[Paleopsych] Newsweek: What Dreams Are Made of

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What Dreams Are Made Of
Newsweek, 4.8.9

New technology is helping brain scientists unravel the mysteries of the
night. Their work could show us all how to make the most of our time in

By Barbara Kantrowitz and Karen Springen

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5569228/site/newsweek/print/1/displaymode/1098/Newsweek et seq.

In the middle of the night, we are all Fellini-the
creator of a parade of fleeting images intended for an audience of one.
At times, it's an action flick, with a chase scene that seems endless
... until it dissolves and we're falling, falling, falling into ... is
it a field of flowers? And who is the gardener waving at us over there?
Could it be our old high-school English teacher? No, it's Jon Stewart.
He wants us to sit on the couch right next to him. Are those TV cameras?
And what happened to our clothes? In the morning, when the alarm rudely
arouses us, we might remember none of this-or maybe only a fraction,
perhaps the feeling of lying naked in a bed of daisies or an
inexplicable urge to watch "The Daily Show."
This, then, is the essence of dreaming-reality and unreality in a
nonsensical, often mundane but sometimes bizarre mix. Dreams have
captivated thinkers since ancient times, but their mystery is now closer
than ever to resolution, thanks to new technology that allows scientists
to watch the sleeping brain at work. Although there are still many more
questions than answers, researchers are now able to see how different
parts of the brain work at night, and they're figuring out how that
division of labor influences our dreams. In one sense, it's the closest
we've come to recording the soul. "If you're going to understand human
behavior," says Rosalind Cartwright, a chairman of psychology at Rush
University Medical Center in Chicago, "here's a big piece of it.
Dreaming is our own storytelling time-to help us know who we are, where
we're going and how we're going to get there."
The long-range goal of dream research is a comprehensive explanation of
the connections between sleeping and waking, a multidimensional picture
of consciousness and thought 24 hours a day. In the meantime, dream
science is helping us understand and treat depression, posttraumatic
stress, anxiety and a whole range of other problems. Neuroscientists are
gleaning insights into how we learn by studying the physiology of
dreaming in adults and children. Psychologists are also studying dreams
to learn how both ordinary people and great artists resolve problems in
their life and work by "sleeping on it." For many of these researchers,
accounts of ordinary dreams are a rich resource. Psychologist G. William
Domhoff and his colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz,
have meticulously cataloged and posted more than 17,000 dreams. That
database (dreambank.net) is the source of the dreams printed here.

1. History Of Dream Research

I am with an older, "lecherous-looking" Freudian analyst who wants me to
lie on the couch and recall the moment of my birth while he counts 1, 2,
3. I pretend and then tell him the truth. Then he gets undressed and
wants to make love to me but just then Mother looks in by the door! And
I lie very still; she closes the door. I awaken. (Then I remember
wishing that I was still with my analyst.)
Thousands of years ago, dreams were seen as messages from the gods, and
in many cultures, they are still considered prophetic. In ancient
Greece, sick people slept at the temples of Asclepius, the god of
medicine, in order to receive dreams that would heal them. Modern dream
science really begins at the end of the 19th century with Sigmund Freud,
who theorized that dreams were the expression of unconscious desires
often stemming from childhood. He believed that exploring these hidden
emotions through analysis could help cure mental illness. The Freudian
model of psychoanalysis dominated until the 1970s, when new research
into the chemistry of the brain showed that emotional problems could
have biological or chemical roots, as well as environmental ones. In
other words, we weren't sick just because of something our mothers did
(or didn't do), but because of some imbalance that might be cured with
After Freud, the most important event in dream science was the discovery
in the early 1950s of a phase of sleep characterized by intense brain
activity and rapid eye movement (REM). People awakened in the midst of
REM sleep reported vivid dreams, which led researchers to conclude that
most dreaming took place during REM. Using the electroencephalograph
(EEG), researchers could see that brain activity during REM resembled
that of the waking brain. That told them that a lot more was going on at
night than anyone had suspected. But what, exactly?
Scientists still don't know for sure, although they have lots of
theories. On one side are scientists like Harvard's Allan Hobson, who
believes that dreams are essentially random. In the 1970s, Hobson and
his colleague Robert McCarley proposed what they called the
"activation-synthesis hypothesis," which describes how dreams are formed
by nerve signals sent out during REM sleep from a small area at the base
of the brain called the pons. These signals, the researchers said,
activate the images that we call dreams. That put a crimp in dream
research; if dreams were meaningless nocturnal firings, what was the
point of studying them? More recently, new theories have made some
scientists take dreams more seriously. In 1997, Mark Solms of the
University of Cape Town in South Africa published the results of his
study of people with damage to different parts of the brain; he found
that there was more than one mechanism in the brain for activating
dreams. Since then, Solms has argued that technology like functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET)
might actually lend new weight to Freud's ideas because the parts of the
brain that are most active during dreaming control emotion, the core of
Freud's dream theory. Today, many therapists have a looser view of
Freud, accepting that dreams may express unconscious thoughts, although
not necessarily childhood conflicts.
Many others think the answer ultimately lies in a reconciliation of the
different disciplines that study dreaming: neurobiology and psychology.
"Both are useful, but they're different," says Glen Gabbard, professor
of psychoanalysis and psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in
Houston. "To have a truly comprehensive understanding of dreams, you
have to be bilingual. You have to speak the language of the mind and the
language of the brain."

