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apl. Prof. Dr. Michael Schredl

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Sleep Laboratory of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, (ZI)




Interview of 15. March 2010, directetd by Dr. Elke Ahlsdorf


Professor Schredl, you concentrate on dream research. The Network Aging Research is especially interested in aging. Do you know if dream memory changes with age?

Most of the cross-sectional studies show, that dream memory decreases with age. But a cross-sectional study has the problem, that not the course of a lifespan is researched but different generations. And there are no longitudinal studies yet. We ourselves have retrospectively asked older people, if they have noticed a change in the dream memory in comparison to their younger adulthood. There you find, that it goes up and down but remains about the same in the middle. We assume that dream memory remains relatively stable throughout age. However, in our research of the elderly about dream memory, we found that dream memory is strongly connected to the visual memory. The assumption is, that visual memory is impaired through healthy aging processes or degenerative processes, so with that, dream memory is also decreasing.   Can people in general remember less of their dreams in older age or does the way how they remember change, are dreams more fragmented or not so lively anymore?      We have also established that the dream length, the amount of what is remembered after awakening, is connected to the verbal short-term memory and dreams of older people are in general shorter than those of probands at young adulthood. There are a few explanatory models for this. One important explanatory model is less the memory but more the sleep- the sleep physiology- because there are more interruptions during sleep of older people than of young healthy probands and therefore those dreams are more fragmented. The quality of feelings, the intensity of positive and negative dreams and in terms of dream bizzareness- if the dream is realistic or contains fantastic elements- there I would say that there is no difference in relation to age at least of that representative study that I have on it.   Most of the time we dream about us as the main character. Do we age in the dream or do we somehow stay the same?   There are different hypotheses about the “dream me”. We have an older dream researcher, L.R. Müller, a physician that wrote about dreams of the elderly. He assumed that the elderly dream mostly about their youth and their young adulthood. Meaning that when you are old yourself and cannot do as you want to. So in your dreams, the youth revives. However, this was not confirmed in our dream study of older people, in fact it shows that most people dream about themselves as they are in the awake state. So when you have problems in the awake state like physical impairments or something like that, then it also occurs in your dreams.   Is there something like generation specific dreams? E.g. people of wartimes that lived through many traumatic experiences, increasingly remember those?  

In my study it occurred at least a few times, that older people still dream about wartime experiences and in an representative survey of the Allensbach Institute for public opinion research in the analysis of the year 2000 of the over 65 years old, it was also found that they still have those wartime themes in their dreams. So based on these dreams, you still see a burden due to such traumatic incidents.

Can you influence nightmares with psychotherapy for example, so you have less bad dreams?

Nightmares are dreams with a strong negative emotion that leads to awakening. This can be positively influenced with a very simple method. This applies to posttraumatic burdening dreams as well as nightmares that are not directly connected to a trauma. This approach is called “Imaginary Rehearsal Therapy”. The basic idea is that the dream represents fear phenomena and by approaching that phenomenon, confronting it and then overcoming it, will change the dream. With dreams it is relatively easy, you write down the dream, imagine a coping strategy for the dream situation and repeat this strategy once a day for two weeks. Then the thought pattern- the cognitive pattern- changes and when a similar situation or fear situation appears in a dream, the new coping strategy is called upon at the same time. So the dreams change and nightmares become less.

Have dream themes changed over the years? Do people nowadays dream of other things than in the past?

Nobody has researched that yet. Within this topic it’s more about dream contents that stay the same for generations. We call those “typical dreams”. For example a dream of falling or a dream to be naked in public. Those are dream contents. With the dream of falling, I have analysed, that this dream hasn’t changed at all in the last 50 years. People today dream about it the same way people did in the past. With children’s dreams we have seen that the media or stories read to children are influencing the dream content. That means, that in the past ghosts or the bogeyman were threatening figures as today main characters of movies found to be threatening figures in children’s dreams.

Why do we dream of falling, why is it such a typical dream?

Because so many dream of falling, the assumption is, that there is a basic pattern behind it. Falling is an extreme dream of fear. When you translate it into psychological language, it is the fear of losing grip, losing control over everything and hitting rock bottom. Dreams try to capture current emotions of the awakened state and represents them in an increased form. So it means that a dream of falling is an extreme reinforcement of maybe small existential fears.

Does stress influence dream memory?

The influence of stress on dream memory is very diverse. On one hand, stress can lead to less sleep and through this short sleep duration, dream memory gets worse. The longer a sleeping period is, the more REM sleep we have and the more chances one has to directly wake up of a dream and remember it. On the other hand, some have more burdening dreams under stress and therefore remember better. There are various effects of stress and dream memory.

We dream every night but why do we only remember a few?

It is useful not to remember all dreams. If you were able to remember dreams as good as remembering things that you experience through the awaking state, there would be chaos. That we are not able to remember dreams in the awake state is probably connected to the brain physiology. The brain is regulated differently while sleeping and there is the assumption that we are not quite able to access the contents that were processed in that state.

Your sleep laboratory is the only place in this region, that researches dream and sleep. Do you get requests from people with problems or with dreams? What is a typical example why people come to you?

Our sleep laboratory is actually a contact point for patients with sleeping disorders. Specific enquiries about dreams, that people have the impression they dream so much so their sleep becomes less restful e.g., are not very common. But since I am one of a few dream researchers in Germany, I have enquiries from all over. Interestingly there is a strong overlap with sleep medicine, because first of all, dreaming as a psychological experience does not represent an impairment of restful sleep. Actually, we often have to clarify people through sleep medicine. So next to the preliminary talk we have the examination in the sleep laboratory to  determine what really is the cause.

What are your recommendations for a restful sleep? How can we achieve restful sleep and positive dreams?

Sleep is a condition that occurs when we are physically and mentally relaxed. That means, all things that add to relaxation, especially in the evening hours are important. The transition from the awake state to sleep should be arranged relaxing. What is often observed is, that thoughts can disturb sleep. When you are concerned about thoughts on what is going to happen the next day or what happened during the day. That is disturbing the sleep and we recommend to think positive thoughts while falling asleep. About the next vacation or pleasant things, because pleasant things relax body and mind. Especially with older people, exercise is also very important. Because sleep also depends on what you did during the day and if you didn’t have enough exercise, the body is not tired enough. There are older people that have sleeping disorders because they did not get enough exercise during the day. In cooperation with the Institute of Sports in Heidelberg, we conducted a study that showed that regular walking e.g. actually affects sleep positively.

May I ask you something personal? How did you get to sleep research?    

My first study was electrical engineering and while I was studying that, I also concentrated on psychological topics. One of the authors that impressed me the most was Erich Fromm. And Erich Fromm wrote a book on dreams and that made me curious. Because I couldn’t remember my own dreams and I wanted to know what happens during the night. Then I bought a second book about practical tips on how to increase dream memory etc. and since then, I write down dream and my second study, psychology, brought me closer to the topic.

One last question: do you have a favourite dream which you can remember?

There is one dream that still lingers on in my head, because it impressed me. It was a dream in which I was rolled up like an egg and sailed across a strong moving sea. That was very impressive, the view of the sea, the waves. It was a very intense emotional experience..  

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