in: Health, Health & Fitness, Podcast

• Last updated: March 9, 2024

Podcast #965: Night Visions — Understand and Get More Out of Your Dreams

When you really stop to think about it, it’s an astonishing fact that we spend a third of our lives asleep. And part of that time, we’re dreaming. What goes on during this unconscious state that consumes so much of our lives, and how can we use our dreams to improve our waking hours?

Here to unpack the mysterious world of dreams is Alice Robb, the author of Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey. Today on the show, Alice first shares some background on the nature of dreams, why their content is often stress-inducing, and how they can influence our waking hours, from impacting our emotional health to helping us be more creative. We then turn to how to get more out of our dreams, including the benefits of keeping a dream journal and talking about your dreams with others. We also get into the world of lucid dreaming and some tips for how you can start controlling your dreams.

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Read the Transcript 

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When you really start to think about it, it’s an astonishing fact that we spend a third of our lives asleep, and part of that time we’re dreaming. What goes on during this unconscious state that consumes much of our lives and how could we use our dreams to improve our waking hours? Here to unpack the mysterious world of dreams is Alice Robb, the author of Why We Dream. The Transformative Power of our Nightly Journey.

Today in the show, Alice will first share some background on the nature of dreams, why their content is often stress-inducing and how they can influence our waking hours from impacting our emotional health to helping us be more creative. We then turn to how to get more out of your dreams including the benefits of keeping a dream journal, talking about your dreams with others. We also get into the world of lucid dreams, it’s on tips for how to start controlling your dreams. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at Alright, Alice Robb, welcome to the show.

Alice Robb: Thanks so much for having me.

Brett McKay: So a while back ago, you wrote a book called Why We Dream. The Transformative Power of our Nightly Journey. We take a deep dive into the science and the cultural history of dreams. What led you down that path? Why did you write a book about dreams?

Alice Robb: I have always been interested in dreams, I have always had very vivid dreams ever since I was a child, which might be related to… I haven’t always been the best sleeper, I might wake up a couple of times in the night and I remember when I was… Around the time that I started thinking about doing this as a book, I was just having such intense dreams, some of them nightmares and they were impacting my day so much. I was working in a magazine and I would just find myself kind of like… Something would trigger a memory of a dream during the day. I would just be kind of so impacted by them, and it felt like there wasn’t really a way to talk about those experiences.

And then in the world that I was moving in dreams were kind of seen as this taboo subject that were kind of boring, maybe it’s a little narcissistic to talk about your dreams, but I started reading more about them and I read some… I found that there was an amazing body of work from both the hard sciences, social sciences on dreams and I just wanted to spend some time delving into that.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about what goes on in the brain when we do dream. If we dream, it’s gonna happen in the REM cycle via the rapid eye movement phase of sleep. Is it that right?

Alice Robb: Yeah. So one thing that sometimes surprises people is that we all basically, unless we’re maybe very drunk or very high or extremely depressed. We’re typically having dreams every night, every time you have a REM cycle, so most people, depending how long you sleep, have four or five REM cycles every night and they get progressively longer and more intense over the course of the night. So when you first fall asleep, you might just have a little bit of kind of play back like you’re brushing your teeth again in your dreams and then it’s towards the end of the night that you’re having those more intense story-like dreams, that are the ones that we tend to remember and talk about. So that’s why if you wake up more frequently during the night you also have more opportunities to wake up during a REM cycle.

Brett McKay: Okay, so we dream typically four to five times during nights. So it’s not like one continuous dream the entire night, it’s going on and off.

Alice Robb: Yeah, you can have something called REM rebound where if you’re deprived of REM, you can then have a very intense… Your brain’s kind of catching up on it, so that if you’re doing something that suppresses REM like drinking or drugs and then you stop doing that, you can have very intense REM rebound and kind of dream all night, but more typically it’s distributed throughout the night.

Brett McKay: Does anything change in our brain whenever we start dreaming like an electrical signaling or the chemical release?

