You are on page 1of 10

Harmon 1

Katie Harmon
Professor Malcolm Campbell
UWRT 1103
November 6, 2015
Episodes behind Your Eyelids; the Purpose and Function of Dreaming
No matter how hard I tried, I couldnt make myself remember which way I had gone
before. I abruptly reached the end of the unusually clean concrete path and gingerly edged into
the clearing. Looming between me and the stately white farm house were eight enormous trees
speckled with tiny pink and white blossoms. I walked underneath the trees and noticed a large
geometric pattern carved out of the grass that extended to each corner of the clearing. As I
looked up, the trees began to shed their blossoms, but the air was perfectly still. Pastel petals
flurried to the ground like waterfalls of snow all around me. Then uncertainty crept in. Before I
knew it crowds of children dressed in tattered, eggshell colored colonial clothing poured out of
the farm house. Vapid stares filled their pale blue eyes. They meandered along the lines of the
geometric design on the ground until I was surrounded. I knew I had to remember the path Id
taken before if I wanted to escape the impending danger looming all around me. The children,
aimlessly milling about, kept closing in. I couldnt remember. A child brushed against my thigh.
I couldnt remember. I let out a cry of distress. I still couldnt remember.
I awoke in a sweat that night. My brain had fooled me. While I slept, my brain had
created a new world, complete with stimuli for each of my senses. Although I awoke in a sweat
that night, Mmy mind still held on to the overarching feeling of discomfort that pervaded this
dream. How did my brain immerse me in such a seemingly real experience, even though my
body was dormant? The explanation- to the extent that there is one- lies in dream science.

Harmon 2

Dream science consisted of little more than speculation and observation until scientific
advances, such as MRI scans and other forms of brain imaging, allowed researchers to actively
view the sleeping brain. In contrast to our movements, our brains are very active as we progress
through the different stages of sleep. Research shows that the most vivid dreaming occurs during
the rapid eye movement, or REM, stage of the human sleep cycle (Van Der Linden). According
to the International Association for the Study of Dreams, REM sleep occurs every ninety to one
hundred minutes, three to four times a night, and lasts longer as the night progresses. The final
REM period may last as long as forty-five minutes. It is also much easier to recall dreams if the
dreamer awakens during REM sleep (Ruby).
However, in order to further explore the origins of dreams, we must also consider the
structure of the human brain. Our brains are loosely divided into three regions. This triune
brain is made up of the R complex, limbic system, and outer cortex (Gould 1).
Jay E. Gould, in The Triune Brain Concept, explains the functions of each brain section,
but to clearly visualize the layered nature of each region, Visualize imagine a golf club. This
represents the R complex, made up of the brain stem and the base of the forebrain. This group of
structures controls basic survival instincts such as threat responses, eating, breathing, and
reproduction. The R complex is the oldest section of our brain evolutionarily, shared by all
reptilian life (Gould 1). Next, think of a large wool sock over the head of the golf club. This
represents the second evolutionary layer of the brain, the limbic system. The limbic system is the
emotional center of the brain, shared by all mammalian life (Gould 2). It also includes brain
structures involved in memory and behavioral learning (Gould 2). Finally, imagine a helmet

Harmon 3
sitting on top of the golf club-sock combination. This represents the human brains outer cortex,
responsible for motor skills and processing the external world (Gould 2).
Each division of the brain houses structures involved in dreaming. Experts are still not
sure where dreams come from, but dreams are thought to originate in the lingual gyrus, near the
center of the brain (Van Der Linden), however they are processed in many different structures.
Electrical oscillations in the brain during dreaming pass through many areas, but the most
important dream-active structures are the hippocampus, amygdala, and the frontal lobes (Van
Der Linden). The hippocampus is located near the base of the brain, in the R complex, the
amygdala in the limbic system, and the frontal lobes in the outer cortex. Dreams also affect the
imaging centers of our brain, but they involve other sensory regions too, which explains why we
oftentimes smell, hear, taste, and feel during dreaming.
Christina Marzano, a neuroscientist at the University of Rome, conducted a study to
illustrate how the human brain records dreams. In her article, published in The Journal of
Neuroscience, Recalling and Forgetting Dreams: Theta and Alpha Oscillations during Sleep
Predict Dream Recall, she explains how the findings from the study show that the exact same
electrical oscillations recorded in the frontal lobe during waking recollection and encoding of
episodic memories can be observed in a dreaming brain. This similarity is particularly interesting
because some parts of the frontal lobe that control rational evaluation are essentially shut off
during dreaming. Their inactivity accounts for the strange plots and bizarre scenery of dreams
(Big Think). This similarity Marzanos research shows, however, that the neurophysiological
mechanisms that we employ while dreaming (and recalling dreams) are the same as when we
construct and retrieve memories while we are awake (qtd. in Van Der Linden). In other words,