2. The Biology Of Dreaming

Doctors are on the roof talking to people, saying they shouldn't be up
there because it's dangerous. One doctor gives shots to immobilize the
brain, rather than fixing ailments. I say if I fall to fix me up but
leave my brain so I can dream.
Adult humans spend about a quarter of their sleep time in REM, much of
it dreaming. During that time, the body is essentially paralyzed but the
brain is buzzing. Scientists using PET and fMRI technology to watch the
dreaming brain have found that one of the most active areas during REM
is the limbic system, which controls our emotions. Much less active is
the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with logical thinking. That
could explain why dreams in REM sleep often lack a coherent story line.
(Some researchers have also found that people dream in non-REM sleep as
well, although those dreams generally are less vivid.) Another active
part of the brain in REM sleep is the anterior cingulate cortex, which
detects discrepancies. Eric Nofzinger, director of the Sleep
Neuroimaging Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center,
thinks that could be why people often figure out thorny problems in
their dreams. "It's as if the brain surveys the internal milieu and
tries to figure out what it should be doing, and whether our actions
conflict with who we are," he says.
These may seem like vital mental functions, but no one has yet been able
to say that REM sleep or dreaming is essential to life or even sanity.
MAO inhibitors, an older class of antidepressants, essentially block REM
sleep without any detectable effects, although people do get a "REM
rebound"-extra REM-if they stop the medication. That's also true of
selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac, which
reduce dreaming by a third to a half. Even permanently losing the
ability to dream doesn't have to be disabling. Israeli researcher Peretz
Lavie has been observing a patient named Yuval Chamtzani, who was
injured by a fragment of shrapnel that penetrated his brain when he was
19. As a result, he gets no REM sleep and doesn't remember any dreams.
But Lavie says that Chamtzani, now 55, "is probably the most normal
person I know and one of the most successful ones." (He's a lawyer, a
painter and the editor of a puzzle column in a popular Israeli
The mystery of REM sleep is that even though it may not be essential, it
is ubiquitous-at least in mammals and birds. But that doesn't mean all
mammals and birds dream (or if they do, they're certainly not talking
about it). Some researchers think REM may have evolved for physiological
reasons. "One thing that's unique about mammals and birds is that they
regulate body temperature," says neuroscientist Jerry Siegel, director
of UCLA's Center for Sleep Research. "There's no good evidence that any
coldblooded animal has REM sleep." REM sleep heats up the brain and
non-REM cools it off, Siegel says, and that could mean that the changing
sleep cycles allow the brain to repair itself. "It seems likely that REM
sleep is filling a basic physiological function and that dreams are a
kind of epiphenomenon," Siegel says-an extraneous byproduct, like foam
on beer.
But dreaming may also fulfill many functions that we don't yet
understand. Allan Rechtschaffen, a longtime sleep researcher and
professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, compares dreaming to
breathing. "We need to breathe to get oxygen," he says. "That's a
physiological must. That's why the breathing apparatus evolved. But once
it evolved, you can put it to other uses, like for speech or laughing or
playing the saxophone." Perhaps dreaming, too, adapted to other uses.
"There's no reason dreams have to be any one thing," he says. "Is our
waking consciousness any one thing?"

3. Different Dreamers: Age And Gender

All night long, Jared is drunk and talking in his incoherent mumbly
monotone. Finally, I have enough and tell him off. I call him a boring
bastard. Then I notice a baby girl standing inside a flaming fireplace.
I go up to her and say sympathetically, "You must be very hot and
uncomfortable." She agrees. I pick her up and I hold her, taking her
away from the fire.
We're born to be dreamers-although it apparently takes a while to get
all the equipment working. While parents-to-be fantasize about their
babies, fetuses probably aren't dreaming about Mom and Dad. "Almost the
entire state of being before we're born is REM sleep," says Mark
Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in
Minneapolis. "I can't imagine that there's a lot of conflict resolution
going on in utero." Young children get a lot of REM sleep as well, which
scientists think is probably stimulation for brain growth, not real
dreaming. Researchers believe children have to reach a certain level of
intellectual maturity, around the age of 8 or 9, before their dreams
resemble adults'.
Inge Strauch, a psychology professor at the University of Zurich, has
collected 550 dreams from a group of twenty-four 9- to 15-year-olds she
studied in her lab over a period of two years. She found that children
dreamed about animals more often than adults and were more likely to
report being victims than aggressors. They were also more likely to have
"fantastic" dreams, while adults' dreams tend to contain more elements
of reality. A typical fantastic dream from a 10-year-old Strauch studied
included a cat asking for directions to the "cat bathroom." Similarly,
an 11-year-old boy dreamed that a snake wanted to go up a ski lift.
Gender differences in dream content show up in studies of adults as
well. The biggest myth? That adult dreams are "full of sex," says
Domhoff, author of "The Scientific Study of Dreams." When they do have
dreams that include sex, they're often about someone they're not really
attracted to or some conflict, he says. "They are not often joyful
occasions." In fact, about two thirds of the characters in men's dreams
are men; gender is more evenly divided in women's dreams. These
differences appear to be true in many different cultures. Men's dreams
also involve more physical aggression than women's dreams; they're more
likely to be about chasing, punching, breaking, stealing or killing,
Domhoff says. A more typical expression of aggression in women's dreams
would be rejection or an insult ("That dress makes you look fat").
A favorite topic for women: weddings. But they're not always
happily-ever-after dreams. "Something always goes wrong," Domhoff says.
"It's the wrong dress, the wrong guy, the wrong church." In one recorded
on dreambank.net, a woman is about to get married and doesn't have
anything to wear. "I ended up wearing a genie outfit, genie pants, a
gauze orange top, slippers, a belt with bells on it, lots of jewelry and
my hair in a ponytail," she wrote. "I remember reassuring myself by
thinking it was close to Halloween."
Not surprisingly, new mothers frequently dream about their babies, says
Tore Nielsen, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of
Montreal, who has analyzed the content of 20,000 dreams collected over
the Web. In a separate study of 220 new mothers' dreams, he found that
"a lot of bad things happen to their infants-the cat eating them, or
they're suddenly lost, or they left them in the care of a relative who
left them in a shopping center."