Alice Robb: Yeah. So the state that your brain is in during dreaming, it looks a little bit like your brain when you’re awakened free associating or day-dreaming is a little bit like an intense kind of fantasizing and this is probably why it can be very good for creative thinking because the parts of your brain that produce emotion are very fired up and dopamine is surging and the parts of your brain that are involved in rational thinking and decision-making are quieter.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna talk about the benefits of dreaming to our emotional health here in a bit, but do the researchers who study this stuff, do they think dreaming, doesn’t serve any physiological purpose, does our brain physically undergo changes that we have to go through only through dreaming to maintain brain health.

Alice Robb: Yeah. Well, so it’s a little bit hard to disentangle what are the physiological benefits of dreaming and what are the physiological benefits of sleep. We all know that sleep has enormous impact on mental and physical health. Sleep deprivation leads to increased risk of strokes, heart attacks, all kinds of diseases is very detrimental to learning, but they’re having some studies that deprive rats of REM sleep specifically. There’s one way they study this where when you go into REM sleep, your whole body is paralyzed except for your eyes. So if you put a rat on a little dish, like a little floating dish then they fall asleep and they can sleep, but then when they go into REM, they’ll fall into the water and wake up. So you can… If you really wanna torture a rat, you can deprive a run sleep in this way.

And they found that raster-deprived of sleep completely will die in a couple of weeks and if they’re deprived of REM sleep, they will also die, might take four to six weeks and they’ll also perform worse at survival-related tasks. So if they’re in a maze and they’ve been deprived of REM sleep, they won’t do as well. So I think, being kind of intuit that some of this applies to humans as well, but REM sleep tends to be the really deep sleep where you’re kind of doing that, like consolidating new memories and forming new associations.

Brett McKay: Well, okay. So whenever we have REM sleep, that’s when we dream, there are changes going on in our brain, dopamine is being released, it’s almost like we’re awake and half asleep at the same time when we’re dreaming. Let’s talk about dream content. Our dreams primarily visual. Is it just we see stuff or can we also hear stuff in our dreams?

Alice Robb: Yeah. They’re very visual. But we all dream in different ways, first of all, which is why people often will ask me to say, “I dream much about this. So what does it mean?” And unfortunately, unless I know them extremely well and you know their dreaming patterns in history, I can’t usually answer that because we all have our own dream repertoire and our own dream languages. So if you’re an extremely auditory, if you’re a musician, your dreams are more likely to feature music and sound. But yes, typically our dreams are very visual, visually intense and sight is for most people, the dominant sense and dreams and most people now dream in color. There was actually one really interesting study I read that found that people who grew up with black and white TV were more likely to dream in black and white and there was another study where a scientist had his students wear goggles all day that turned everything red and have them sleep in a sleep lab, both them up and ask them about their dreams, and found that they started to have red-tinted visual imagery in their dreams. So they can also be impacted the way we dream can be impacted by our recent experience as well.

Brett McKay: Okay. So we can hear in dreams. Do blind people, they typically just hear stuff in their dreams, they don’t see things?

Alice Robb: It actually depends at what age they lost in their site. If they lost it very young or if they’ve always been blind, then they probably won’t be able to see in their dreams, but if they lost it in adult who then they might still be able to see.

Brett McKay: Is the content of most dreams pleasant, neutral, bad, what does the research say there?

Alice Robb: Yeah. So this really surprised me because when I went into this project, I think, I had the stereotype that dreams are supposed to be pleasant. I don’t know, we talk about things being dreamy as a good thing. And Freud talked about dreams as wish fulfillment and showing us our repressed desires. I think, that was kind of just a cliche for a long time. And then in the 1940s, there were a couple of researchers who actually started applying content analysis to people’s dream reports. So they collected thousands of dreams and then they basically coded them, so they coded different interactions and they would label them as an instance of aggression or persecution or happiness. They found that most dream content was actually negative, I think, up to about two-thirds in this set, which has been born out by other research and the most common emotions and dreams were things like anxiety, fear, helplessness. So, yeah. Dreams are actually pretty nightmarish.

Brett McKay: For the most part.

Alice Robb: For the most part which made me feel better about my own dream life.

