Written by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold


Review by Gunnel Minett

Everybody knows about dreaming. Even if we don’t think that we dream ourselves, we know that others dream. Some even argue that animals dream. In particular dog owners can describe how they can see that their pet is dreaming. The dog moves its body as if it were chasing something and may make noises to accompany the movements. Similar body movements can be seen in humans who are dreaming and this confirms that they are in fact dreaming.

Dreams are something we have been interested in throughout human history. Some cultures have paid more attention to dreams than others. Dreams have been used as tools which need to be understood, predicted and which can guide us, often in inexplicable and paranormal ways.

In this book, however, Antonio Zadra (professor of Sleep Medicine at the University of Montreal) and Robert Stickgold (professor and director of the Center for Sleep and Congition at Harvard Medical School) show us that there is much more to dreaming than these common ideas. They consider a whole list of questions which arise when we ask what dreams really are.

The most obvious are perhaps; Why do we dream? When do we dream? How often do we dream? Do all living creatures dream? What happens if we don’t dream? And then there is the other side to dreams; What do we dream about? Where do we get the content of our dreams? Why do we have nightmares? Is there a deeper meaning to dreams? Some people describe creative dreams which help them find solutions to problems. Other people go a step further and talk about telepathic and precognitive dreams. Are there such dreams a reality and, if so how can we explain them? And, of course, – is it possible to use dreams in a constructive way to improve our waking time? 

Many people, who are interested in dreams, tend to look for books or people who can help them interpret and explain their dreams. Dream interpretation books can be found in every bookstore. Many newspapers and magazines produce ‘dream dictionaries’ aimed at helping people understand their dreams. 

Anyone looking for a book of that kind will not find it in this book. Although the purpose of the book is to help us understand dreams, the approach is more to raise questions and to explain how many of these questions remain unanswered. A ‘science of dreaming’ comparable to, say, the science of cellular biology, may still be a long way away. But the science of dreaming has come a long way in recent years, thanks, among other factors, to improved technology and dream labs which have made it easier to study dreams. In the book the authors go through, in as much details as is currently is available, the how and the why about dreaming. 

They confirm that we all dream, all night in fact. We may not remember any or maybe just one or two of our dreams but judging by the changes in brain waves associated with dreaming, we all dream a lot more than we remember. To arrive at this conclusion, science has combined the results from technological innovations with the subjective accounts of people in dream labs. The book explains in details how dreams can be studied. This includes looking at the difficulties involved in studying something which ultimately can only be described in subjective accounts. However, dream studies can still be conducted in a scientific way. 

An example is the authors’ NEXTUP model of how and why we dream. NEXTUP stands for Network EXploration To Understand Possibilities. This was first developed by Stickgold and improved with the help of Zadra. The NEXTUP enables us to better understanding why we dream and why dreams seem to have an important role to play in our mental and physiological wellbeing.

The book finishes with some really thought-provoking comments about the future. At the moment we are confident that our dreams are in our own private world as long as we don’t tell others about them. But what if science will be able to record our nightly dreams in the future. There is a growing interest in using technology to somehow control, record or alter our dreams, to make them either more interesting and pleasant or useful tools to enhance our mental capability. If we pursue this search for ways to access our dreams we will be faced with even more questions to answer regarding our dreams. Who will get access to my dreams? Will my family be able to read my dreams? Will authorities demand that they have access and control over my dreams? Will we be able to trust tech companies or the internet if their search engines will start supplying answers, not to our search words but to the dreams we had last night.

In summary, although this book is full of details of what science has been able to conclude regarding the how and why we dream, it also leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. Not in a bad way, but rather in an intriguing and thought-provoking way that most likely will leave the reader reflecting more about dreams in general but also about their personal dream life. 

W.W. Norton & Company 2021, 336 PP, £17.09 hardcover, ISBN 978-1324002833