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Gary Fireman can fall asleep on pretty much any horizontal surface, given a few minutes of peace and quiet. And while he may be one of the leading dream researchers of our day, he simply cannot share the secret to this otherworldly skill. Truth is, he was probably just born that way.

Dr. Fireman, a nightmare researcher and Chair of Suffolk University’s Department of Psychology, has devoted his life to understanding the complex emotional world of dreams. Well, not just dreams — Fireman specifically focuses on nightmares, which he believes are a result of the brain struggling to process emotional experiences. He’s also authored or co-authored several studies on childhood and adolescent bullying, and is currently investigating the relation between hostility and sleep. 

We spoke to Dr. Fireman about the difference between disturbed dreams and nightmares, the difficulty of studying our REM reveries and why nightmares stem from our inability to process an emotional experience.

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Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your research, and whatever you’re working on now?

My research generally is about sleep, sleep quality and, in particular, disturbed dreaming. Disturbed dreaming is a little broader than nightmares, and includes bad dreams as well. The distinction I make is that nightmares wake you up, but disturbed dreams — bad dreams — are vivid, emotionally powerful dreams that one typically remembers as distressing. But they don’t wake you up.

So I look at nightmares and disturbed dreams in relation to regular dreams. But I also look at sleep quality in general — dispositional characteristics as they relate to and affect sleep quality. There’s a lot of research looking at, for example, how characteristics of depression and anxiety negatively affect sleep.

In one of the projects I’m working on now, I’m looking at how another emotional state, hostility, affects ongoing sleep quality. I’m also starting up a project to see if I can experimentally demonstrate whether disturbed dreaming is related to fear modulation. Essentially what I’m trying to do is pin down the function of dreams and disturbed dreams.

Dreams are tricky things. What are the challenges, methodology speaking, involved in studying dreams?

There are huge challenges. People who have access to sleep labs and subjects can bring people in and put them on monitors and directly evaluate when they’re in REM sleep. They can do all sorts of controlled studies. Someone like me, who does not have access to a sleep lab and works with the general population using questionnaires, has the challenge of self reported data and cannot closely monitor sleep itself. The advantage I do have is that I can improve external validity with large numbers of participants from a broad section of the population. I try to get prospective data — data collected ongoing over multiple days — rather than retrospective date — asking participants about the past several weeks of sleep. Experimentally I can only control variables during waking time and relate them to self-reported sleep patterns.

“Nightmares wake you up, but disturbed dreams — bad dreams — are vivid, emotionally powerful dreams that one typically remembers as distressing.”

So I select those who have high nightmare incidence and see if they respond to stimuli in ways that are different than those that don’t. But that’s a challenge because someone that has a high nightmare incidence may also have something else going on. Is it that disturbed dreaming and nightmares is causing the effect, or is that it they also have a high affective stress? So I try to statistically tease out which things are contributing most to the outcomes.

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Anything else?

Well, another big challenge — and this is true for everybody who studies dreaming — is that dreams are by definition memories. What we can study is REM sleep. We can look at what goes on physiologically while you’re in REM sleep — there are exceptions, but most often dreaming and disturbed dreaming occurs during REM sleep.

As soon as I want to know about the dream, which is a narrative, I have to wake you up and ask you about it. But as soon as I wake somebody up, it’s a memory. So you can never in real time study dreaming. You can study REM and you can study what’s going on physiologically and neurologically during that period of sleep, so you know they were dreaming. 

But are the dreams — and this is key — a byproduct of what goes on, a waste product of what goes on, an epiphenomenon, as they say in philosophy? Or are dreams themselves — and this is what I think — actually serving a function, and not just the byproduct of the physiological process?

“As soon as I want to know about the dream, which is a narrative, I have to wake you up and ask you about it. But as soon as I wake somebody up, it’s a memory.”

But that’s a model that can never be directly tested, because as soon as I wake somebody up they’re telling me their memory. And humans, we like to tell stories. That’s the kind of animal we are. We tell stories about things that don’t even make sense. Because we make sense of nonsense. So I always question, is that what people are doing when they tell me about their dream? Are they making sense of nonsense, or telling me the memory of something that actually did have meaning? 

Am I rambling?

No, that’s fascinating. It’s a huge epistemological problem.

Exactly. One of the things that comforts me is the thought that since what we do is make sense of experience, well, dreams are an experience. When you wake up, it has an effect because we’re making sense of it. Even if originally it was a bit nonsensical, the fact that it has an impact on us is relevant. And what that impact is and how it helps us operate and adapt and adjust to our world is relevant. I actually think dreams do have a function, but that’s a persuasive argument rather than one I know how to prove given the state of technology that we’re in right now. 

What do you think that function is? 