Brett McKay: And this research where they code things and try to look at content specifically, are there things that people dream about the most, is it about relationships, is it about Scary situations, what they ate during the day, what are we typically dreaming about?

Alice Robb: Yeah. It’s different for different groups of people and it changes throughout the lifespan. So kids tend to have much simpler dreams. Very young kids will dream about just kind of basic sleeping and eating, and then you can actually kind of track with developmental landmarks how their dreams develop, so they’ll start incorporating a more human characters, they’ll start to take on a more active role and kind of be the protagonists of their own dreams around seven or eight or so, and then just continue to develop in complexity. But in terms of what people dream about studies from the ’40s found that…

And of course, yeah, there’s a lot of bizarreness and there are certain motifs that are common across cultures like flying and actually teeth falling out, that’s like a human universal dream. It’s a horrible one. Scientist things might be from these old memories we have of losing our teeth as children, but yeah. Relationships, a lot of survival-related activities, which kind of fits in with an evolutionary hypothesis that I can know about. But they also found that not a shocker, men tend to dream about sex more than women do. Men tended to also dream about other men more than women, tend to dream sort of evenly about both men and women may have changed since the 1940s, but yeah. A lot of fear and flight being chased by things these are all pretty common dream scenarios.

Brett McKay: It was interesting about two about dreams and the content of it, you’re going back to the idea you said about the kids, when they first start dreaming, it’s very like, I’m asleep, I’m eating Cheerios, but then eventually they have other characters popping up in their dreams and these other characters, they have their own agency. We understand that even though this is in my head, I don’t have control over these other characters inside of my head. They still have their agency and I have my agency.

Alice Robb: I think, that’s what’s so interesting about dreams and why they’re so powerful and why they do come up so much in religion, because yeah. It feels like you can be surprised in your dreams which is kind of a paradox, right? Because you’re the author, you’re making them… It’s like sometimes fiction writers talk about, “This character just showed me who they were,” But I was like, “Okay” But that is what’s happening in dreams. So they feel like they’re coming from outside of ourselves. Freud would say that every character and a dream represents a different aspect of yourself, which is something I think about what I’m trying to understand my own dreams, but there’s something very kind of playful about that.

Brett McKay: Can the content of your dreams influence how you experience real life or relationships the next day?

Alice Robb: Yeah, definitely. Dreams are so intense, the emotions are so real combined with this. We have this sense that even though we know we came up with them, we kind of feel like they’re coming from outside ourselves, and even when we forget them, we can be true, ’cause we do forget most. Most people forget most dreams, but we can be triggered during the day, also dreams can show us things that we’re trying not to think about, so maybe you do feel a certain way about our relationship and that person is being really mean to in your dreams and that makes you reflect on the relationship, but even if it’s totally you don’t see any reason for having a dream where you’ve cast someone you love as a perpetrator, that can absolutely still impact how you treat them the next day. There’s this study that found like couples were more likely to… Are you in real life, if they had had a dream about cheating on each other.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I’m sure a lot of people in place has had that experience where their spouse, they had a dream work where you did something wrong in the dream. I don’t know, whatever. You just could be anything. It can’t even be cheating and could have been like, I didn’t pick up the kids when I was supposed to and they get angry at you in the dream and then when they wake up the next day, they’re still angry at you and you’re like, “What did I do? I didn’t do anything? Why are you angry?” And he’s like, “Oh, I got mad at you in my dream and I’m still mad at you.” You’re like, “Okay.”

Alice Robb: Yeah, it’s hard. The feelings are real, you can’t just delete them.

Okay, so for millennia, humans have looked to dreams to find meaning about life big decisions. What role did dreams play in early human cultures?

Well, they were much more integrated with life, with daily life, so doctors would use dreams in diagnosis, people would use dreams to try to predict the future. There are Native American communities where dreams were really revered and communities would even act out their dreams together to prevent something from… That it happened in a dream from happening in real life. They were just taken more seriously until Maybe 100 years ago or so, 150 years ago.

