Sleep deprivation is no longer news, it’s the norm. Thanks to our increasingly busy lives, never-off technology and other lifestyle habits, we’re spending more time in bed but not necessarily using it to sleep.
And while we’re well aware of the impact it’s having on our health, there’s another side effect of lack of sleep no-one is talking about. We’re also dreaming less.
The silent epidemic is becoming so concerning, some experts are claiming we’re living in a ‘dream dystopia’.
In his paper Dreamless: The Silent Epidemic of REM Sleep Loss published in the Annals of The New York Academy of Sciences in August, University of Arizona psychologist Rubin Naiman argues that "we are at least as dream-deprived as we are sleep-deprived" and not only is it kind of sad, it's reaching levels of a "public health crises".
"REM/dream loss is an unrecognized public health hazard that silently wreaks havoc with our lives, contributing to illness, depression, and an erosion of consciousness," he says.
Dreams are images, ideas, emotions or sensations that occur involuntarily while we sleep. A person has on average three to six dreams per night, but around 95 per cent of dreams are forgotten by the time they get out of bed. You'll know yourself that often they don't make any sense while other times their meaning can be perfectly clear.
When it comes to dreams and science, there is much disagreement. As Medical News Today puts it, "There is no cognitive state that has been as extensively studied and yet as misunderstood as much as dreaming".
Listen: Robin Bailey and Bec Sparrow talk about why you need more sleep and how to get it. Post continues after audio.
Here's what we do know. Most dreams occur during the rapid-eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. This is the restorative part of our sleep cycle and it's during this time that our brain processes new information and stores it into our memory banks. It's also the stage of sleep most of us aren't reaching thanks to our disruptive sleep habits.
Naiman argues alarm clocks are a big dream killer. "Imagine being abruptly ushered out of a movie theatre whenever a film was nearing its conclusion," he says. Alcohol, drugs, the lights from our phones, tablets, TVs and computer screens and even city lights also act as disruptors to our REM sleep. Naiman also points out that sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea have also significantly increased in recent years.
So why does it even matter? Dreams don't just made great dinner party stories - they serve a purpose too. They are our personal experience of our brain processing that information. They help consolidate learning, develop long-term memories and can give us insight into things that are troubling us in our waking life.
Given a lack of sleep causes a lack of dreams - if you're only sleeping for a short time then deeper non-REM sleep will be prioritised - Naiman argues that all the heath concerns that come off the back of that are also likely linked to dream loss. If we just look at the physical effects of REM sleep loss, there have been links to increased inflammatory responses, increased risk for obesity and memory problems. Those that suffer from the sleep disorder sleep apnea are also at increased risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression. It seems a high price to pay.
We're also developing a "dismissive attitude about the value and meaning of dreams". Arguably because most of the time we don't even know (or remember) we were dreaming, we don't really consider it important if we do or don't. There's too much Netflix or Facebook scrolling or lamenting about why we're not sleeping to do anyway.
But Naiman believes we should be worried about our lack of dreams and rethink our 'wake-centric' perspective - that what happens during our conscious state is the only perspective with value.
"Our devaluation of REM/dreaming underpins our denial of its loss... yet it is a deconstructive force that challenges our consensual view of reality... Dream eyes transcend waking egoic perspectives, opening us to greater social and spiritual consciousness and revealing a numinous world behind the world," he writes.
Slowly, slowly, priorities are changing as we're realising just how detrimental sleep loss is to our health. Many of us are putting more value in our sleep, seeking hacks or new habits that will bring slumber easier like avoiding coffee past lunch or leaving our phone in another room. If it's a sleep disorder keeping you up, seeking treatment. As we know, the better and more quality sleep you're getting, the more efficient and restorative your REM sleep will be and the more likely you'll dream.
They might not hold the answers to all your waking problems, but they're valuable in their own right.