The Science of Nightmares

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November 27, 2009

An article in a recent issue of the New Yorker looks at nightmares and the idea of treating them like you would treat a sleep disorder. Nightmares are dreams with vivid and disturbing content. They are common in children during REM sleep, and they usually involve an immediate awakening and good recall of the dream content. The article profiles Barry Krakow, a doctor at the Maimonides Sleep Arts & Sciences Center in Albuquerque, N.M., and his method of treating nightmares using what is called "imagery rehearsal therapy." The therapy involves recalling an unpleasant dream and replacing the disturbing elements with pleasant ones. Patients are then asked to spend between five and 20 minutes a day focusing on their revised dream. In a study Krakow conducted, a significant number of patients who underwent the therapy had fewer nightmares than patients who didn't undergo imagery rehearsal therapy. According to the article, some therapists criticize the treatment because it doesn't seek to treat the root of the problem — a disorder that could be causing the nightmares.