Thursday, October 13, 2016

Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

Worth Psychology recently tweeted this link to a New York Magazine story, "5 of Humanity's Best Ideas of What Dreams Actually Are." Believe it or not, I learned a thing or two in the article:
The earliest recorded dream is from the Sumerian king Dumuzi of Uruk, who ruled just before Gilgamesh, sometime around 2500 BC. “An eagle seizes a lamb from the sheepfold,” a translation reads. “A falcon catches a sparrow on the reed fence … The cup lies on its side; Dumuzi lives no more. The sheepfold is given to the winds.” The king was freaked out about his dream, and occasioned the first recorded dream interpretation, care of his sister, who was evidently a professional at these things. Sister’s advice: Some bad shit is about to go down, so you’d do well to hide.
The article then goes through the 5 theories, offering some background and explanation for each. Unfortunately, they give a lot of attention to the Freudian/psychoanalytic perspective, that dreams are your brain trying to tell you something.
  • Dreams are pragmatic prophecies - This is not to say dreams are actual prophecies, but rather, that because we know our situation well and because human survival comes from our ability to think about and prepare for the future, we could have dreams about things that we expect to happen. Dreams in this theory are about preparation, so that we are ready to deal with situations in our wakeful life.
  • Dreams tell you what to do - Unfortunately, for this item on the list, they really just followed along with the previous item, even delving into actual prophetic elements (such as mentioning that Lincoln dreamed of a White House funeral days before his assassination). However, one story they share, about Descartes, gets at a different aspect of dreams - that of consolidating and synthesizing information, and using that to solve problems:
"In the 17th century, René Descartes, the great doubter, had his life course shifted by a series of dreams he had one November evening. In Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind, historian-psychiatrist George Makari reports that Descartes had a series of sleeping visions that prompted him to realize that 'spatial problems could become algebraic, which crystallized a vision of a natural world underwritten by mathematical laws,' thereby changing his life and eventually the popular, scientific conception of reality."
This realization was likely not a sudden insight, but an issue Descartes had spent a great deal of time thinking about. Because of the memory consolidation aspect of sleep, combined with dreaming about something that had been on his mind, Descartes was able to solve his mental puzzle.
  • Dreams are communications from the unconscious mind - The good old "Your dreams are trying to tell you something" hypothesis. I've blogged before about my thoughts on Freud and psychoanalysis, and why social psychological findings are a much better explanation for some of the things Freud and his ilk observed. And of course, I would argue that this "theory" differs very little from the first and second items on this list. (I would also argue that none of these first three items meet the definition of theory, hence the quote marks.)
  • Dreams are data - This one is not actually a theory at all, but rather a thinly veiled reason to share the Sleep and Dream Database, a crowdsourcing site that has catalogued 20,000 dreams (which, to be fair, is a cool idea, and a site I'll be visiting myself). Using these data, researchers have been able to examine psychological themes, and the results suggest that, because we are rarely alone in dreams and we tend to dream about people we are close to, we use dreams to explore the quality of our relationships with others. Honestly, that would have been a better bullet point for this list.
  • Dreams are your memories in action - And finally, the author mentions the memory consolidation and learning aspects of dreams. Of all these "theories," this is the only one for which they offer research support over anecdotes. The author hints at the neural network aspect of memory, and also shares findings from a study on learning that allowed some participants to nap afterward, resulting in enhanced learning. (In fact, many such studies have been performed.) But they also discuss a study on male zebra finches that also provides support for this theory. Birds aren't born knowing how to sing certain patterns, but instead learn them. Researchers at the University of Chicago found that male zebra finches showed the same patterns of neuron firing while sleeping as they were when they were singing, suggesting they may be practicing the songs in their dreams.
Personally, I ascribe to the last (and really only) theory on the list. But that's not to say that aspects of the other items on the list can't be true. In fact, as is the case with the Descartes anecdote, they can be easily combined with this theory. The human brain is an incredibly complex machine. Even with advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, we have not even begun to truly imitate the human brain's incredible pattern recognition ability or attention to context. This is arguably an evolved trait, because the best way to learn (something humans excel at compared to most other species) is to connect it to something already learned. This strengthens neural connections, and not only enhances our ability to learn the new thing, it changes our understanding of what we've learned previously. This can, of course, have some pesky effects when it comes to memory of events. But all in all, this ability is a good thing.

While we're awake, we think through things and examine patterns, but we also have to devote a lot of energy to being awake and interacting with the world, making decisions that takes up space in our limited working memory. Sleep is a time of rejuvenation, when our body replenishes, heals, and repairs. Our cognitive resources are free to work through problems, and our brain is consolidating memories, getting us closer to a synthesized solution. And because our problems range from intellectual (like Descartes's) to social and psychological, the content of our dreams can also range from thought problems to interpersonal issues.

Sweet dreams, everyone!

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