Nighttime Dreams Give Clues to Post-Divorce Recovery

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Author describes depression studies in her new book.

No surprise: Many women going through divorce are depressed.

But, this is news: By studying the dreams of these depressed women, sleep research can predict who will recover, and who will need professional help to get their lives back on track.

So says Dr. Rosalind D. Cartwright, Professor Emeritus of Rush University Medical Center’s Graduate College of Neuroscience. In her recently published book, “The Twenty-four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives” (Oxford University Press, 2010), Dr. Cartwright cites a number of sophisticated tests her sleep lab performed over a period of 25 years. Grants from the National Institute of Mental Health supported these studies with Dr. Cartwright as the Principle Investigator.

Along with this subject of depression and divorce, Dr. Cartwright's book explores cases of insomnia, sleep apnea, and the bizarre disorders known as parasomnias.

As for divorce, Dr. Cartwright conducted three studies that involved 150 volunteers who, at the start, were identified as equally depressed on a psychiatric measure. “It was their dreams only that showed an initial difference that aided our predictions. We found that those who recovered from their depression had experienced much longer, more dramatic dreams, with complex plots, changes of scene, and many more characters.”

Importantly, and this is a theme in "The Twenty-four Mind," the dreams of the recovering women included images drawn from older memories mixed with current issues. "They appeared to be working out their negative feelings about the former spouse explicitly in the dream scenarios. The dreams of the nonrecovering women did not,” Dr. Cartwright stated.

“Those who rallied linked past and present in their dreams. They expressed strong feelings, and took actions appropriate to the dream situations they created. Their dreams seemed almost like a rehearsal for recovery. For example, they saw the husband in a bad light and walked away.”

In the chapter, Sleep and Dreams in Depression, the author writes “the women who bounced back accepted their need to move ahead, to leave the former spouse behind, and to initiate a change in their identities from married to that of effective single people. On the other hand, the dreams of those stuck in depression showed no such movement."

Dr. Cartwright explains further, "If a disturbing experience that occurs during awake times -- such as a divorce -- is reactivated in sleep, and then carried forward into REM (Rapid Eye Movement or dreaming sleep), it can be matched by similar feelings to earlier memories. When that happens, a network of older associations becomes stimulated and then displayed as a sequence of compound images. It’s those images that turn into dreams.

"This melding of new and old memories updates the picture we hold of 'who I am and what is good for me and what is not.' In this way, dreaming diffuses the emotional charge of the real life event and prepares the sleeper to wake ready to see things in a more positive light, to make a fresh start."

Dr. Cartwright said, months after the lab tests ended, when the divorced women were reevaluated, “we found that those who had experienced the more productive dreams were making better progress adjusting to their lives -- coping better at work, with their finances, with their children, and even dating.

"Dreams are a natural healer," Dr. Cartwright emphasized. "They work during sleep in the same way a good psychotherapist does, by relating the new to older patterns of problem solving that have gotten us through bad spots in the past.

"To my mind, 60 percent of all depressed persons do not need anti-depressants or psychotherapy. They need good sleep, for sleep heals both body and mind."

“The Twenty-four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives” is available at or through


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Elaine Soloway
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