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April 1, 2016

Good sleep and happy dreams: why and how?

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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As a child growing up in Egypt, my mother used to wish me a good sleep and happy dreams every night; and she would also ask me if I'd said my night-time prayers.

Today, at age 72, I realize more than ever how our lifestyle back then was good for body, mind and soul.

Recent findings in sleep science have confirmed the habits that contributed to my good sleeps and happy dreams as a young boy.

First, we ate just a light meal in the evening, and had dinner – our main meal – around 3 p.m. in the afternoon, followed by a short Mediterranean siesta.

We worked six days a week, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Following the afternoon siesta, our brains were recharged and ready to study – no excuses!

Night-time prayers after a day of study or play helped relax the mind and motivate the soul to reflect on what one should forget or forgive before peacefully ending the day.

Back then, there were no distractions in the evening. No cell phones, video games, personal computers, tablets, etc.

And as for TV, it was in black-and-white, with only one channel that broadcast until 10 p.m. on weeknights and up to about midnight on weekends. Reception was not very good and the programs were mostly boring. As for visitors, they only showed up on the weekends and only for our mid-afternoon dinners.

Walking 30 minutes every day to school or work, and another 30 minutes home again, was both normal and necessary. Even where public transit was available, you would still have to walk part of the way. Most buildings had no elevators or escalators, so we were all guaranteed more daily exercise by climbing the stairs.

There is no doubt that our less frantic activities, regular exercise and moderate eating habits contributed to having consistently good sleep every night. And today’s sleep science reveals in turn the benefits sleep gives back to the health of body and mind.

One important correlation, for example, is that sufficient sleep strengthens the immune system, which acts as a preventive against ailments such as heart disease and cancer.

As a boy I used to share my dreams, especially the happy ones, with my parents. I was fascinated by the Qur’anic story about Joseph’s dream; he dreamt that eleven stars, the sun and the moon, were all bowing down to him.

I could not understand – and I still don’t – how he was able to count exactly 11 stars, to see how these celestial bodies were bowing down to him, and remember all of that when he woke up.

The Biblical version of the same story is somewhat different. It states that Joseph told his brothers of the dream, while in the Qur’an he told only Jacob, his father.

Jacob realized that this dream was a prophecy, meaning that Joseph would one day hold a powerful position of authority (and it was later fulfilled). To avoid inciting jealousy among his other sons, Jacob advised Joseph not to tell his brothers about his dream.

The adult Joseph was appointed as a top government Minister by the Egyptian Pharaoh and later greeted his eleven brothers, mother and father as royal guests. He was also given the divine gift of dream interpretation and practiced that while in Egypt.

As a boy I hoped to have dreams like Joseph (after all, he was a fellow Egyptian!) and also to grow up having the divine gift of dream interpretation. I am still waiting for both. 

Dr. J. Allan Hobson in his book Dreaming, A Very Short Introduction devotes a full chapter to the leading question; “Why did the analysis of dream content fail to become a science?”

He is far from the first to write on this subject. During the late 14th century, Imam Muhammad Ibn Seerin (d. 1500 CE) published a 500-page Dictionary of Dreams.

But even to this day, the study of dreams remains one of the most difficult arts-sciences. I’ve come to believe that it is very culture-specific and varies widely from one person to another.

Research also shows that dream content is extremely variable, but almost always involves the dreamer. Dreams are mainly visual experiences that unfold in real time. They can also involve sounds, but rarely involve taste or smell.

For my own experiment, I kept a week-long journal of the dreams I remembered after waking up. I found that most also involved emotions related to recent events.

Dr. Hobson is a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He dismisses the ancient ways of interpreting dreams, calling them “a distorted read-out of a sick body,” and doubts that any dream could be “an encoded message about the future from the gods.”

He even attacks Sigmund Freud, saying that Freud “picked up the distorted message idea and acted as the high priest whose psychological skills could tell the patient things that he would otherwise not know about himself.”

“All of these systems, including psychoanalysis,” he adds, “are essentially religions in that they are based on faith in an agency that gives hidden directions, which can be understood only through the intervention of someone who can interpret the ‘message’.”

Instead, Hobson advances a different theory for better understanding dreams by shifting from “dream content to dream form.”

This shift, he explains, “is the adoption of the philosophical conviction that the physical world is the only world that there is, that the brain and the mind are therefore inextricably united, and that dreaming is a distinctive form of conscious awareness caused by the state of the brain in sleep.”

And then he adds another cut to Freud’s reputation by saying that he “knew next to nothing about the brain.”

Today, sleep complaints are very common. Topping the list is Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), a syndrome “characterized by a repeated partial or complete closing of the airway when patients lie down to sleep, cutting off air supply and causing them to start to suffocate and then wake up,” according to neuroscientists Drs. Steven W. Lockley and Russell G. Foster in their book, Sleep, A Very Short Introduction. “OSA is highly prevalent in middle-aged and overweight patients, particularly men.”

“Our every experience,” they add “tells us that a night of sleep has considerable benefits, and this subjective feeling is supported by an increasing body of scientific evidence ... Aside from making us feel better, sleep helps our brains find creative solutions to everyday problems.” (Italics are mine)

Lockley and Foster conclude: “It seems likely that we sleep less now than at any other time in our recent history.” Moreover, the 24-hour availability of almost everything has “conspired to demote sleep in our priorities” and this “has come at a price to our health and well-being.”

They also provide 24 Do’s and Don’ts for healthy “sleep hygiene,” including: Take short daytime naps; listen to the body about how much sleep it needs; avoid caffeine during the late afternoon and evening; and restrict the use of the bedroom to sleep and sex.

In trying to follow most of this list, I realize I am coming full circle back to the healthy sleep habits my mother taught me as a child. And that’s a very good thing.

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