Dissecting a Dream, Reality Catches up with Science Fiction
> 5/12/2006 2:29:22 PM

Dreamscapes have been represented in many shapes and forms over the years, but there has long been very little in the way of hard evidence on the processes behind dreaming. But MRI and PET scanning have changed the way that researchers study sleep and dream states. Utilizing these tools to examine blood flow and areas of activity in the brain, scientists are beginning to uncover all new ideas about how and why we dream.

A nice round up of dream science appears in this week's issue of U.S. News and World Report. The story, What Dreams Are Made Of, details the evolution of dream research and discusses the many ways that scientists think about dreaming.

A great number of thinkers have tried to explain dreams in different ways. Freud saw dreams as an expression of our repressed unconscious, often told to us in highly symbolic shows. For Alfred Adler, dreams reflected the goals we have and the problems we face in reaching them--they allow to continue working out problems we encounter while awake. Therefore, by analyzing our dreams we can begin to see solutions that we may have already worked through. More recently, scientists have postulated that dreams are merely a working through of those things that have transpired during the day.

As the US News story details, when researchers began to understand REM sleep, their thinking changed again.

Harvard psychiatrists Hobson and Robert McCarley reported that during sleep, electrical activity picked up dramatically in the most primitive area of the brain--the pons--which, by simply stimulating other parts of the brain, produced weird and disconnected narratives. Much like people looking for meaning in an inkblot, they concluded, dreams are the brain's vain attempt to impose coherence where there is none.

With information from MRI and PET scans researchers have begun to piece together a picture of the dreaming brain. Certain areas, like the emotion and visual input centers, remain active. Other areas, like the prefontal cortex, shut down entirely. This critical region is responsible for organization and caution, and its dormancy, researchers have postulated, may account for the disjointed- and seeming senseless-ness of some of our dreams. The activity has also led most researchers to eschew the postulations of Hobson and McCarley for a more traditional understanding of dreams as "sleep thinking."

There is a great deal to unpack in this article, and it is certainly worth a read if one has the time. Maybe most interesting however, in the magazine's sleep coverage are the stories of great discoveries from dream history. Paul McCartney, Mary Shelley, Jack Nicklaus and Saddam Hussein all made improbable discoveries while dreaming. This website has a list of some others.

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