Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

I Have a Dream

August 28, 1963, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr delivered his legendary “I have a dream” speech at the “March on Washington.” This past Monday we celebrated MLK Day, today was the presidential inauguration, and tomorrow there is another “March on Washington.”

MLK’s dream of a better future, his dream of a society characterized by diversity and dignity, and his sense of urgency about healing the world feel as relevant today as ever. His iconic words make me wonder: What does it mean to dream? 

1. Sweet dreams are made of these. Most agree that all perceptions, thoughts, and emotions experienced while sleeping are part of what we call dreams. Dreams happen at least five or six times per night – most intensively during the active stage of sleep called REM sleep (short for Rapid EyeMovements). And if you are getting around the recommended amount of sleep (which many of us are not), the National Sleep Foundation estimates that these REM cycles add up to more than two hours of dreaming each night.

2. In your dreams! So what do our dreams tell us? For Freud, dreams provided an escape valve for hidden desires, while Jung maintained that dreams revealed unloved or unlovable aspects of one’s personality. Francis Crick (who discovered DNA) suggested that dreams act as an “unlearning” mechanism whereby random activation of cortical connections erase certain modes of neural activity. A contemporary of MLK, William C. Dement, MD, PhD pioneered the study of dreams in the sixties. In his sleep lab, he woke subjects throughout the night just as they showed signs of entering REM sleep – so people slept but they did not dream. Following dreamless sleep, people reported increased tension, anxiety, depressed mood, irritability, difficulty concentrating, increased appetite, and lack of motor coordination – observations that continue to be explored and supported by contemporary dream research.

3. Baby’s bad dreams. If you’re a parent, you’ve likely heard your child call out with fear in the grips of a nightmare. Night terrors, a more severe form of nightmares that happen in deep sleep (not REM sleep), affect somewhere between 1-14% of young children. Experts think that night terrors might be caused by the over-arousal of a child’s immature central nervous system during sleep. Most kids outgrow night terrors, though some move on to become sleep walkers as adults.

4. Dreams that aren’t so dreamy. A range of psychological triggers can make dreaming a nightmare – literally. The common mental disorders of anxiety and depression are associated with disturbances in sleep in general, and with disturbances in dreaming, specifically. And Post Traumatic Stress Disorder commonly causes severe and disturbing nightmares. It is not unusual for individuals who have suffered trauma to be woken from their sleep by hauntingly vivid perceptions, thoughts, and emotions woven together in the form of a nightmare.

5. Hold fast to your dreams. Not only do we need dreams when we sleep, we need dreams that inspire us in our wakeful hours as well. Baptist preacher turned civil rights giant, MLK somehow channeled his anger at the injustice of the world into a dream filled with optimism that the future could be better, even when the odds were stacked against him. This kind of optimism is a powerful psychological asset – predicting, for example, longer life, healthier heart, stronger immune function, and reduced pain.

MLK had a dream. We all need to dream – when we are asleep and when we are awake. I have dreams that give me purpose and some that test my character and optimism, but without them, I am sure life would be a nightmare. Now is the time for each of us to do our part to steward MLK’s dream of a better future. As he said himself, “the time is always right to do what is right.”

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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