For years I’ve been fascinated by our nighttime dreams and have researched the topic enough to know that, essentially, nobody knows much about what we dream or why we dream it. Still some theories ~ most of them stemming from psychological research ~ are more widely accepted than others.
Now, somebody’s really rocking the boat. Harvard psychiatrist and sleep researcher J. Allan Hobson contends the main function of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep ~ which is when dreaming usually occurs ~ is the brain warming its circuits in anticipation the sights and sounds of the coming day.
“It helps explain a lot of things, like why people forget so many dreams,” Hobson told the New York Times. “It’s like jogging ~ the body doesn’t remember every step, but it knows it has exercised. It has been tuned up. It’s the same idea here: dreams are tuning the mind for conscious awareness.”
According to the Times article:
These novel ideas about dreaming are based partly on basic findings about REM sleep. In evolutionary terms, REM appears to be a recent development; it is detectable in humans and other warm-blooded mammals and birds. And studies suggest that REM makes its appearance very early in life — in the third trimester for humans, well before a developing child has experience or imagery to fill out a dream.But people can read almost anything into the dreams that they remember, and they do exactly that, according to the Times. In a recent study of more than 1,000 people, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Harvard found strong biases in the interpretations of dreams. For instance, the participants tended to attach more significance to a negative dream if it was about someone they disliked, and more to a positive dream if it was about a friend.
Scientists have found evidence that REM activity helps the brain build neural connections, particularly in its visual areas. The developing fetus may be “seeing” something, in terms of brain activity, long before the eyes ever open — the developing brain drawing on innate, biological models of space and time, like an internal virtual-reality machine.
Full-on dreams, in the usual sense of the word, come much later. Their content, in this view, is a kind of crude test run for what the coming day may hold.
None of this is to say that dreams are devoid of meaning. Anyone who can remember a vivid dream knows that at times the strange nighttime scenes reflect real hopes and anxieties: the young teacher who finds himself naked at the lectern; the new mother in front of an empty crib, frantic in her imagined loss.
In fact, research suggests that only about 20 percent of dreams contain people or places that the dreamer has encountered. Most images appear to be unique to a single dream.
Click here for the complete New York Times article.