Thursday, 30 October 2014

Theories on the function & meaning of dreaming

Research undertaken by Dr Mark Stokes, cognitive neuroscientist at the Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity has provided support for the theory that dreaming is a necessary function for organisation and making sense of our memories. Dreaming may be a key tool in memory consolidation which influences our future behaviour - a form of overnight therapy. This view is also shared by Dr Robert Stickgold, director of sleep and cognition at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre and associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

Stickgold states that when we dream we tend to do so in colour, with our dreams involving complex stories and strong emotions. Visual imagery predominates over auditory and somatosensory sensations, but there is still no consensus over how dream material is chosen, although we are getting closer to 'decoding' dreams. Japanese researchers have been able to use MRI scans to monitor the brain activity in the visual cortex of dreamers. Based on the dream reports of the participants, the researchers created imagery. It was discovered that the participants displayed similar patterns of brain activity when shown the visual images derived from their dream reports as when they were actually dreaming. This suggests that we can use non-invasive brain imaging methods to infer or decode what happens in the dream state and these new studies explain why dreams seem so real. Stokes says that dreaming activates the same types of brain systems associated with waking experiences, so although there is no visual input into dreams, it feels like you are actually experiencing the visual content of the dream. The patterns of brain activity observed in dreamers may be the mind at work, taking information from the memory, processing and making sense of it. 

Stokes claims that dreaming is a way of making new associations and connections, and formulating new ways of perceiving things, which are stored somewhere in a usable form, even if we do not remember our dreams. This is why dreams appear to be symbolic rather than literal in content. Allan Hobson refers to 'incomplete arrangements' - things which we invest a large amount of mental energy on, but have not reached closure on in our minds. This may explain why our dreams - on average - tend to be more negative than positive and often become more disjointed and unclear as they progress. Stickgold suggests that the dominant emotion is often anxiety as opposed to fear and that the negative content or tone of dreams may stem from the evolutionary nature of dreaming - in our dreams we are forced to confront that which threatens us, because it is biologically and mentally more important than dreaming about something positive, harmless or enjoyable. 

Theories as to why we accept the fantastical altered reality of our dreams are often derived from the work of Freud, who claimed that dreams play out a healing or emotional process, helping us resolve personal issues and conflicts. In order for this experience to be successful and 'real', the dreamer must believe in their dreams and in order for us to trust the dream narrative, the subconscious suppresses critical thinking and doubt. The dreamer is unable to employ logic to question to reality of the dream narrative. We dream in symbols (the 'language of dreams') and our dreams offer us a form of therapy or 'wish fulfilment' which requires belief in order for the healing or learning function to be successful. 

Dreams often include an essential narrative about unresolved issues in the life of the dreamer. Recurrent dreams may indicate that the dreamer has ignored an important message which will be repeated until it is understood and processed by the dreamer. Many anxiety-based dreams will repeat tasks which are incomplete in the dreamer's waking life - such as unresolved relationships or conflicts. These forms of recurrent dreams may repeat until the dreamer confronts and concludes the issue in their waking life, Sometimes, the recurrent anxiety-based dream may continue, even after the dreamer has addressed the issue in their waking life. Dream researchers suggest that recurrent dreams of this nature occur because the dreamer needs to process what is known as 'daily residue'. Although it may be tempting to treat 'daily residue' dreams as unimportant because they are less exciting or stimulating than other forms of dream, they are in fact very useful for the dreamer as they act as a tool for decompressing from daily events or clarifying necessary future behaviour or actions. Through our dreams we are able to rehearse or practice for future events.

In fact, new research conducted by researchers at Sorbonne University and Hopital Pitie-Salpetriere in Paris, France - Isabelle Arnulf et al, 'Will students pass a competitive exam that they failed in their dreams' (2014) Consciousness and Cognition 29, 36 - 47 - suggest that dreaming about failure and anxiety-provoking scenarios may have a positive effect on us. The researchers surveyed 719 medical school applicants on their dreams on the night preceding their entrance exam. It was discovered that 60.4% of students dreamed about the exam and the majority of these dreams were negative. 78% of dreamers dreamt that they were late for the exam or forgot the answers. After the results of the entrance exam were received, the researchers compared the outcome of the dream questionnaire to student performance and found that dreams about the exam on the night prior to taking it were linked to higher performance in the actual exam. Further, multiple dreams about the same exam were correlated with proportionally higher scores. This suggested to the researchers that negative anticipation of a stress-inducing event  is common, but this episodic stimulation leads to cognitive gain. Dr Dennis Rosen suggests that there is a certain logic to dreaming about failure, because the more anxiety you experience about a certain event, the more chance their is that you will prepare yourself to confront or tackle it. 

