The Science of Dreaming: 9 Key Points

The Science of Dreaming: 9 Key Points by Kelly BulkeleyThe most important findings of scientific dream research can be summarized in nine key points.  Many important questions about dreaming remain unanswered, but these nine findings have solid empirical evidence to support them. 

  1. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is a trigger for dreaming, but is not identical with dreaming. All mammals have sleep cycles in which their brains pass through various stages of REM and non-REM sleep.  Dreaming seems to occur most often, and most intensely, in REM sleep, a time when many of the brain’s neuro-electrical systems have risen to peak levels of activation, as high as levels found in waking consciousness.  However, dreaming occurs outside of REM sleep, too, so the two are not identical; REM sleep is neither necessary nor sufficient for dreaming.
  2. REM helps the brain grow. The fact that REM sleep ratios are at their highest early in childhood (newborns spend up to 80% of their sleep in REM, whereas adults usually have 20-25% of their sleep in REM) suggests that REM, and perhaps dreaming, have a role in neural maturation and psychological development.
  3. Dreaming also occurs during hypnogogic, hypnopompic, and non-REM stage 2 phases of sleep. In the transitional times when a person is falling asleep (hypnogogic) or waking up (hypnopompic), various kinds of dream experiences can occur.  The same is true during the end of a normal night’s sleep cycle, when a person’s brain is alternating exclusively between REM and non-REM stage 2 phases of sleep, with a relatively high degree of brain activation throughout.  Dreams from REM and non-REM stage 2 are difficult to distinguish at these times.
  4. The neuro-anatomical profile of REM sleep supports the experience of intense visionary imagery in dreaming. During REM sleep, when most but not all dreaming occurs, the human brain shifts into a different mode of regional activation.  Areas of the prefrontal cortex involved in focused attention and rational thought become less active, while areas in the limbic system (involved in emotional processing, memory, and instinctive responses) and the occipital lobe (involved in visual imagination) become much more active.  This suggests that the human brain is not only capable of generating intense visionary experiences in dreaming, it has been primed to do so on a regular basis.
  5. The recurrent patterns of dream content are often continuous with people’s concerns, activities, and beliefs in waking life. This is known as the “continuity” hypothesis, and it highlights the deep consistency of waking and dreaming modes of thought.  People’s dreams tend to reflect the people and things they most care about in the waking world.  A great deal of dream content involves familiar people, places, and activities in the individual’s waking life.  The dreaming imagination is fully capable of portraying normal, realistic scenarios. This means dreaming is clearly not a process characterized by total incoherence, irrationality, or bizarreness.
  6. The discontinuities of dreaming, when things happen that do not correspond to a normal waking life concern, can signal the emergence of metaphorical insights. Research on the improbable, unreal, and extraordinary elements of dream content has shown that, on closer analysis, this material often has a figurative or metaphorical relationship to the dreamer’s waking life.  Metaphorical themes and images in dreams have a long history in the realm of art and creativity, and current scientific research highlights the dynamic, unpredictable nature of dreaming as an endless generator of conceptual novelty and innovation.
  7. Dream recall is variable. Most people remember one to two dreams per week, although the memories often fade quickly if the dreams are not recorded in a journal.  On average, younger people tend to remember more dreams than older people, and women more than men.  Even people who rarely remember their dreams can often recall one or two unusual dreams from their lives, dreams with so much intensity and vividness they cannot be forgotten.  Dream recall tends to respond to waking interest.  The more people pay attention to their dreams, the more dreams they are likely to remember.
  8. Dreaming helps the mind to process information from waking life, especially experiences with a strong emotional charge. From a cognitive psychological perspective, dreaming functions to help the mind adapt to the external environment by evaluating perceptions, regulating emotional arousal, and rehearsing behavioral responses.  Dreaming is like a psychological thermostat, pre-set to keep us healthy, balanced, and ready to react to both threats and opportunities in the waking world. Post-traumatic nightmares show what happens when an experience is too intense and painful to process in a normal way, knocking the whole system out of balance.
  9. The mind is capable of metacognition in dreaming, including lucid self-awareness. During sleep and dreaming the mind engages in many of the activities most associated with waking consciousness: reasoning, comparing, remembering, deciding, and monitoring one’s own thoughts and feelings. Lucid dreaming is one clear example of this, and so are dreams of watching oneself from an outside perspective.  These kinds of metacognitive (thinking about thinking) functions were once thought to be impossible in dreaming, but current research has proven otherwise.  Dreaming has available the full range of the mind’s metacognitive powers, although in different combinations from those typically active in ordinary waking consciousness.

The Science of Dreaming: 9 Key Points by Kelly Bulkeley

For further reading:

Barrett, Deirdre and Patrick McNamara, ed.s.  The New Science of Dreaming.  Westport: ABC-Clio, 2007.

Bulkeley, Kelly.  Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Domhoff, G. William.  Finding Meaning in Dreams: A Quantitative Approach.  New York: Plenum, 1996.

Hurd, Ryan and Kelly Bulkeley, ed.s.  Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep.  Westport: ABC-Clio, 2014.

Kryger, Meir H., Thomas Roth, and William C. Dement, ed.s. Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine.  Fourth Edition.  Philadelphia: Elsevier Saunders, 2005.

Maquet, Pierre, Carlyle Smith, and Robert Stickgold, ed.s.  Sleep and Brain Plasticity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Pace-Schott, Edward, Mark Solms, Mark Blagrove, and Stevan Harnad, ed.s.  Sleep and Dreaming: Scientific Advances and Reconsiderations. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Pagel, James.  The Limits of Dream: A Scientific Exploration of the Mind/Brain Interface. New York: Academic Press, 2010.

