How scientists are studying dreams in the labAdstoppi Web Traffic
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Journalist Alice Robb is the author of Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey. The Verge spoke with Robb about theories of dreams, the most provocative studies, and the many questions that remain in the field.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Can you start by giving me a brief intellectual history of dreams? Before our modern scientific understanding, what were people’s theories of dreams?
If you look throughout history, you see people taking dreams really seriously. Dream diaries are some of the oldest examples of literature, and dreams in the Bible are often treated as prophetic. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Freud comes along and puts dreams at the center of psychoanalysis, arguing that they’re the royal road to the unconscious, and analysts should ask patients about them, and by unpacking them, you can get to the core of a patient’s issues. You see the idea taking off. On the flip side, Freud also said that dreams are all about sex — “a room represents a woman because it has an entrance” — which perhaps didn’t do dreams a favor.
Another part of the story is that the science of sleep is relatively new. Rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep was only discovered in the 1950s. And until then, most scientists thought that sleep was just a time when your brain turned off, and there wasn’t much to study. Or even if there was, they didn’t have a way to study it. So a big part of the story is also advances in technology and neuroimaging enabling us to study sleep and dreams. And now, you see people becoming much more aware of sleep as important for health, and so dreams and sleep are going to the lab.
It’s time when the frontal lobe, the logic centers, are less activated. There’s less rational thinking. At the same time, dopamine is surging and people are often having intense emotional experiences.
Daydreaming, mind wandering, night dreaming — you can think of them as all on a spectrum. They are all involving the default mode network, the part of the brain that gets involved when everything else has quieted down, and you’re not actively engaged in something. Both mind-wandering and daydreams are involving the medial prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe. During REM dreams, you’re also the visual cortex so you’re having these more intensely visual experiences. Sight is the sense that’s more involved than, say, hearing or smell or touch.
Do people really smell things in dreams? I don’t believe I have, though I also generally have a weak sense of smell.
I do think smell is rare in dreams. I don’t have a stat off the top of my head, but dreams are predominantly visual, even for people who are blind, depending on what age they lost their sight. If they lost their sight after around the age of five, they can experience sight in dreams.
Nowadays, what are the main psychological theories for dreams? I’m assuming Freud is no longer in fashion?
Certain ideas of Freud’s have been borne out. One idea is that you are dreaming about things you are suppressing during the day, and there is actually research on something called the “dream rebound effect.” The psychologist Daniel Wegner found that if people were told not to focus on something before going to bed, they’re more likely to dream about it. He told one group of students to focus on a target person before bed and told another group of students about this target person and found that the group that was trying to avoid those thoughts were actually reporting more dreams about the person.
There’s a theory from evolutionary psychology that’s pretty popular, and it argues that dreams have a survival function. They give us a chance to practice for things we’re stressed out about in real life. That would explain why dreams are predominantly negative. Dreams tend to be much more about anxiety than about pleasure and involve a lot of intense feelings and fear. The idea is that we wake up, and we’re more prepared to tackle the things we faced in our nightmares. That would also maybe explain why dreams tend to involve more primal settings. There are a lot of actions like running around and being chased, elaborate themes that don’t have much to do with our lives if we live in cities. We’re less likely to have dreams about reading and writing and activities that are more recent developments.
Read more: https://www.theverge.com/2018/12/7/18130619/alice-robb-why-we-dream-science-psychology-neuroscience-interview