dreaming and nightmares: a little science for exhausted feminists

Emily Nagoski
7 min readJan 6, 2020

Sleep. It’s important. So important, we made an entire podcast episode about it, and that episode is the second longest we’ve recorded (the only longer episode was “How to Rage” - VERY important), and still that episode contained only a fraction of what we wanted to say about how to sleep.

Because that’s now important sleep is.

And of course we got questions about some of the topics we didn’t discuss in the episode. The first was about nightmares. Understanding dreams and nightmares helps exhausted feminist prioritize sleep (which is so important) because it demystifies the sometimes troubling world we find in the kaleidoscopic, intensely emotional, hyper-associative hallucinations of dream states. I’ve met people who feel anxious about going to sleep their dreams are so disturbing. But there’s nothing to fear even in the most unpleasant dream. In fact, nightmares are your brain’s way of helping you survive. Understand your dreams, and you can rest easier.

So here are some of the important things to know about dreaming and nightmares:

1. Why Do You Dream?

Everyone dreams every night. If you don’t remember your dreams, that just means you didn’t wake up in the middle of one. It’s normal either way.

No one knows for sure what dreaming is for, but fascinating new research has given us some clues:

There are two broad kinds of sleep — REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and NREM (non-REM) sleep — and we dream differently in the two states. Sleep researcher Matthew Walker suggests we can think about sleep phases this way: during NREM sleep, we’re sorting through the day’s experiences to figure out which are redundant and can be discarded, and which are novel and should be retained for the future. Then in REM, we’re integrating the new experiences into our existing mental architecture. It’s a kind of Marie Kondo tidying up of the day; NREM asks, “Which of these experiences do we want to keep and carry into the future?” and REM asks, “Where am I going to store the things I keep?”

Dreams during NREM sleep rehearse the things you learned during the day, like memorizing vocabulary or learning new motor skills. Ever played Tetris or another computer game and then dreamed about it? Welcome to NREM dreaming! Things that are replications of what your brain already knows will be left behind and new things will be held onto.

Dreams during REM sleep help your brain run through worst-case scenarios of life, so that it’s more prepared to deal with tribulation if it comes. Nightmares happen during REM sleep. They are your brain using the massively hyper-associative brain state of REM to tell a story of survival, in order to integrate the lessons of the day into everything you’ve ever learned about the world. If you went to bed worried or stressed, your brain wants to process and purge the physiological stress, and it wants to help you solve whatever problem you’re worried about. Nightmares are a gift! They are your brain doing both emotional work that helps your body recalibrate to a calm state of peace and safety and the intellectual work of putting together the puzzle pieces of your life to find the solution you were looking for.

You know how people tell you to sleep on a problem and you’ll wake up with the solution? It’s true, and REM dreams, including “bad dreams,” are why.

After a workshop at a tech company, someone asked us what to do about nightmares, how to stop them. Amelia’s immediate reply was, “You are so lucky!!!” She herself had had to confront bad dreams, and she learned how to approach them with calmly, with curiosity. She learned that the fear or other uncomfortable emotions you experience are in no way dangerous or harmful! It’s just your brain trying to understand what to do with the experiences it has had. Hello fear, you can think. What are you here to teach me?

People have feelings about their dreams. They don’t enjoy them. Or they worry that dreams mean bad things, or show them that they’re bad people. Or they resent how dreams seem to interrupt their “real” sleep, making them wake up exhausted after dreams about frustrations or being caught unprepared. They hate dreaming, they even dread sleeping. But there are other ways to think about your dreams, and it can make your life better to get a new perspective.

Your dreams are like art. You get to decide what they mean. Some of them will look very appealing, will be a pleasure to witness. Others will be dark and ugly, and make you uncomfortable. But neither kind is inherently bad.

Your dreams are also like billboards on a highway. You can ignore them, comment on them, or discover useful information in them. But their existence doesn’t say anything about you as a human being.

