Dreams might be a whole lot sexier than we thought – but not because of their narrative content. Neurologist Patrick McNamara's theory links the biological changes in our brains during sleep to human's inherent desire to procreate.
Carl Jung battled his one-time friend and mentor, Sigmund Freud, on a number of topics, though perhaps none as perniciously as dreaming. An entire cottage industry of depth psychology and journaling workshops grew out of Jung’s theories of individuation—integrating the conscious and unconscious. To Jung, dreams—the primal material of the unconscious—unlocked humanity’s archetypal code, revealing more than they concealed, in direct contradiction to Freud’s ideas.
Freud was rather simplistic in comparison: dreams are about sex.
Not that sex is simplistic, nor is tunneling the depths of one’s undiscovered psyche. Jung’s intensive survey of mandalas and writings on mythological landscapes fueled generations of thinkers enamored with the idea of a subconscious primordial glue binding together humanity with the cosmos through this secret language of dreams.
By contrast Freud, though hugely influential therapeutically, has always been in and out of vogue, usually simultaneously. Ernest Becker posthumously won a Pulitzer for his 1973 book, The Denial of Death, which was essentially his shadowboxing with Freudian theory. He could not come to terms with the simplicity of Freud’s death wishes:
It was becoming difficult to maintain the casuistry of the dream theory that all dreams, even anxiety dreams, are fulfillments of wishes.
While later Becker ceded to Freud some of his discontent, wish fulfillment and anxiety are unapologetically bound up with the propagation of our species. Of course, the mechanism by which this occurs is sex, an act conflated and celebrated by our ingenious imagination. Could such a simple and complex act really inform our nightly picture show? Patrick McNamara says yes.
The associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine has spent decades decoding the hidden language of dreams, first influenced by his brother’s psychedelic poster of Freudian ideology in the sixties. By the time McNamara was working in the medical field a decade later Freud was so out of fashion as to be laughable, but the researcher in him never surrendered.
Fast forward to fMRI, the noninvasive breakthrough in wrapping our heads around what is inside our heads. McNamara spent hours studying dream reports by a wide range of men and women, noting peculiar patterns: in both genders strategies for partnership and procreation kept emerging. More tellingly, during the morning hours when REM sleep dominates, a cocktail of sex-related hormones—prolactin, oxytocin, testosterone—is served up in our midbrains, where circuits for pleasure and sex reside.
McNamara took it a level deeper. He split groups into those in relationships and those without—half the participants didn’t have to hunt for sex, the others did:
The anxious, preoccupied group was far more likely to recall dreams than the securely attached; they took less time to enter REM sleep and had many more dreams featuring aggression against competitors. But both the anxious and the securely attached recalled more dreams than avoidant participants. That is precisely the pattern one would predict if dream sleep were directly related to long-term sexual strategies.
A follow-up study with electroencephalogram (EEG) technology on college students confirmed these results, adding yet another nuanced layer: when in non-REM sleep (NREM), the dreamer was aggressive in only 29 percent of dreams, compared to 58 percent during REM sleep, the time believed to unite sexuality and inner cinema. Friendly interactions—sans sexual aggression—flipped that script, with 71 percent of NREM dreamers and 42 percent of REM sleepers reporting peace and love—agape, not eros.
All this research left McNamara to ponder one more peculiarity. REM sleep is marked by both a paralysis or inhibition of muscles and a suspension of the body’s thermoregulatory reflexes—the heat of passion is a bit cold at this time. The autonomic nervous system, responsible for our fight-flight-freeze reactions, is also unstable which, as he explains, is the reason more heart attacks occur during these hours.
Discovering reasons for evolutionary behavior requires reverse engineering, what philosopher Daniel Dennett describes as moving from how come to what for. Dennett encounters confusion between the two when debating religionists with a vested interest in theological narratives; the distance between them is critical in understanding evolutionary behavior. While Jungians get caught up in the mythology of dreaming, McNamara’s Freudian updates satisfy an even more incredible tale. As Dennett writes in his forthcoming book:
A mystery solved is even more ravishing than the ignorant fantasies it replaces.
Like Dennett, McNamara turns to Darwin for insight. Why, for example, would nature endow peacocks with colorful plumage that adds no physical advantage in battle, or in the case of reindeer’s unwieldy antlers, are biologically expensive? McNamara speculates:
Darwin pointed out that many features of sexually reproducing species can boost reproduction rather than survival in the environment per se. The peacock’s tail advertised its fitness to peahens, and so they tended to mate with the male who had the most extravagant tail in the group … Similarly, the reindeer’s antlers were used as weapons in the fight against other males of the same species for access to females. The more elaborate the antlers, the more forbidding the buck.
Like weightlifters puffing their chests, showmanship trumps defense. Or rather, showmanship is the first line of defense. Applying this to dreams, McNamara suggests that a drop in body heat promotes sleeping in close quarters with others, increasing opportunities for procreation. It also makes sense that during a period in which aggressive behavior is being played out in the theater of dreams you would not want to attack the person you’re cuddling with; hence, physical paralysis during mental stimulation.
As Dennett suggests of evolutionary adaptations, these are profound responses to complex behaviors, which does nothing to detract from the wondrous mythology of dreaming. Jung might not have been wrong in suggesting that archetypal keys are uncovered during night flights, but at the foundation biology wins out. In this case, Freud just might emerge victorious.