I think the function of dreams and disturbed dreaming is to process emotion and help us make sense of it, to integrate emotion into organized memory and meaning. Emotion is what helps us know what’s important and relevant, how to prioritize experience — it’s critical to our sense of personhood. And so I think the function of dreaming is that is it allows us to work on emotion and emotional memories in very creative ways.

“I think the function of dreaming is that is it allows us to work on emotion and emotional memories in very creative ways.”

What happens during the process of dreaming is the logical part of the brain — the frontal cortex — the logic that we typically constrain thought with is loosened. And so we can make all sorts of associations between experiences in a more creative way. A less structured, biased or heuristically organized way. And that lets us see things in a new light and helps us grow. So that’s where I see the function of dreaming.

And I think that’s true of disturbed dreaming too — I think nightmares are a breakdown in the system. Particularly with recurring nightmares. Think of it like a skip in a record. It keeps replaying over and over again because you’re unable to sufficiently process an emotional experience. So you have recurring nightmares until you are able to organize it.

We’ve heard that you’re pretty amazing at falling asleep anywhere, anytime. Do you have any insight into why that’s so much easier for some people than others? 

There are many factors that go into that — dispositional factors, physiological factors, environmental factors that affect how well one sleeps. If you take what I described as essentially a bio-psycho-social model of what’s affecting sleep, then that speaks to why there may be such variability. There could be physiological proclivities to disrupted or non-disrupted sleep, bio-rhythms, et cetera. There could be psychological experiences and history, as I talk about in the model I work with, in terms of affective stress: The type of stuff you bring to the table dispositionally that can affect how well you sleep. There’s also affect load – the stuff you live with daily, stressors that can affect sleep. And then there are the social or environmental factors; some people are more sensitive to environmental stimulants than others. There are so many factors affecting how well you sleep.

“Think of a nightmare as a skip in a record. It keeps replaying over and over again because you’re unable to sufficiently process an emotional experience.

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So basically, you’re unique.

I think I must have a very fortunate disposition to be able to shut off external stimuli. I’m also not a very fearful or paranoid person: I can calm myself very easily, I typically don’t feel things I see or hear as threats. I think people that have very little trouble calming themselves, or getting into a mindful or meditative state, are probably more apt to sleep.

I think another thing, personally, is that I’m very atypical in my response to things that make folks anxious. When most people get anxious, they worry about it. Worry is future-oriented — you’re worried about what’s going to happen in the future, your performance or whatever. Whereas people ruminate about what they’re anxious about: How did I screw up yesterday? And they can’t slow down those thought processes.

When I start feeling anxious, I just have this sort of hardwired sense that if I fall asleep, it’ll all be easy to fix when I get up. So I just go right to sleep, and when I wake up I have a learned reinforcement on this, I’m much more effective in dealing with it. It reinforces the process of dealing with anxiety, rather than staying up agitated and not actually resolving anything. But I think that varies greatly among people.

I think the other thing that affects it, and this is particularly tough on college-aged folks and folks in their early twenties, is that it’s hard to get into a rhythm of sleep with any consistency. If you’re in college, between procrastination and uneven scheduling, stimulants, partying, depressants, caffeine and everything else — noisiness, funky roommates — it’s very hard to get into a routine. When you’re out of a rhythm, that disrupts your sleep. 

Consistency is so important. To wrap up, what are some fascinating things you’ve learned that the general public might not know yet?

The greater public may have some minimal awareness of this, but the thing I’ve learned that really needs to be hammered home is sleep is the hub of the wheel. And by that I mean, so many things flow out of and require a good night’s sleep. That includes your mood, your levels of attention and performance, your ability to memorize and organize information, and your very health — your sensitivity to picking up and fighting illnesses and illnesses, your risk of injury and death through accidents and such.

Too many people who care about sleep think that there’s some sort of magic number and I think that’s an error. You have to know what’s the right amount of sleep for you, physiologically.

People disrespect sleep. Culturally there have been folks that diminish sleep as not being that important. “Oh, if you’re a real tough person, if you’re real successful, sleep can come second.” That minimal frame is really a mistake. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned in terms of sleep — just how critical it is.

I also think too many people who care about sleep, who are not professionals, think that there’s some sort of magic number — the seven or eight hours a night. And I think that’s an error. That’s an average amongst the population, which is widely variable. You have to know what’s the right amount of sleep for you, physiologically. Some people need seven and a half, some people need six, some people need five, some people need eight, some people need nine. There isn’t some magic number you must attain.

And I don’t think people realize you can only put it off for so long. People say “I don’t need so much sleep, I can put it off,” but they don’t realize what they’re having then is micro-sleeps — where they drift off and hardly realize it. You can’t not sleep.