+)

How insulated are you from noise, light and temperature shifts?
9. Daily exercise (+)

Did you get enough? Or too much, and feel aches and strains?
10. Activities prior to sleep (-/+)

Are you willing to turn off the TV an hour before you go to sleep?

11. Stress and anxiety (-)

What relaxation techniques do you use?

12. Attitude (+)

Do you like to sleep?

Sometimes changing just one item can make a big difference. Hope you sleep well tonight!


• Ancoli-Israel, Sonia. All I Want Is a Good Night’s Sleep. (St. Louis: Mosby-Year Book, 1996).
• Klinger, Eric. Daydreaming. (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1990).
• LaBerge, Stephen. Lucid Dreaming. (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1985).
• Melbourne, D. F. & Keith Hearne. Dream Interpretation: The Secret. (London: Blandford, 1997).
• Perl, James. Sleep Right in Five Nights. (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1993).
• Shulman, Sandra. Nightmare. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1979).
• Van de Castle, Robert L. Our Dreaming Mind. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994).
• Wright, S. “Learning the facts about sleep,” Sunday Daily Ledger-Post Dispatch, Nov. 15, 1987, p. 12.

Linda Lane Magallón
Dream Flights