Dream On Dreamers – Getting the Most Out of Dream Time

During sleep, the brain has a ‘to do’ list that makes the average fairy godmother look like a lightweight.

As well as keeping us alive, it finds creative solutions to problems, consolidates memories, works through painful ones, stimulates new insight, processes emotion and works on important unfinished issues. Dreams are a critical part of the process. Here’s how to make them work for you …

Dreams are the work of a busy mind sorting through the information it’s collected during the day – some of it consciously and some of it not – to process information, emotion and solve problems.

The adage ‘sleep on it’, didn’t make itself into everyday language by bribery or coercion. It’s there because there’s scientifically proven truth behind it.

Dreams can lead to rich insights and creative solutions because the part of the brain that controls rationality, logical decision making and deciding what’s socially acceptable becomes dormant during sleep.

When the gatekeeper is gone the dreaming mind is free from censorship and the rules that might kneecap creativity in waking life.

This is why we can dream ourselves flying to Malta and asking the pilot, Mick, ‘Excuse me Mr Jagger, but any chance of popping my jet on auto and jamming with us for a bit? Don’t be shy. I’ll start.’

This disinhibition is critical to thinking creatively because it allows new ideas to form.

As you could imagine, it could get a bit messy if limbs joined the party and acted out the dreams of an unrestricted mind. Fortunately during dreaming the neurons in the spinal cord are shut down so limbs can’t move.

This is done to ensure we don’t hurt ourselves or anybody else when we fight slipper-stealing ninjas, deliver a left hook to an ex (come on – who hasn’t wanted to go there) or hand over the ironing to Mr Wonderful who’s confessed his undying love because we fit the glass slipper – wait – the trackies (it’s a dream – who’d wear a glass slipper if trackies did the job).

Here are some important discoveries that were made while people were sleeping:

  • ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles. One day in 1965 in a small room in London Paul McCartney woke up with a sweet tune playing in his head. He played it straight away, asked the fellas what they thought (they were keen) and then set about making sure he hadn’t heard it anywhere before.

    ‘I liked the melody a lot, but because I’d dreamed it, I couldn’t believe I’d written it,’ he said. Fast forward a few decades and that sweet tune is the most covered song in history.

  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. During a miserable summer in 1816 Mary Shelley and a group of friends went to stay with the poet Lord Byron. With the weather particularly moody, the friends were often forced inside where they told ghost stories.

    One night Lord Byron suggested a competition that involved everybody making up their own ghost story. That night, Mary Shelley went to bed and a story ‘haunted her midnight pillow’. The story was Frankenstein, and it’s genius is still celebrated today.

  • Robert Louis Stevenson dreamt the plot for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He became so adept at dreaming he could return to his dream the following night and dream a different ending.
  • Dr Otto Leowi had a hunch about the chemical transmission of nerve impulses but was struggling to come up with a way to test his theory. He let the idea slip to the back of his mind but one night in 1920 he woke up, turned on the light and scribbled something down. When he woke up in the morning, he remembered he’d ‘written down something most important, but … was unable to decipher the scrawl.’ The next night the idea came back – it was the experiment that would help him prove his theory.

    Thankfully at that time the world was free of funny YouTube clips to distract the brilliant from being brilliant, so Leowi was able to spend the next decade refining his theory. His work was critical to neuroscience and eventually won him the Nobel Prize for medicine.

  • The sewing machine needle. In 1845 Elias Howe was struggling to invent a machine that could stitch faster than other machines could spin and weave. He fell asleep one night frustrated and dreamt – so the story goes – of being tied up from his toes by cannibals and hung over a pot in preparation of being their cup-a-soup snack. Every time he tried to escape their boiling pot, they’d poke him with spears. He woke up from his nightmare and was at first struck with the high emotion of the dream. But, one thing he remembered was that the spears had holes in the points. Holes in the points. Get it? Nuff said.

Manipulating the Content of Dreams

Harvard researchers have shown that it’s possible to manipulate the content of dreams. 

Here’s how that works:

  1. Write down your problem – just a short phrase or sentence will do – and place it next to your bed. Keep a pen and paper nearby.
  2. Think about the problem for a few minutes before you settle down to sleep.
  3. Once you’re settled, try and think of the problem as an image. (The visual part of the brain is especially active during sleep, which is why dreams are so visually rich.)
  4. As you drift into sleep, tell yourself to dream about the problem.
  5. When you wake up, lie quietly for a short while. If you jump straight out of bed you’ll lose a lot of your dream content. Write down any trace of the dream that you remember. More may come as you write. If you can’t remember anything, pay attention to what you feel, the tempt the memory back.

 Dreams are the normal, natural, unavoidable work of a sleeping brain. They are not prophetic, mystical or magical. Nor are the the domain of incense burning Skytrain Moon Pixielar and the dreamcatchers she collects on her astral travels. They are as much a neural process as the thinking and feeling done during when we’re awake.

Without the shutdown of the rational part of the brain dreams are also surprising, creative and insightful – which is excellent and something we should make work for us.

See here for a how-to on understanding dreams.

The good news is that it is possible to harness the power of a sleeping brain and set it to work on a  particular issue … and you’ve gotta love anything that works like that while you’re sleeping. 

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We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting
When children are struggling to physically control their bodies, we support them in ways that strengthen. If they’re struggling to write, for example, we don’t punish or shame them. We guide them and show them by doing ‘with’. We also lift them up, ‘I know you can do this. Keep going. You’re getting better and better.’ We also don’t wait for perfection. ‘You wrote a number 4! Nice work you!’ We sit with and do with, over and over. We also give them a break when they get frustrated or upset.

It’s the same for behaviour. Big behaviour comes from big feelings or attempts to meet valid needs. (And all needs are valid.) It is this way for all of us. When we’re upset or angry, the last thing we need is for someone to tell us we can’t be, or to lecture or shame us. Kids are the same.

With kids and teens though, there can be a sense that we need to ‘do’ something in response to big behaviour, so we lay down punishments or consequences with a view to teaching a lesson.

But - unless the consequences make sense (punishments never do), they risk teaching lessons we don’t want them to learn:
- that the environment is fragile and won’t tolerate mistakes. 
- that secrecy and lies are a safer option than coming to us. 
- shut down. They put a lid on expressing big feelings. The feelings will still be there, but they aren’t getting the vital guidance from us on how to calm them (through co-regulation). The risk is that they will eventually call on unhealthy ways to calm the fierce stress neurobiology that comes with big feelings.

Consequences have to make sense. Maybe it’s to repair or reconnect. Discipline has to teach. It’s not about what we do to them but about what we nurture within them. Is that trust and the capacity to learn and grow? Or is it fear or shame.

Often the only response that’s needed is a loving conversation with us. ‘What happened?’ ‘What were you hoping would happen?’ ‘What did you need that you didn’t get?’ What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right?’ Because if discipline is about learning, the most powerful consequence is the strong, loving conversation with us that lights their way and speaks softly to the safety of us.♥️

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