The other night, I woke up in a cold sweat. I had a strange dream where my dad drove me and the rest of my family off a bridge and into the river below (The Delaware, to be more specific). My first move upon waking up was to text my friend Fran. She’s always felt particularly drawn towards things like this – horoscopes, psychics, dream interpretation, etc. She told me something about being afraid of ‘drowning’ in my responsibilities and while she really wasn’t far off, it felt like a very general answer. Who isn’t afraid of their responsibilities in some sense? So I began to wonder if there was any scientific explanation for why we dream what we do.
My first article dealt with many different ways scientists have thought about dreams. It first detailed a study which was performed in order to pinpoint when dreams were happening, as it was theorized it was during REM sleep. REM stands for “rapid eye movement”, as the eyes of the sleeping person move back and forth during this part of the sleep cycle. Additionally, brain waves function similarly as if the person was awake. The study measured volunteer’s eye movements, brain waves, and other biological functions as they slept. Then, the researchers would wake the volunteer as they began to enter REM sleep. 80% of the volunteers said they were dreaming upon being awoken.
Two scientists, Dr. Crick and Dr. Mitchison, deny that these brain waves actually mean anything. They theorized that dreams are just meaningless brain connections happening as someone’s brain rests at the end of the day, a sort of software check that the brain does, if you will. Researchers who have continued this line of thought have also explored the idea that the strange content of dreams isn’t due to anything psychological in nature, but is due to the random nature of the brain’s activity. This article came to nothing conclusive and did not point to any significant studies besides the one that proved when dreams happened, so I continued my search elsewhere.
The second article, published in Scientific American, provided more up to date information on dreams. It discusses how technological advancement which has lead to new and better dream related theories. The two theories discussed are: “activation-synthesis hypothesis” and the “threat simulation theory”. The former argues that dreams have no intrinsic meaning. It is random brain activity that we experience by the brain taking random life experiences and relaying them as images or scenes. The idea that dreams are a story is also constructed by us, according to the hypothesis. We want to make sense of these images, so we try to make them into a narrative. The “threat simulation theory” suggests that dreams put us in situations that would prepare us for them in real life, as a sort of evolutionary tool to prepare us for threats.
However it wasn’t until recently that any concrete evidence was behind any theory related to dreams. But the article continues by saying that a study performed by the University of Rome as reported by the Journal of Neuroscience found some kind of evidence. 65 students were left to sleep in this study and woken at various intervals and asked to record in a diary whether or not they had a dream, and what it was about. The conclusion of this study corroborated the one from my first article, in that it found that waking the student up during REM sleep lead to the most dream-related recollection. However it also found that students who experienced the most low frequency activity in their frontal lobes also remembered their dreams, and as the frontal lobe is connected to the construction and retrieval of memories, it suggests that it’s quite possible that memory is connected to our dreams.
One study cannot prove this, however. So the same team of researchers then went on to look into intensely emotional dreams. Using an MRI machine, they found that the amygdala (connected to emotion and memory) and the hippocampus (connected to memory) were activated during these dreams. This is promising in suggesting that our dreams do in fact have something to do with our life experiences and may actually be connected to them in some sense. Once again, two studies don’t necessarily prove anything, but scientists seem to be getting a bit closer to answering this age old question. I think it is only in time that we will fully be able to conclude anything about dreams and our subconscious.