Brett McKay: They even talked about some of the founding fathers. I think it was John Adams and Benjamin Rush. Rush was a doctor, so I’m sure this is why he did this, but they would write each other their dreams. They would have these correspondents. Like, “Here’s what I dreamed about? And I dreamed about this?” Yeah. It was something you did, you just talked about your dreams and even families in the 19th century in America, I probably sat around the fire and said, “Hey, I had this dream. Let’s talk about what it means.”

Alice Robb: Yeah. There were dreams and newspapers, there was… The late 19th century, there were newspapers in New York that would illustrate people’s dreams, or there’s a dreaming contest where people would write in with their best dreams. I think there was just a lot more outlets for people to talk about this thing that we’re all experiencing every day.

Brett McKay: And people would look at their dreams to figure out and they would actually use the dream to predict the future, or like, “I saw this as my dreams, this means this is gonna happen.” But then Freud came along. How did Freud influence how we think about dreams in the West?

Alice Robb: Well, Freud was kind of a double-edged sword for dreams, because on the one hand, he made dreams almost the center of psychoanalysis, the interpretation of dreams came out in 1900, very influential, he asked his patients about their dreams, but on the other hand, his theory was not totally right. We now know. So his theory of one of his… Of dreams was that dreams are usually wish fulfillment and they’re showing us things that we secretly desire but we can’t handle that we desire it. So we’ve suppressed it.

I think, he was right that there’s a lot of symbolism and dreams but he thought that most things and dreams were symbols for sex and I think that made people kind of embarrassed to talk about dreams. They came to seem a little dirty and I don’t think there’s not much basis for thinking that climbing a ladder is actually a sexual metaphor. The other part of the Freud picture is that Freud became so associated with dreams that when he kind of went out of style, he seems to be coming back, which is interesting, but when he went out of style, he was a big backlash for it in the ’70s and the ’80s dreams got a little bit swept under the rug, and there are therapies like CBT, which were more results-based and didn’t leave a lot of room for dreams. So I think dreams were a little bit neglected for a few decades post-Freud.

Brett McKay: Well was talking about this idea of what the dream research are finding out now. So Freud had this idea that dreams can mean something, like they’re symbolic, but do dreams have universal archetypical meanings? I’m sure everyone’s seeing those dream dictionaries, and we’re like, “Well, if I dreamt about teeth falling out, it means this, if I dreamed about a snake and means thi” Does that hold any water?

Alice Robb: Yeah. So dream dictionaries are very popular, and I understand why, because dreams can be so distressing that you’re like, Why did I dream about? Whatever, my teeth falling out, but unfortunately, I would not put a lot of stock in dream dictionaries because we all have such different associations, our dreams they’re inspired by our lives.

So, if I dream about a cat, I happen to hate cats, the cat is gonna represent something very different for me than it is for someone who loves cats, for example. But there are certain kind of archetypes and patterns that exist, particularly around trauma and grief and mourning. So there was one researcher who studied a bunch of people who were grieving the loss of a loved one and found that their dreams actually followed a trajectory, almost like the stages of grief that we talk about. So in the immediate aftermath of a loss, they would have really disturbing dreams that the person was alive again, there’s still kind of like a kind of denial, and grief is a time when even people who don’t remember a lot of dreams often say that they do. And then they might have as they kind of moved on in the grieving process, they might have dreams about the person saying goodbye or going on a journey, or they see them at the tarmac and they’re getting on a plane and then later on, maybe years later, they would report more pleasant dreams about just seeing the person and kind of hanging out or exchanging words of comfort.

Brett McKay: So it sounds like dreams, they can actually help with grieving, sadness, stress.

Alice Robb: Yeah, definitely, there was another study of people who were going through divorce that looked at their dreams right after the divorce and then a year later that actually found that people who were having more dreams about their ex right after the divorce were coping better a year later. So there’s definitely a lot of work, emotional work that we’re doing in our dreams, and actually with severe depression, there’s a really marked decrease in dream recall. So that might be kind of a chicken and egg thing where you’re not doing the work. You can’t do the work of emotional processing in your dreams and that contributes to the depression and the depression prevent dreaming, but yeah, and that can be a sign of a depression, lifting can be the return of dreams.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. So What do dream researchers think is the purpose of dreaming psychologically, why do we essentially live another life inside of our heads when we’re unconscious at night?