Here's Michio Kaku explaining why Freud still has credibilty in this field:
Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Nikola Tesla, Franz Kafka, and Winston Churchill all practiced polyphasic sleep.
According to the National Institutes of Health, we spend about 26 years of our life asleep, one-third of the total. The latest research states that between 6.4 and 7.5 hours of sleep per night is ideal for most people. But some need more and others less. A contingent out there, mostly women, do surprisingly well on just six hours.
There is even some data to suggest that a slim minority, around three percent of the population, thrive on just three hours sleep per night, with no ill effects. Of course, most people need much more.
Americans are getting far less sleep today than in the past. Cutting out needful rest could damage your health, long-term— as a recent study showed, sleep is essential to clearing the brain of toxins that build up over the course of the day. It also helps in memory formation and allows other organs to repair themselves. Our professional lives and our natural cycles don’t always mesh. Often, they are at odds.
What if you are insanely busy, like ten times the norm? Say you are going to medical school, earning your PhD, or are trying to get a business off the ground. There may not be enough hours in the day for what you have to do.
One thing you can do is rearrange your sleep cycle to give yourself more time. Paleoanthropologists espouse that our ancestors probably didn’t sleep for seven hours at a clip, as it would make them easy prey. Instead, they probably slept at different periods throughout the day and night, and you can too.
Though we find many modern ways to do it, napping could have played a central role in our ancestor’s lives.
What we consider a “normal” sleep cycle is called monophasic. This is sleeping for one long period throughout the night. In some Southern European and Latin American countries, the style is biphasic. They sleep five to six hours per night, with a 60-90 minute siesta during midday. There is a historical precedent too: before the advent of artificial light, most people slept in two chunks each night of four hours each, with an hour of wakefulness in-between. Then there is polyphasic sleep. This is sleeping for different periods and amounts of time throughout the day.
Certain paragons of history slept this way including Leonardo Da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, Franz Kafka, Winston Churchill, and Thomas Edison, among others. The idea gained popularity in the 1970s and 80s among the scientific community. Buckminster Fuller, a famous American inventor, architect, and philosopher of the 1900s, championed this kind of slumber. He branded his version Dymaxion sleep.
Here, you take a half hour nap every six hours and sleep a total of just two hours per night. Swiss artist Francesco Jost practiced it for 49 days straight once, while observed by Italian neurologist Claudio Stampi. At first, Jost had trouble adjusting. But soon after, he was able to make it work with few side effects. He did have trouble waking at times, however. But the artist gained five more hours each day.
R. Buckminster Fuller, with his design of a domed city in the background.
Do a quick search of polyphasic sleep and you find that many people around the world are experimenting with it. There are different ways of doing it. Some try the Uberman schedule. Here, one takes six 30 minute naps throughout the day at 2pm., 6pm., 10pm, 2am, 6am, and 10am. That’s three hours of sleep total. Another way to do it is the Everyman Schedule. Here, a three hour chunk of sleep takes place between 1 A.M. and 4 A.M. Then, three 20 minute naps occur throughout the day at 9am, 2pm, and 9pm. That’s around 4.5 hours of sleep daily.
So what’s the science behind this radical system? Unfortunately, no long-term research has been conducted, yet. One 2007 study, published in the Journal of Sleep Research, found that most animals sleep on a polyphasic schedule, rather getting their sleep all at once. This also begs the question, how much sleep does the human brain need to function properly? The answer is unknown.
Sleep is broken into three cycles. There is light sleep, deep sleep, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The last one is considered the most important and restful of phases. We don’t stay in any one phase for long. Instead, we cycle through these constantly throughout the night. So with polyphasic sleep, the idea is to experience these three phases in shorter amounts of time, and wake up rested.
Image by Häggström, Mikael. "Medical gallery of Mikael Häggström 2014". Wikiversity Journal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.008. ISSN 20018762.
We don't know the exact purpose of these phases. Sleep is still something of a mystery. Without a good understanding, it’s difficult to quantify the impact a polyphasic schedule has. One question is whether such a schedule allows for enough REM sleep. Polyphasic practitioners say they are able to enter the REM phase quickly, more so than with a monophasic style. Jost for example, claimed he could enter REM sleep immediately. This quick entry into the REM state is known as “repartitioning.” The deprivation of sleep may help the body enter REM quickly, as an adaptation.
So what are the downsides of this altered sleep cycle? Boredom and a limited social life. For those who want to go out drinking with friends, stay up late watching movies, or spend time with the kids, the drastic schedule change can cause problems. It has to be rigidly kept to work. Another concern, some studies have shown that those who sleep under five or six hours per night may have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and lower immune system functioning.
Some argue that sleep theories just don’t account for human diversity in needs. For instance, some insomniacs have praised a polyphasic style for helping them regain the ability to sleep. At issue is the lack of data. But of course, anyone who is considering seriously taking part in such a style should consult a physician and keep in touch with him or her regularly, throughout the process.
How people sleep and how much they need varies widely. This may or may not have a genetic component. More research on sleep may help us to determine what our brain and body needs, and how we can adjust our sleep patterns to get the most out of our day, without sacrificing our health.
To hear more about a polyphasic sleep style click here: