Dreaming as an act of agression.

The dark undercurrent of dreams.

Posted May 05, 2011

Popular dream books generally express an all too touchly-feely take on dreams. Dreams are thought to open up ‘creative possibilities' and ‘spiritual potentials' and ‘breakthrough insights' etc. We know so little about dreams that I doubt that any of these grad claims concerning dreams can be yet be supported by the hard data on dreams. Instead what data we have tend to suggest a quite different picture on dreams. The data on content of dreams does not suggest a ‘healing capacity' or a ‘feeling capacity' -not to mention a ‘wisdom capacity'. Instead a sober, hard nosed look at the data on content of dreams suggest that dreaming is an act of aggression.

Consider, first what we know about the neurobiology of the REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep), state--that form of sleep most reliably associated with vivid dreams. It is associated with a very particular brain activation pattern centered on the amygdala in the limbic system. Portions of the anterior cingulate gyrus, the parahippocampal gyrus and ventromedial or orbitofrontal cortex are also consistently activated in tandem with REM. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is de-activated in REM. Neurochemically, REM sleep demonstrates high activation levels in forebrain dopaminergic and cholinergic circuits as well as cessation of activation in the noradrenergic locus ceruleus and the serotoninergic raphe nucleus. Note that this pattern of activation and deactivation strikingly replicates the pattern associated with impulsive aggression in the waking state.

Not surprisingly therefore you see a lot of aggression in dreams. Dreamer-involved aggression (adjusted for number of all social interactions except sexual interactions) is present in 60% of male dreams and half (51%) of female dreams. The dreamer is an aggressor in 40% of male dreams and a third of all female dreams. One out of every three characters in male dreams and one out of every four characters in female dreams is involved in some kind of aggressive interaction. About 50% of characters in dreams are strangers to the dreamer. In some dream series, up to 80% of characters are unknown to the dreamer. Strangers in dreams are most often male and these unknown males appear more often in dreams of males than females. When male strangers appear in a dream, the likelihood that physical aggression will occur in that dream far exceeds what would be expected on the basis of chance. In short, male strangers signal physical aggression.
Interestingly, in REM Behavior Disorder (RBD), the normal motor inhibition that occurs in tandem with

REM sleep is abolished. Thus, when people with RBD go into REM sleep, they tend to act out their dreams. This disorder, therefore, allows us to literally see what REM neurobiology produces in terms of mentation and what REM dreams are about. Common behaviors include screaming, punching, grasping, kicking or jumping out of the bed in pursuit of or in flight from a foe.degree of aggression, including a higher percentage of "Dreams with at least one aggression" (66% vs. 15%), an increased Aggression/Friendliness interactions ratio (86% vs. 44%), and an increased Aggressions/Characters (A/C) ratio (0.81 vs. 0.12). In short, dreams of RBD patients dramatically confirm the very high levels of aggression associated with REM dreaming.

The next time a dreamer enthuses about the ‘healing potential of dreams' tell them that dreaming can be an act of aggression as well. Is aggression always a bad thing? Mother Nature did not seem to think so.

References. All of the claims made in the text are substantiated in the following sources by the author: McNamara, P., Johnson, P., McLaren, D., Harris, E., Beauharnais, C., & Auerbach, S. (2010). REM and NREM sleep mentation. International Review of Neurobiology, 92, 69-86.; McNamara, P. (2008). Nightmares: The science and solution of those frightening visions during sleep. Westport, CT: Praeger Perspectives.McNamara, P. (2004). An evolutionary psychology of sleep and dreams. Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood Press. Barrett, D., & McNamara, P. (Eds.). (forthcoming, 2012). Encyclopedia of sleep and dreams (3 volumes). Westford, CT: ABC-CLIO. McNamara, P., Nunn, C. L., & Barton, R. A.