Alice Robb: There are a lot of theories. There’s this evolutionary hypothesis, which is that we’re practicing for stressful events in a low-stakes environment. So take something like the exam dream, which is another almost universal dream that you have a test, I still have this all the time and I graduated from college more than a decade ago. You’re going to an exam and you overslept, you forgot to take the test, et cetera. And the idea is that you do that and then you remember in real life, “Oh, I have to set an alarm for that project or this presentation or whatever.” And that also would kind of explain why in addition to these very modern anxiety dreams like exams, we also have these. Even people who live in cities have dreams about being chased by wild animals, things like that. But, yeah. In terms of emotional processing, I think dreams can be a kind of exposure therapy, where things that you aren’t quite ready to confront in real life, you can kind of start working through them in your dreams.

Brett McKay: There’s an idea too, that dreaming is a chance for our brains to be creative and even solve problems. What does the research say about problem solving in our dreams?

Alice Robb: Yeah, well, in your dreams you’re in this kind of looser state where you’re working with a much wider range of memories, so you’re bringing in your… It’s like the soup and you’ve got the sandwich you ate yesterday, but also your friend from middle school who you haven’t thought about in years. So it’s this time where we’re kind of letting ourselves go cognitively and coming up with… Yeah, just more unexpected connections and I think, this is partly why a lot of people find they are more creative right when they wake up. There are studies that showed that people give more surprising answers on word tests when they’re woken out of a REM stage, things like that. And of course, countless examples of writers and artists and musicians coming up with breakthroughs in their dreams.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think, was it Paul McCartney? It was a… Which song? Let it be? Or No, which one was it that he had the tune in a dream. No, it was yesterday. It was yesterday.

Alice Robb: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah, he heard the tune for yesterday, and he woke up and he had the tune, so he came up with just some random lyrics, it was something about scrambled eggs, and then he wrote the lyrics later.

Alice Robb: Yeah. And yeah, I read while I was working on the book I read like Graham Green has a published Dream dictionary, Noble Cove has a published dream dictionary. They’ve been such a part of… Yeah, of artist process.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think, Salvador Dali he did hypnotic or Hypno. It’s like where you…

Alice Robb: Yeah, like hypnagogic imagery.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Alice Robb: Which you… Those are the images right as you’re falling asleep. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed them. Where you’re just in between and you can… It’s on is a little bit like lucid dreaming and that you have a little bit of control, you’re kind of seeing stuff and you’re aware that you’re seeing it, but yeah. Those are kind of… On dreaming spectrum.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So he would hold a heavy key or something metal in his hands, and then whenever he fell asleep, you become limb, your body goes limp and he would drop it and make a noise and he’d wake up and whatever was in his head, he’s like, “Alright, I’m gonna paint melting-clocks now.”

Alice Robb: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Right?

Alice Robb: Yeah.

Brett McKay: In addition to being related to creativity and problem-solving, dreaming is also connected to just learning in general and language acquisition in particular. What’s the connection there?

Alice Robb: There was actually a study of students who were in a French Immersion program that found that they had… Not only did they have actually have to spend a greater proportion of the night in REM sleep while they were in the program, but also the students who started dreaming about French more made greater gains, and there was this study at Harvard in the 90s by a guy named Robert Stickgold, and he was inspired by an experience he had where he went mountain climbing with his family, and it was a really intense day, and then as he was falling asleep, noticed that He was replaying a really difficult moment. Right, kind of as he was falling asleep. And then so he devises the study where he got a bunch of students to sleep in the sleep lab and had them play Tetris during the day. So he got some people who had never played, some people who were experts. And then he would wake… Researcher would wake them up like at various points in the night and ask about their dreams and found that most of them were dreaming about Tetris and particularly the ones who were new to it. So they were working extra hard in their dreams to master this new skill, and then dreaming about Tetris would correlate to doing better at it, and it’s been replicated. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so what all this research is showing about dreams is that it does something to our brain, we can solve problems, it can help us process stress, help us process grieving, it can help us be more creative. And so what this research is suggesting is that we shouldn’t take our dreams for granted, we can actually use them to our benefit we are kind of going back to the role dreams played in humans lives 100, 200 years ago. So let’s talk about what some of the research says about how we can get more out of our dreams, and one thing that the research shows is that keeping a dream journal can be really beneficial, what are the benefits of keeping a dream journal?

