On a good night, I get five hours. Like 60 million other Americans, I suffer from insomnia. But I have a peculiar kind of sleeplessness: most nights, it is nightmares that wake me. Some are petrifying--a spectral beast is about to kill me--and some are mere stress dreams: I turn in a story that is just a blank page. For years, I thought nothing could be done about my nightmares. After all, dreams are encased in the unconsciousness of sleep. Right?
Maybe not. Recently, researchers have begun to discover not only that we can learn to have fewer nightmares but also that we can change their content. Because the No. 1 complaint of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq is insomnia--and because so many veterans have nightmares about what they saw in combat--the Department of Defense (DOD) has poured millions of dollars into the study of dreams.
One project, at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, has a $4 million grant to study how veterans can have fewer--or at least less intense--nightmares. Other researchers have received funding from the National Institutes of Health to investigate why an estimated 6 million Americans have such awful nightmares that they have trouble working or sustaining relationships.
In short, we are now studying the science of the dreaming mind in a way unprecedented in psychology. The primitive Freudian theories--that dreams indicate unrequited sexual desires or poor mothering or hidden anxiety--have been discarded as sleep science has advanced.
One new theory is that dreams and nightmares aren't a secondary symptom of mental illness but rather a primary psychological problem. In other words, dreams themselves may cause mental illness, not the other way around. Or they may result from neurological misfirings that have nothing to do with psychology. Or both theories could be true. Partly driven by my sleeplessness, I set out to find researchers in dream science who could explain why nightmares occur and how, exactly, we can change them.
It turned out that the first person to help clarify these questions wasn't a scientist but an Army veteran. Ryan Stocker started having chronic nightmares after he got home from his second deployment. Sleep was so rare in Iraq that when it did come, it was a pleasantly blank interlude. But after Stocker got back to Pennsylvania, falling asleep became terrifying.
Some Iraq and Afghanistan veterans I met dreamed of gore and fear: body parts they'd cleaned from roadsides or the terror of climbing into a truck for a mission. For Stocker, the nightmares were mostly about being deployed a third time. In dreams, he would step off a plane and smell the hot, dry air and groan, "Man, I'm back again." The nightmares got so bad that he and a friend who had served with him slept in their living room on separate couches rather than in their bedrooms. "That felt safer," he told me.
After Stocker was discharged in September 2008, he finished an undergraduate degree in psychology at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. He wasn't sure what he wanted to do--he had thought of firefighting--but when he heard about a University of Pittsburgh study of veterans who had trouble sleeping, he applied for an internship.