4. How We Use Dreams

There is a man talking calmly on a pay phone. He is a gunman. He talks
casually as he blasts a machine gun up the stairs next to the pay phone,
killing people. When he is out of bullets, he casually alters his weapon
to use shotgun shells. He is poised, cold like steel, calm, and he
People who don't remember their dreams can learn to recall them. In
general, more introverted, psychologically oriented people naturally
remember their dreams. Practical, concrete thinkers probably won't. It
also helps to get enough sleep so you have time to dream. If you want to
remember more, try to keep the REM state going by lying still and
keeping your eyes closed while you repeat the dream scenario in your
head to solidify it in your memory. Cartwright even suggests giving it a
title, like "My Date With Brad Pitt." Keep a notebook by your bed and
write down what's in your head as soon as you wake up.
Why should you care what happens in your head at night? Although there's
lots of disagreement about the psychological function of dreams,
researchers in recent years have come up with some tantalizing theories.
One possibility is that dreaming helps the mind run tests of its
Emergency Broadcast System, a way to prepare for potential disaster. So,
for example, when new mothers dream about losing their babies, they may
actually be rehearsing what they would do or how they would react if
their worst fears were realized. There's also evidence that dreaming
helps certain kinds of learning. Some researchers have found that
dreaming about physical tasks, like a gymnast's floor routine, enhances
performance. Dreaming can also help people find solutions to elusive
problems. "Anything that is very visual may get extra help from dreams,"
says Deirdre Barrett, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and
editor of the journal Dreaming. In her book "The Committee of Sleep,"
she describes how artists like Jasper Johns and Salvador Dali found
inspiration in their dreams. In her own research on problem solving
through dreams, Barrett has found that even ordinary people can solve
simple problems in their lives (like how to fit old furniture into a new
apartment) if they focus on the dilemma before they fall asleep.
Whatever the function of dreams at night, they clearly can play a role
in therapy during the day. The University of Maryland's Clara Hill, who
has studied the use of dreams in therapy, says that dreams are a "back
door" into a patient's thinking. "Dreams reveal stuff about you that you
didn't know was there," she says. The therapists she trains to work with
patients' dreams are, in essence, heirs to Freud, using dream imagery to
uncover hidden emotions and feelings. Dreams provide clues to the nature
of more serious mental illness. Schizophrenics, for example, have
poor-quality dreams, usually about objects rather than people.
Cartwright has been studying depression in divorced men and women, and
she is finding that "good dreamers," people who have vivid dreams with
strong story lines, are less likely to remain depressed. She thinks that
dreaming helps diffuse strong emotions. "Dreaming is a mental-health
activity," she says.
People often deal with traumatic events through dreams. Tufts University
psychiatrist Ernest Hartmann, author of "Dreams and Nightmares,"
analyzed dreams from the same group of people before and after September
11 (none of them lived in New York). He found that the later dreams were
not necessarily more negative, but they were more intense. "The
intensity is a measure of emotional arousal," he says. For people
suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dream content can
be a marker of the level of distress, says psychiatrist Thomas Mellman
of the Howard University School of Medicine, who studies PTSD. Dreams
that mimic the real-life trauma indicate that the patient may be "stuck"
in the experience. He thinks one way to help people move past the memory
is through an "injury rehearsal," where they imagine a more positive
All this has led to a rethinking of Freud's great insight, that dreams
are a "royal road" to the unconscious. Mapping that royal road is a
daunting task for scientists who are using sophisticated imaging
techniques and psychological studies in an attempt to synthesize what we
know about the inner workings of the mind and the brain. Dreaming, like
thinking, is what makes us human-whether we're evoking old terrors or
imaging new pleasures. "We dream about unfinished business," says
Domhoff. And, if we're lucky, we wake up with a little more insight to
carry the day.

With Pat Wingert and Josh Ulick

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