Alice Robb: Yeah. It’s so easy, I think, to get more from your dreams because you are probably already having them, you’re just forgetting them. So it’s a little bit like you have this whole source of insight and knowledge and potential creative ideas and if we don’t keep a dream journal or do some practice to remember them, we’re just kind of throwing away this potential gift and it’s pretty easy for most people to remember more of their dreams, one of the biggest things is actually just this might just sound kind of woo-woo, but it’s true, but just believing that they are important and do have insight and kind of saying that to yourself as you fall asleep and reminding yourself of your intention to remember your dreams, if we have convinced you and… Yeah, a dream journal, I think is probably the most powerful tool. When I was working on the book, I kept a dream journal. It’s on my phone, but just in the Notes app, because I was thinking about dreams all day. I was remembering dreams four times a night. I would wake up every couple of hours, write them down and go back to sleep, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that as a way of life, but it was interesting it’s kind of proof of concept, but yeah, there are apps you can use…

Some people do voice notes, bone paper diary. I think the other big thing with a dream journal is to really make it a habit. So even if you don’t remember your dreams, just write that in the morning, just write no recall, just to kind of reinforce the habit and then also to do it literally first thing, because any kind of engagement with the physical world can just kind of eliminate those memories.

Brett McKay: And when you’re writing this stuff down, is it just stream of consciousness or like I dreamt that I was writing a unicycle while listening, it’s just, you don’t try to put a structure to it. You just kinda just whatever. Okay.

Alice Robb: And lots of me, if I’m doing it… Honestly, there are lots of gaps. I think this is one of the reasons that dreams are hard to recall, right? Its like they typically don’t come in narratives, their images and they’re disconnected, and sometimes people will try to impose a narrative on them, but… Yeah, you don’t have to do that, you can just leave question marks or let them kind of flow.

Brett McKay: What insights have you gotten about your life from keeping a dream journal?

Alice Robb: I’m kind of a believer that one dream doesn’t necessarily… I’m not gonna change my life based on a dream, but if I keep having a repetitive dream, that’s something to look at in my life, I think they’ve helped me realize things that I maybe didn’t want to realize, I definitely think that doing it increased my self-awareness.

Brett McKay: Yeah, were you able to notice a pattern with your dream journal, if you’re having really distressing dreams, were you able to correlate that with, you’re going through a stressful time in your life in awake world?

Alice Robb: Yeah, sometimes I think, sometimes if I was going through a truly stressful experience, I would take a break, like it could be too much to keep a dream journal during those periods, but other times they were kind of like… They can also be very funny. I think your dreams have a real sense of humor and they can make things seem a little lighter… I don’t know, I remember I was stressed about this book coming out and I had a dream about my agent and someone I knew in middle school chasing me down the street, and I don’t know, it’s just kind of allowed me to be like, Okay, this is ridiculous. It’s just a book. But yeah, I think they’re fun. Dreams.

Brett McKay: How can talking about your dreams with other people help you gain more understanding? ‘Cause that’s kind of, like you said, it’s kinda looked down upon ’cause people are like, “I don’t wanna hear your dream,” Also the problem with talking about your dreams, your dreams are so nonsensical there’s no narrative arc, so you’re just telling someone just like random stuff that’s happening in your head and like, Well, that’s not really interesting, but you’ve talked about… There’s actually groups of people getting to the other where they can just talk about their dreams.