Arnulf has conducted other intriguing studies into the function of dreaming. In 2009, she published a study, 'Dreamlike mentations during sleepwalking and sleep terrors in adults' (2009) Sleep, which suggested that sleepwalkers may be acting out parts of a bad dream or nightmare. This finding was a surprise because it had previously been thought that dreams could not occur during sleepwalking or night terrors. In 2011, Arnulf et al found that dreams could contain vivid experiences of events the dreamer is unable to experience in waking-life. In 'Walking dreams in congenital and acquired paraplegia' (2011) Conscious Cognition 20(4), 1425 - 1432, the authors suggested that subjects who were born with a paraplegic condition experienced dreams where they could walk, run, dance or play sports. Arnulf explained that 'mirror neurons' which are activated when you watch someone perform an activity may be reactivated during sleep. In a separate study, Arnulf et al, 'Evidence for the re-enactment of a recently learned behaviour during sleepwalking' (2011) PLoS One 6(3), it was discovered that we often re-enact new skills or actions that we have learned during the day in our dreams. This may be so that we can practice and consolidate our learning or apply it to new situations which may confront us in the future.

Dreams help cognitive processes and problem-solving, by giving the dreamer free reign to confront a range of scenarios which may not be available or safe in waking life. The dreamer's mind is able to examine all possible scenarios and everyday barriers are removed so that new ideas and responses can emerge freely. Dreams encourage us to feel and embrace emotions which we may not be able to do in our everyday experiences, because our rationality gets in the way, or to consciously acknowledge them in waking life might be harmful to us. 

Hobson challenges the notion that dreams have a symbolic meaning for the dreamer, instead arguing that dreams are no more than makeshift stories which stem from brain activity - the dreamer attempts to make sense of a collection of random images by putting them into a narrative form, which explains why the results can be nonsensical, illogical or bizarre. Because areas of the brain that sustain working memory are inhibited during the dreaming process, logical reasoning is compromised and the dreamer will accept the dream scenario and shifts in time and space as real. This is a common view of some neuroscientists, who claim that dreams are nothing more than a mish-mash of  the brain's 'machine-code' which we shouldn't try to comprehend; However, these ideas ignore several decades of scientific research which has identified many strong patterns in dream content and providing a relatively clear view as to the meaningful aspects of dreaming. It is therefore intellectually ignorant to suggest that there is no persuasive scientific evidence about the nature of dream content.

For example, David Foulkes identified that, while dreams may be strange and wonderful, they often involve realistic portrayals of familiar people, places and activities, all of which may be quite mundane in nature. Additionally, dreams may often involve honest, accurate reflections of the dreamer's thoughts, waking responses and emotional concerns, with the things we care about most (or spend most time thinking or worrying about) in our everyday lives occurring more frequently in our dreams. This idea is supported by G William Domhoff's 'continuity hypothesis'. Also, the repetitive, graphic content of nightmares experienced by sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often change throughout the course of the healing process, evolving into more ordinary nightmares with a diffuse range of dream imagery. 

In Trauma and Dreams (1996), Deirdre Barrett suggest that this is because  as time passes and PTSD symptoms improve, the dream content begins to make the trauma more symbolic and interweaves it with concerns from the dreamer's everyday life. It is not only sufferers of PTSD who experience recurrent nightmares - in fact these experiences may present excellent opportunities for self-reflection and growth, whether or not they have been inspired by trauma or an event in the dreamer's waking life. Indeed, there are ways of using recurrent, disempowering dreams for the health and well-being of the dreamer - enabling them to confront their fear, heal emotional wounds and gain lucidity. 

Therefore, it is safe to say that contemporary dream research has shown that dreams are creatively structured from a network of emotional and cognitive processes which also operate during periods of waking consciousness and have meaningful and evolutionary connections to our health and development. To suggest that there is no meaning behind dreaming demonstrates an abject failure to engage with a rich abundance of empirical and anecdotal evidence gathered during half a century of scientific and psychological dream research.

Foulkes, who dedicated much of his career to the study of childhood dreaming, suggests that dreams represent active stories in which the dreamer is the main actor, with 'true dreaming' of this type first occurring between the ages of 7 - 9 years. He suggested that this relatively late onset of 'true dreaming' coincides with an equally late development of the child's waking self-reflective awareness - i.e. consciousness. Child development psychologist, Jean Piaget describes how a child's acceptance of dreams as completely real gradually fades from total belief in the dream to a realisation that the dream is nothing more than a story inside their mind. It may be that we start life believing that our dreams are real because we are born dreaming. Newborn babies spend approximately 8 hours a day in REM sleep, the state considered most favourable for ordinary dreaming. This means that the dream state is our first seemingly 'real' and natural experience of the world, before we learn to make sense of the waking world around us.

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