If you’re dreams disturb your sleep, talk to a medical professional. But if they just… sort of… bother you, consider turning toward that discomfort with curiosity, reading the billboard with kindness and compassion. There are zillions of books about dream interpretation, lucid dreaming, and every imaginable thing to do with dreams, and you may find it entertaining or even therapeutic to turn toward your dreams. It may help you sleep, when you notice how you feel about your dreams and recognize that you can learn a new way to understand and respond to them.

Nightmares are an abundant source of self-reflection, if we can approach them as a form of literature. Ask yourself, What does that monster symbolize? Or, What do I fear the way I feared that basement? Or, Why was my cousin a dog in my dream? There are no “wrong” answers to these questions, there’s just the truth your brain is trying to explore.

2. At the Borders between Sleeping and Waking

To transition from sleeping to waking or waking to sleeping, a complex cascade of neurophysiological events has to happen, with everything going in the right order, for us to experience a soft, almost unnoticeable shift from one state of consciousness to another.

What makes sleep different from being awake is, above all, our brain’s inattention to the outside world. We click off our awareness of external signals and attend, instead, to the inner world of the brain.

Hypnogogic hallucinations are a byproduct of a slight wobbling of the transition between states of consciousness. When you’re still awake but transitioning into sleep, you may experience visual hallucinations that startle or frighten you. Sometimes there are sounds, too, and you may experience a sense of floating, falling, or feel like there’s someone in the room. These most often happen when you’re stressed or otherwise out of balance, so the complex cascade that transitions you from awake to asleep is imperfect. It’s not associated with any negative health consequences.

Hypnopompic hallucinations are wobbles at the transition from sleep into wakefulness, often an overlap of the remnants of REM dreaming and the release of your sensory awareness into the waking world. These experiences happen to most people at some point in their lives. I had my first hypnopompic hallucination during an experience of sleep paralysis (see below) when I was sixteen, and it led me to write my first ever scientific literature review, on the nature of sleep-related hallucinations! Like hypnogogic hallucinations, hypnopompic hallucinations are a benign byproduct of a slight imperfection in the neurological process of transitioning from asleep to awake.

3. Parasomnias

Do you kick or flail in your sleep? Do you ever sleepwalk or sleep eat? Scream in your sleep? Welcome to the wonderful world of parasomnias! Parasomnias are sleep disruptions that aren’t insomnia — which is simply the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. On their own, they’re mostly benign, and only if you experience these regularly or they’re accompanied by other symptoms do they call for medical treatment.

Sleepwalking. When I first researched sleepwalking, I thought it happened during REM sleep and people were acting out their dreams. Turns out, nope. Sleepwalking, unlike sleep paralysis or hypnogogic hallucinations, happens in the middle of the night, when you’re deep in NREM, slow-wave sleep. It’s more common in children (about 5%) than in adults (maybe 1.5%), and is usually not a problem in itself. Sleep walking and other mid-sleep behaviors (sleep eating, sleep online shopping, sleep sex, sleep-Tweeting) can even be side effects of sleep medication. Again, they’re mostly benign in themselves, though I have a friend who had to go through the hassle of returning a large and expensive exercise machine she didn’t remember buying. If you use your phone in your sleep, this is one great argument for turning your phone off when you go to bed: one more safety barrier between you and sleep-texting an ex.

Sleep Paralysis. This is the other side of the sleepwalking coin. Have you woken up only to find you can’t move? You might even find that you hallucinate noises like there’s someone in the room. That’s sleep paralysis. It’s probably caused by a slight glitch in the hormonal cascade that triggers waking, when you wake from a REM cycle, like hypnopompic hallucinations.

These are not the basic-basics of great sleep, but they’re things people worry about, and the single most common cause of insomnia is worry about sleep! What the science tells us is that we can stop worrying and learn to love our dreams — even the ones that seem disturbing, on the surface.

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Emily Nagoski

sex educator, author, researcher, and activist. also: nerd. http://go.ted.com/emilynagoski and @emilynagoski