Solms, Mark.  The Neuropsychology of Dreams: A Clinico-Anatomical Study.  Mahway: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997.

 

 

Dream Books as Holiday Gifts

Dream Books as Holiday Gifts by Kelly BulkeleyBooks about dreams are excellent holiday presents—easy to give and enjoyable to receive.  They are widely available for purchase, fairly inexpensive, simple to wrap and ship, and sure to bring surprise and delight (and perhaps life-changing illumination) to their recipients.  If you have a long list of people for whom you’re trying to buy gifts in the next few weeks, consider getting them one or more of these excellent new books, which have come out in 2017 or 2016.

 

Dreaming in Dark Times: Six Exercises in Political Thought

By Sharon Sliwinki

University of Minnesota Press, 2017

A beautifully written and thought-provoking exploration of dreaming as a vital arena of existential freedom, cultural creativity, and political resistance.  Well-suited for anyone interested in Freud and contemporary psychoanalysis, Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy, and/or the collective wisdom of dreaming.  A great gift for a social justice warrior who has never heard about current dream research.

 

The Emergence of Dreaming: Mind-Wandering, Embodied Simulation, and the Default Network

By G. William Domhoff

Oxford University Press, 2017

The latest work by one of the most eminent dream scientists in the field.  A fascinating text for people already interested in the latest developments in brain-mind science.  Warning: this isn’t a how–to primer for people fresh to dream studies.  But if you know someone who thinks nothing is real if you can’t prove it with statistics, numbers, and quantitative analysis, this would be an ideal entry into current dream research.

Dream Books as Holiday Gifts by Kelly Bulkeley

 

The Dreams of Santiago Ramon y Cajal

By Benjamin Ehrlich

Oxford University Press, 2017

A surprising historical revelation about the secret dream journal of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who is widely regarded as the father of modern neuroscience.  If you need a gift for someone who loves brain science, this book will blow their minds.

 

Dream Therapy: Dream Your Way to Health and Happiness

By Clare Johnson

Orion Spring, 2017

A perfect primer for readers who are new to dreams and looking for a new source of personal insight and guidance in their waking lives.  The focus is primarily on lucid dreams and becoming more aware throughout dreaming and waking.  (A US edition titled Mindful Dreaming is due out in April of 2018).

 

Machine Dreaming and Consciousness

By J.F. Pagel and Philip Kirshstein

Academic Press, 2017

An alternately profound and baffling book by one of the leading sleep and dream researchers in the field (Pagel) and his computer science colleague (Kirshstein).  This is how they describe the book’s goal: “Machine Dreaming and Consciousness provides the first empiric articulation of the advent of dream-equivalent processing in machines.”  Yikes!  And yes, it’s exactly as intense as that sounds.  This would be an awesome book for the nerdiest person on your list—someone who loves sci-fi and the speculative frontiers of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and computer science.

Dream Books as Holiday Gifts by Kelly Bulkeley

 

Dreams

By Derrick Jensen

Seven Stories Press, 2017

A passionate personal exploration of the organic depths of dreaming by a brilliant eco-philosopher and environmental activist.  If you know someone who hates “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and/or loves the ancient wisdom of nature and indigenous ways of knowing, this book will give them lots of debating material, and much inspiration.

 

Sleep Monsters and Superheroes: Empowering Children through Creative Dreamplay

Clare Johnson and Jean Campbell, Editors

ABC-Clio, 2016

A very accessible collection of practical research and methods for helping children learn about the creative power of their own dreaming imaginations.  Perfect for parents of young children, for teachers, and professionals in health care (most of whom never receive any education or training in the nature of children’s dreams).

Dream Books as Holiday Gifts by Kelly Bulkeley

 

Dreams That Change Our Lives: A Publication of the International Association for the Study of Dreams

Robert Hoss and Robert Gongloff, Editors

Chiron Publications, 2017

A wide-ranging compendium of people describing extraordinary dreams that, as the title suggests, changed their lives in various ways.  Written mostly by long-time members of the IASD, it’s an excellent introduction to the group’s collaborative ethos and spiritual adventurousness.  This book would be a great present for someone who makes sense of the world primarily through personal stories, narratives, and relationships.

 

Honoring the Dream: A Handbook for Dream Group Leaders

By Justina Lasley

Double Spiral Publishing, Updated 2017

One of the best books ever written about the practice of dream-sharing in a group setting, now in an updated edition.  Very insightful, practical, and systematic, this is a treasure-house of basic principles in dream education.  You would be doing a huge favor to any teacher, health care professional, community organizer, NGO activist, or human resources administrator by giving them this book.

Dream Books as Holiday Gifts by Kelly Bulkeley

 

The Dreams Behind the Music: Learn Creative Dreaming as 100+ Top Artists Reveal Their Breakthrough Inspirations

By Craig Webb

DREAMS Foundation, 2016

If you’ve got a musician on your list, bam, you’re done!  This is a super entertaining book that will be appreciated by anyone interested in art, creativity, and dreaming.  Filled with awesome factoids about musicians who created famous songs from their dreams.  Teenagers would probably relate to it especially well.

 

An Introduction to the Psychology of Dreaming, Second Revised Edition

By Kelly Bulkeley

ABC-Clio, 2017

The updated version of a work I first wrote in 1997, as a clear, concise overview of the basic principles and major research findings of the psychology of dreaming, from Freud and Jung to the present day.  The book has a much more exciting cover now!