Alice Robb: Yeah, so actually, I learned about what was a trend in the 80s of Dream groups and I learned about it from a therapist who I was interviewing in Manhattan, and I asked if I could come to one of his dream groups, which was kind of a cross-between group therapy and dream analysis, and he said that that would be not really fair to the participants, but he offered to arrange one for a group of my friends. And it’s basically a way to impose a real structure on a dream conversation. So what we did is I printed out a dream of mine, it didn’t make a lot of sense, I think, it involved Hillary Clinton doing a line dance, and we went through it almost like we were doing a passage analysis in English class. So first I read it, then people asked me questions to clarify the content of the dream, so if there was a car they would say, Is it red? And then in the next round, they asked people, everyone had to imagine that it was their own dreams, they would say, Okay. If I dreamed about a line dance, it would mean whatever, ’cause I used to line dance with my family, and then you kind of go through a series of stages like this, and it was really…

We ended up spending an hour and a half, six people just talking about one dream and we all enjoyed it and I am still in/lead a dream group like what, eight years later and we meet once a month and we take turns bringing in a dream. But it’s like where we’re saying people feel like they need to bring in a good dream, it has to have a narrative arc and it has to be a certain length. But it’s so not true, because sometimes people will bring in a dream that’s like four disconnected sentences and you still have just as much to talk about. But it’s sort of therapeutic and ends up kind of feeling like a book club, except that you didn’t have to read a book.

Brett McKay: And I imagine these other people, they bring their own experiences and they might say, Well, it means this or could mean this, and it might not, but it gives you something else to think about like, Well, maybe it could mean that. Yeah.

Alice Robb: Yeah, it brings up other associations for you, and I think that’s sort of how I look at my own dreams. I try not to be literal about it, but just like what feelings does this evoke? What does this remind me of? Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so maybe start a dream group with your family when your kids wake up, take them to school.

Alice Robb: That would be a natural one.

Brett McKay: Just talk about your dreams. Let’s talk about this about dreaming. Lucid dreaming. You talked about you went through a phase. I think you were in college you went to Peru.

Alice Robb: Yeah.

Brett McKay: This is a similar phase when I was in high school, where I found some weird website on the internet in the 90s about lucid dreaming. What’s lucid dreaming?

Alice Robb: So lucid dreams are dreams where you are aware that you’re in a dream and you might even have some level of control over what happens in the dream. So this happens a lot to kids, naturally, it’s a bit less common in adults unless they’re making an effort, but it’s super cool. And I got into it when I read… I wonder if this book was by the same person you found in the 90s, because Stephen Laberge has really done a ton of both academic and popular work on lucid dreaming and training people to lucid dream, but I came across this book when I was on an archeological dig in Peru in college, and I didn’t have a lot of other things to do. There was no internet. So I read this book and started doing these exercises and meditations and started having lucid dreams and yeah. Actually, that was the other origin story of the book, ’cause that was a big dream phase.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so when you’re in a lucid dream, you can tell yourself, “I’m dreaming, I wanna fly now, so I’m gonna fly.”

Alice Robb: Yeah. So there’s sort of different levels of lucidity, a lot of people actually experience lucidity when they’re in nightmares sometimes to get out of them. So you might be, let’s say you’re being chased by a monster and then you have kind of a flash of awareness and you’re like, “No, this monster doesn’t exist, I’m in a dream and you wake yourself up.” But if you’re in a lucid dream, if you use that moment to become lucid instead, you could say, “Oh okay, this monster isn’t real, and also now I’m gonna fly away and do whatever other fantasies I might have.” And I went on… When I was working on the book, I went on a whole two-week lucid dreaming retreat in Hawaii, where we did meditations every day and various exercises to induce lucid dreaming. But I would say the main thing before trying to get into lucid dreaming would just be to improve your regular dream recall, because it’s very easy to improve your dream recall, it takes a bit more effort to try to do lucid dreaming, which I think it might be why it tends to be high school kids who get into it, but although it is extremely cool. But if you increase your dream recall and get that to a really good point, often people will just have a lucid dream or two naturally.

Brett McKay: So what are some other things you can do besides doing a dream journal? What are some other things you can do to induce a lucid dream?