Formatted: Font: Not Italic

Harmon 4
we store and remember real memories and dreams in the same ways, demonstrating the close
relationship between dreams and memories.
Empirical data can tell us which sections of our brain play a part in dreaming, but why do
humans dream at all? Was there any biological, physiological, or psychological benefit to me
finding myself surrounded by dozens of strangely menacing children? Our ancestors may have
attributed it to superstition or divine interference. Sigmund Freud, one of the first to theorize
about dreams scientifically, would have explained it as a manifestation of repressed desires
brought about by the warring factions of my personality; the id, ego, and super ego (Big Think).
Although many of Freuds theories fail to consider the complexity of the human brain,
hisFreuds work laid the foundation for modern dream sciences. Freuds ideas introduced the
notion of psychoanalysis, the study of the interactions between the unconscious and conscious
mind, as a scientific practice (Van Der Linden). Van Der Linden even credits Freud as the father
of psychoanalysis.
Since Freuds time, many other theories about the origins and purposes of dreams have
surfaced. For example, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, a controversy emerged about the
very existence of dreams. According to Perrine M. Ruby, a member of the Brain Dynamics and
Cognition Team at Lyon Neuroscience Research Center, the neurologist Alan Hobson, who was
profoundly anti-psychoanalysis, proposed a theory that deprived dreaming of any function.
Hobsons theory was that dreams were the brains attempt, upon waking, to make sense of
completely random neuron firings that occurred during sleep cycles. Otherwise known as the
activation-synthesis hypothesis, this theory relied on the unusual and oftentimes difficult-torecall events of dreams as a means to justify their insignificance (Ruby). Hobson seemed to
ignore the compelling empirical evidence for the existence of story-line experiences during

Formatted: Font: Italic

Harmon 5
dreaming gathered by Michael Jouvet in 1979 (Ruby). When organisms dream, the brain enters a
state of muscular paralysis as a measure to keep the dreamer safe. Jouvets team was able to
block muscular paralysis induced during dreaming states in cats. Over the course of the
experiement, Tthey then monitored the catssubjects sleep habits,; which dramatically changed
from the paralyzed state which most mammals, including humans, experience during REM sleep,
to clearly active tasks associated with waking life such as grooming, preying, chewing, and
fighting (Ruby). Though Jouvet eventually reached the conclusion that dreams serve as a means
of preserving personality traits over time by reinforcing certain genetic codes (Ruby), his
experiments shed light on meaningful examples of the connection between dreaming and
instinctive, survival-based behaviors.
In 2009, Antti Revonsuo, a Finnish psychologist, expanded upon the interlaced nature of
dreams and instincts (Ruby). He proposed the threat simulation theory (Van Der Linden).
Essentially, the threat simulation theory views dreams through an evolutionary lens. According
to this hypothesis, dreams initially served as an evolutionary tool to help organisms practice
reacting to potentially dangerous situations. Revonsuo argued that this ability gave organisms
with the skill of dreaming an advantage over their competition because they were more prepared
to handle threatening events. because The threat simulation theory asserts that the repeated
experiences simulated through dreams enhance the neuro-cognitive mechanisms required for
efficient threat perception and avoidance (Van Der Linden).
The amygdala, one of the key brain structures in dreaming, controls fear responses in
humans (Big Think)., which also lends credibility to the idea that dreams originated as a way to
deal with danger. The primary function of the amygdala, fear, most likely influences the content
of our dreams. Its important role in the dream process could possibly be the reason that most

Harmon 6
dreams we remember involve some element of danger, fear or discomfort. Perhaps the amygdala
is more active when the dreamer experiences a nightmare. Dream science methods may
eventually be able to measure the amount of activity of specific structures of the brain in dream
states. These advances could shed light on the amygdalas function during nightmares, as
opposed to normal dreams. The connection between dreaming and fear also lends credibility to
the idea that dreams originated as a way to deal with danger.
However, if dreams emerged as an evolutionary technique for threat detection and
response, do they still serve that purpose, or have they evolved with the human brain to
performbecome a more complex action? MaybePerhaps my strange dream was preparing me to
deal with my next encounter with twenty five brainwashed, blue-eyed children, but the notable
theme duringthroughout the entire dream was an overwhelming feeling of uneasiness. Of course
I was afraid of the alarming situations during the dream, but throughout the dream I felt
paralyzed by indecision. I can still remember the stress and anxiety I felt during the dream. It
seemed to be equal to or greater than instances that evoked those same emotions in my waking
life. Aside from the unique story, the thing that stuck with me from that dream was the emotion it
inspired. Most current and emerging dream research acknowledges the instinctual aspects of
dreams, but focuses on identifying and exploring the connections between dreams, emotions, and
memories.
Based on the waking functions of the amygdala and hippocampus, and their involvement
in dreaming, it is clear that dreams and memories share some relation. The amygdala and
hippocampus are two of the most active sections of the human brain during dream states. Along
with fear responses and dream involvement, Ruby states that the amygdala also processes
memories of emotional responses,. and Tthe hippocampus converts short term recollections to

