What are dreams for? Are they garbage processing by the brain, as Francis Crick declared? The royal road to the unconscious, as some Freudians believe? Or are they something more interesting, an intermediary between conscious and unconscious biological intelligence?
Recent research out of one of the more innovative sleep labs in the world, guided by Giulio Tononi and Chiara Cirelli, just provided us a better answer.
The Place Where We Dream
The research project, directed by Francesca Siclari at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, used Tononi’s special EEG apparatus to get more fine-toothed brain electrical data on 46 people who woken from sleep more than 1,000 times. Some of the more prominent findings were:
1. People dream throughout the night. In so called “dream sleep” or REM sleep, those awakened described dreams 95% of the time, but also did so 71% in Non-REM (NREM) sleep. NREM normally takes up a bit less than 80% of overall sleep time. People were dreaming and dreaming all through the night.
2. Most of the dreams were not remembered. When they were recalled, parts of the pre-frontal cortex involved in memory and memory consolidation lit up.
3.The same areas of the posterior cortex showed decreases in low frequency electrical activity whenever dreaming was taking place, whether in REM or NREM. Changes in these areas occurred with the creation of conscious activity.
4. During complex dreams, parts of the brain associated with activities of general consciousness during wake lit up. Dream about baseball, and parts of the brain activated by waking thoughts about baseball produced much greater electrical activity.
Tononi has long sought to wake up the sleep establishment, particularly in his quest to understand consciousness. He twits other sleep researchers about their emphasis on sleep architecture and sleep stages, declaring this conceptual apparatus more hindrance than guiding light. From what I’ve seen at scientific meetings, other researchers, particularly in clinical arenas, are greatly unamused. A large part of clinical sleep medicine is dependent on sleep staging – whether activity occurs in REM, deep sleep or light sleep.
Yet it’s been known for several decades that people dream in all the different stages of sleep. Tononi and others have argued you have to look beyond REM, and indeed beyond the articulation of conscious activity, to comprehend dreaming. Many argue that 90-95% of what happens in the brain is not conscious.
Now it will be easier for the public to recognize that they’re dreaming all through the night.
Also of great interest is the localization of dream patterns to posterior cortical areas involving vision and sensory integration. Humans are highly visual animals. Most of our remembered dreams engage visual events. Now there’s evidence that dreaming from all sleep stages is automatically sitting in areas that involve the visual cortex.
Does this mean that other areas are not involved? Of course not. These studies look at changes in electrical activity. Whenever you read you know that “empty” spaces, like those between words, possess lots of meaning, not just the “active” ones.
Just because something does not appear "turned on" does not mean it’s passive and “not working.” Information flows with and without gross changes in electrical activity.
What This Means
Are we ready for the period of the science fiction film “Inception,” where people’s dreams will be understood, visualized, codified and modified? No, not even close. Not even in the ballpark. Fully understanding dreaming will probably require understanding much of all brain functions. In this arena, ignorance is deep.
But we are getting better ideas of how the brain might work. One thing we can learn from these studies is the boundary between conscious and unconscious is far from clear. It’s not just that people can be within sleep for long periods and think they were conscious the whole time, a notable fact which transportation ministries have failed to acknowledge. What's more interesting is that the brain is thinking all the time.
And revamping. Remaking itself. Rebuilding. We know dreaming is involved in memory consolidation and learning. The Wisconsin study argues that activities in dreaming are in many ways very similar to what takes place during wake – and that “dreaming” is occurring throughout sleep.
So it's time to accept the body as a regenerative informative processor, always learning in order to stay alive. Part of this biological intelligence – the use and creation of knowledge by the body – is highly specialized to sleep, though the overlap is massive. And what we consider “conscious” or “unconscious” may be far less interesting to brain function in the brain’s point of view. Conscious or "unconscious," it's all information. Everything is continually updated. And much of what happens in sleep and non-sleep engage the same “unconscious” processes than control immunity, and cellular regrowth, and cancer prevention. In other words, life.
For dreams are, despite Francis Crick, more than the leftovers from all that information programming. They projective, cognitive products that help organize and guide the future of ourselves and the species – a conscious manifestation of the endless “unconscious” work of the body.