Alice Robb: Stephen Laberge, who I think I mentioned, he was the first person to prove the existence of lucid dreaming in the lab when he was a kind of hippy grad student at Stanford, has this method that he calls reality checks. So the idea is that throughout the day, it’s like… Say once an hour, you would do something to… You might poke your hand with your finger and if it doesn’t go through, then you know that you’re awake or you might jump up in the air and if you fall back down, that means you can’t fly you’re awake. But the idea is to really pay attention to your surroundings and not make assumptions that you’re awake or asleep, but actually ask yourself in a serious way. And the idea is if you do this regularly throughout the day, because we dream about what we do during the day, you’ll ask yourself the same question in your sleep and you might get a different answer.

Brett McKay: Right, you’ll notice your finger going through your hand and you’re like, “Oh, I’m dreaming.”

Alice Robb: Exactly.

Brett McKay: I’ve also seen that you marketed these devices where you… These goggles, you put on your head and they could tell if you’re in REM sleep and then like it flashes a red light.

Alice Robb: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And then you’re supposed to be able to see your red light in the dream, and it’s like, “Oh, I see the red light, I’m dreaming.” Is there anything to that?

Alice Robb: I gotta be honest, I would start with a notebook for a dream journal.

Brett McKay: Okay.

Alice Robb: I think they’ve been periodically, people will get excited about a new fancy goggle, but I would start with a dream journal.

Brett McKay: Have you benefited from lucid dreaming? Had you gone into a dream, and it’s like I wanna have a lucid dream, and I wanna intentionally explore X topic. Do you do that?

Alice Robb: I think, there absolutely are people who do that, there are people who… Masterful lucid dreamers who will really hack it, and athletes who practice their event in a lucid dream or explore really dark topic. I kind of resist the idea that they need to be useful. I’ve mostly just used lucid dreams to fly and I find it really joyful, but yeah. I think they’re fun.

Brett McKay: Okay. And also another technique, so you do the dream recall, do the reality checks. Another thing too, is you can wake yourself up Maybe before that last rem cycle, so this is probably gonna be about 4 o’clock, 3 o’clock in the morning, and then go back to sleep thinking, “Okay, I’m gonna have another rem cycle, I’m gonna intentionally have a lucid dream.” And that can help too, and that idea has helped me reframe, I’ve been getting up for some reason, I’ve been waking up at 4 o’clock every morning, for no reason, just like, wide awake and before I’d be like, “Oh, geez.” So frustrating, could have slept another two or three hours, now I’m like, “Well, this is a chance to maybe have a lucid dream, so I’m gonna try to go back to sleep and maybe have a lucid dream.”

Alice Robb: Yeah, I think that’s one of the things that I love about thinking about dreams and lucid dreams is that, yeah, it’s a way to kind of reframe those interruptions and they can be a new opportunity to either remember a dream or set an intention, but yeah. So as with regular dream recall, with lucid dreaming, the kind of desire and intention really matter, and so we tend to have our most intense REM cycles later in the night towards the morning, so that’s also gonna be the best time to try to have a lucid dream. And we’re talking about REM rebound earlier, so if you’ve been deprived of rem through an episode of depression, for example, or sleep deprivation, when you get back into it, you can have really intense rem and the same is actually true of taking a nap and also so if you do a quick sleep deprivation from 4:00 to 4:45 or something and then if you fall back to sleep, you’ll probably at the least have very intense dreams but that would also be a really good time to try to have a lucid dream.

Brett McKay: Well, Alice this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Alice Robb: Thanks. Well, you can Google me, Alice Robb and the book is called Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey and it should be available at all the normal online retailers. I also wrote a book that came out last year that’s probably slightly less relevant to The Art of Manliness podcast about, it was a memoir about growing up in the ballet world in New York, but that’s called Don’t think Dear on loving and leaving ballet.

Brett McKay: Okay, I’ve heard ballet can be really intense.

Alice Robb: It can. Yes.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Alright, well, Alice Robb Thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Alice Robb: Thank you so much for having me.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Alice Robb, she’s the author of the book, Why We dream it’s available on and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about her work at her website,, that’s Robb with two Bs. Also check out our show notes You’ll find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic.

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