Harmon 7
long term memories (Ruby). The fact that each of these structures play leading roles in the
production of dreams and the processing of memories shows that memories and dreams are
connected.
Each of these regions are also involved in emotional response in humans. (The
hippocampus is a part of the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain, and the amygdala
controls fear responses.) Sander Van Der Linden, in his article for The Scientific American,
points out a study by Matthew Walker, a prominent researcher of the University of California at
Berkeleys Sleep and Neuroimaging lab, that identified a link between less dreaming in subjects
and a decreased ability to understand complex emotions in daily life., Walkers research
explored the effects of less REM sleep on subjects. The study showed that subjects with
decreased REM sleep had a harder time processing more complicated emotions of their peers
during commonplace actions such as simple conversation. Less REM sleep inevitably means less
dreaming, which led Walker and his team to the conclusion that one of the main functions of
dreaming is most likely processing emotion. This research further highlightsing the connection
between dreaming and emotional response.
Based on the most recent breakthroughs in dream research, combined with empirical
dataevidence from the past, most evidence shows that the main psychological function of
dreaming is to help us deal with unprocessed emotions. Bby creating a memory or experience
based around itan emotion, dreams identify, code, and digest an emotion. Dreams essentially
allow us to deal with and neutralize left over feelings from each day.. The theories of early
scientists such as Freud and Revonsuo were not completely wrong. In a way, dreaming simulates
the threat of a repressed emotion. Dreams allow us to experience a simulation of an event in
order to process an emotion that we havent mentally confronted.

Harmon 8
Although this compelling hypothesis is rooted in the latest research, it is still only another
theory. Despite the impressive dream science advances made since the 1990s, we still are not
very certain about the origins or purposes of dreaming. Emotional regulation is only one of many
functions of dreams to be discovered.
Dream science, through neurobiology and psychoanalysis, continues to expand its scope
of insight into the processes and purposes of dreaming. Many dream and sleep researchers have
recently captured and recorded some of the most elusive aspects of dreaming. For example,
Llucid dreams, or controlled dreaming, neuroimaging, and episodic memories have been
identified and reproduced in lab settings (Big Think)., The most advanced neuroimaging
techniques have allowed experts to examine the neural pathways of episodic memories in
relation to dreaming. These insights into the nature of the dreaming mind only indicating indicate
that the future of dream science is very promising.
Perhaps dream science can be applied to psychological medicine and other mental health
practices in the future. Eventually, dream therapy may be applicable to patients who have
experienced emotional trauma. This practice could be especially helpful to war veterans that
suffer from post-traumatic-stress disorder. It could be used to help victims of sexual abuse
process their emotions. The medical aspects of dream science may be adapted to benefit those
with social anxiety or depression. Because of the relationship between dreams and memories,
dream science could shed light on mental conditions such as Alzheimers disease and dementia.
Advances in dream science will also inevitably contribute to many areas of society, outside of
medical practice, because of its close relation to the overall study of the human brain.
The International Association for the Study of Dreams confirms that, with the exception
of those with very specific brain injuries, everyone dreams. Dreaming plays an important role in

Harmon 9
our interactions as humans, even if we dont yet fully understand all of its purposes. Although
many theories on the functions of dreaming have been proposed, we understand that this
emotional filing system was once an advantage over the competition, simulating dangerous
situations to help us survive in a more literal way. Dreaming now allows us to process emotions,
a function that dream science has recently discovered. Dreams are one of the many processes
carried out during sleep that help us maintain normally functioning brains and bodies. So, when
faced with an important decision or another type of emotion inducing situation, sleeping on it
may be the best way to make a clear-headed judgement.

Harmon 10
Works Cited
Big Think. Michio Kaku on the Science of Dreams. YouTube, YouTube. 14 Oct 2014. Web.
18 Oct 2015.
"Common Questions About Dreams." International Association for the Study of Dreams. IASD,
2013. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.
Gould, Jay E. Triune Brain Concept. 9 Oct. 2003. PDF file.
Marzano, Christina. "Recalling and Forgetting Dreams: Theta and Alpha Oscillations during
Sleep Predict Dream Recall." The Journal of Neuroscience (2011): n. pag. Jneurosci.org.
The Journal of Neuroscience, 4 May 2011. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.
Ruby, Perrine M. Experimental Research on Dreaming: State of the Art and
Neuropsychoanalytic Perspectives. Frontiers in Psychology 2 (2011): 286. PMC. Web.
18 Oct. 2015
Van Der Linden, Sander. "The Science Behind Dreaming." Scientific American Global RSS
ScientificAmerican.com. Scientific American, 26 July 2011. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

Formatted: Font: Italic