Tag Archives: dreaming brain

Your Brain on Dreams

Deficient, or just plain different?

Throughout history, dreams have alternately been hailed as messages from the gods and dismissed as random hallucinations. But rather than place dreaming on a mystical pedestal, or look at dreaming as a deficient form of consciousness, let’s instead look at dreaming as an alternative form of consciousness and a different way of thinking.

Your brain on dreams

Sure, equating dreams with thinking might seem at first to make dreams less interesting or less meaningful. But I believe that understanding the brain basis for dreaming makes them all the more intriguing and significant.

After all, knowing the science of how the heart works, and the biochemistry of oxytocin which is released when we embrace another person, or even when we pet a dog or cat, doesn’t make love any less desirable, mysterious, or spiritually significant, does it?

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Likewise, understanding a bit about the brain science of dreaming will deepen your connection to your dreams.

The logic behind those illogical dreams

For example, ever wonder why dreams seem to operate in their own world of crazy logic? Well that’s because at least two important regions, the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the precuneus, are de-activated during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the period when most dreaming takes place. This makes it difficult to fully exercise short-term memory when we dream, both within the dream and upon awakening. Thus you might dream your college professor is dancing with your deceased mother, even though the two of them never met in waking life. This also helps to explain why it’s difficult to recall dreams on waking. Making decisions or directing our will is likewise difficult while dreaming because of these changes in brain activity during sleep.

The dreaming brain is highly active and operating with a different chemical makeup that gives it a distinct array of abilities as compared with the waking mind. But a lot remains the same, too. Thoughts, attitudes, memories, and feelings result from brain activity when awake. When dreaming the same is true—just with altered brain activity. If we see these alterations as imperfections, or evidence that the brain is simply firing on too few cylinders, it is easy to dismiss dream content and write it off.

If, on the other hand, we accept dreaming as a different but valuable form of consciousness, there is much to learn, wonder at and explore.


Adapted from Consciousness in dreamsKahn D1Gover T. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20870068

Freud v JungCatching up on my reading, I came across this in The Sunday New York Times Magazine’s story, “Tell it About Your Mother: Can brain-scanning help save Freudian psychoanalysis,” by Casey Schwartz:

“Throughout Freud’s writings… again and again [Mark Solms, neuropsychologist and Freud scholar] said that he was eagerly looking forward to the day when it would be possible to reunite his observations from the psychological perspective with the neuroscientific ones.”

The day has come! This is an exciting time to be exploring dreams and the unconscious, taking advantage of what we know from science, psychology, and mysticism.

Read the full article, reflect and enjoy.

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Dreams and Improvisation: by Guest Blogger David Kahn (CV)

This week I invited my friend David Kahn to be a guest blogger here at “All The Snooze That’s Fit to Print.” David, a neuroscientist at Harvard who studies the dreaming brain, is currently preparing a paper on dreams and music that he’ll present in June at the International Association for the Study of Dreams conference in the Netherlands. Since part of that paper will explore the connection between improvisation and dreaming, I asked him if he’d give us a preview of some of those ideas. He generously agreed. Here’s what he has to say:

Is it improvised?  When we engage in conversation some of what we say is determined by a conscious decision, but then the words come out in correct syntactical form without continuous conscious micro management.  How much of our conversation is improvised?

When we improvise on a musical composition, how much of it is improvised and how much is culled from past experiences?  I personally enjoy a form of dance called contact improv that has no set steps.  It is improvised as the dancers come into unplanned contact.  But, even here, how much is truly improvised?   Often the dancers find themselves doing the same moves over and over falling into pre-learned patterns of “improvisation.”

When we dream we are not consciously directing our thoughts, yet here too, much of the content of dreams comes from previous thoughts, activities, feelings and over learned experiences.

Of course, all of our improvisations come from and draw from our past experiences.  However, scientists have shown that in dreaming and musical improvisation, the brain’s connectivity changes in a way that largely excludes the planning and executive decision making portions of the brain.  In fact, while dreaming the brain undergoes a radical change in its chemical neurotransmitter balance, as well.  It is these neurological changes that help make the dreaming experience unique and important.  The neurological changes during dreaming allow us to improvise within entirely new scenarios that we are unlikely encounter when awake.

Is this important?  Well, if nothing changes in our wake world then it is not important to explore alternatives.  However, we live in a world that is unpredictable where improvisation is necessary and may even be life saving.

In dreams we encounter novel situations, and we improvise. The profound brain changes that occur when dreaming may induce us to improvise how to deal with situations when we are awake, too: whether it be a threatening situation, the need to find a way out of an unfamiliar airport or train station, or even how and with whom to make love. Looked at from this point of view improvisation in dreaming may indeed by very important.

–David Kahn, Ph.D., Harvard

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