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 Recall: The Highs and the Lows

Dream Recall: The Highs and the Lows by Kelly BulkeleyWhy is it so hard to remember dreams?  Scientific evidence dating back to the 1950’s has shown the brain is active in various ways throughout the sleep cycle.  Yet when we wake up we often can’t remember more than a few fleeting images that disappear from our minds almost immediately.  Why can’t we recall more of what we experienced while asleep?

 

As a partial answer to that question, try this thought experiment.  Imagine you are a star basketball player.  It’s the final moments of a championship game. The score is tied, the crowd is screaming, and victory hangs in the balance. Just before time expires you make a brilliant play that wins the game.

Then, the second the game’s over, a reporter pulls you off the court, thrusts a microphone in your face, and says, “What was going through your mind when you made that play?”

As with most athletes facing this situation, you’d probably be at a loss for words.  You’d find it difficult if not impossible to communicate the full experience of what it felt like while you were in the game.  So soon after the game’s end, your brain would still be somewhat disoriented by the abrupt transition, and it would be a challenge to form a linear, grammatically proper thought.

This is more or less what it’s like when we wake up in the morning.  Our brain has just been operating in a very different mode from waking consciousness. It’s extremely difficult to convey the experiences of the former state of awareness into the linguistic terms of the latter.

That’s a general reason for the limits of our dream recall.  But still, a question remains: Why do some people remember several dreams every night, while others remember virtually none at all? Sometimes I hear this posed as a challenge—“I don’t remember any of my dreams and I’m just fine, so what’s the point of paying attention to them?”  Other times it’s more of a request for advice—“I know dreams are valuable, but I barely remember any of them, so how can I improve my recall?”

Current scientific research suggests that some degree of dream recall is a normal part of human life.  According to Michael Schredl’s thorough review of the research literature in The New Science of Dreaming:

“On average, students recall one to two dreams per week at home… In representative samples of the general population [in Austria], dream recall frequency is slightly lower, but about 68% recall at least one dream per month.” (1)

Similar results appeared in a demographic survey of 2970 American adults I commissioned in 2010, when 67.81% of the participants said they recalled at least two or three dreams per month.

A very small percentage of people say they remember no dreams whatsoever.  The only research I know that has directly focused on “non-dreamers” was done by James Pagel from the Rocky Mountain Sleep Clinic in Colorado.  Pagel found that 6% of his lab’s incoming patients said they never remembered any dreams.  After further questions and experiments, Pagel found that most of these people could remember at least a few dreams from earlier in life.  He concluded that “true non-dreaming was very rare in our sleep lab population (0.38%)—1 of every 262 patients.” (2)

It’s not clear why some people remember an extremely high number of dreams.  Gender may have something to do with it, since females tend to remember more dreams than males.  The difference is not absolute—there are high-recalling men and low-recalling women—but many researchers have found the same modest difference.  In the 2010 demographic survey, 10.21% of the women vs. 6.64% of the men said they remembered a dream almost every morning.

Age is also a factor, as children and young adults tend to remember more dreams than do older people.  This pattern seems to be more pronounced among women than men: Young women have the highest frequencies of dream recall, with a big drop-off for older women, while young men have only slightly more recall than older men.

Many other factors can influence an individual’s dream recall frequency, including sleep quality, medications (some increase dream recall, others decrease it), and stressful circumstances in waking life.

The most intriguing factor is encouragement by others.   Michael Schredl refers to this as an “experimenter effect,” in which

“[T]he expectations of the participants and the expectations of the experimenter can affect DRF [dream recall frequency] as measured in the sleep laboratory.  In the high expectancy conditions [of one study], dreams were recalled more often.  Similarly, other studies have demonstrated how sensitive DRF is to comments of the experimenter; simple encouraging comments produced a marked increase in DRF.  Even the completion of a short dream questionnaire yielded a higher DRF after four weeks.” (3)

It seems the mere act of encouraging people to remember more dreams leads to an increase in recall frequency.  This isn’t just a function of compliant participants trying to please their experimenters.  It’s an indication that dream recall depends to a large degree on a person’s conscious attitude towards dreams.  A low interest in dreams correlates with low recall, and high interest in dreams correlates with high recall.  As the research reviewed by Schredl shows, even a slight positive change in attitude can yield a higher frequency of remembered dreams.

If you build it, they will come.

 ####

 

Notes:

1. Michael Schredl, “Dream Recall,” in Patrick McNamara and Deirdre Barrett (ed.s) The New Science of Dreams (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007), vol. II, p. 80.

2. J.F. Pagel, The Limits of Dream: A Scientific Exploration of the Mind/Brain Interface (London: Academic Press, 2008), p. 152.

3. Schredl 2007, p. 89.

 

 

 

Obama’s Brain Activity Map: Good News for the Psychology of Religion

Obama's Brain Activity Map: Good News for the Psychology of Religion by Kelly BulkeleyOn July 17, 1990 President George H.W. Bush initiated the “Decade of the Brain” by making an official proclamation that began with these words:

 

“The human brain, a 3-pound mass of interwoven nerve cells that controls our activity, is one of the most magnificent—and mysterious—wonders of creation.  The seat of human intelligence, interpreter of senses, and controller of movement, this incredible organ continues to intrigue scientists and layman alike.

 

Although the first President Bush disdained “the vision thing,” he had the foresight to recognize the immense value and national importance of a coordinated scientific effort to learn more about the workings of the brain.

 

The 1990’s produced a huge burst of neuroscientific research that revolutionized our understanding of human nature and generated several breakthroughs in the clinical treatment of brain injuries and diseases.

The Decade of the Brain also generated exciting new developments in the study of religion.  For more than 100 years psychologists of religion have been investigating connections between brain activity and religious experience, going back to the pioneering efforts of William James, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung.  Now, thanks to recent advances in neuroscience, researchers are using hi-tech imaging devices to study the brain’s activities during meditation and prayer, to identify neural correlates for empathy, gratitude, wonder, and self-awareness, and to investigate the human brain’s distinctive powers of imagination, a creative capacity celebrated by all religious faiths and spiritual traditions.

Alas, researchers have not found “the God spot” in the brain, and likely never will.  But if we put that questionable goal aside, the Decade of the Brain was a boon for the psychological study of religion.

In his State of the Union Address on February 12th of this year, President Obama signaled his interest in launching a renewed collective effort to explore the nature of the human brain:

 

“Now, if we want to make the best products, we also have to invest in the best ideas. Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar. Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s… Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race.”

 

According to a New York Times story by John Markoff on February 17, the Obama Administration is preparing to launch an ambitious plan called the “Brain Activity Map” that will coordinate efforts by governmental agencies, universities, and private foundations to create a more comprehensive understanding of the brain’s dynamic functioning. The impetus for the Brain Activity Map project is to devise better ways of studying the complex interactions among neurons all across the brain, not just in small isolated groups.  Once we can understand the brain at that higher level of sophistication, the hope is we will find new clues to treating stroke victims and curing diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

As the Brain Activity Map project goes forward, it will almost certainly benefit the psychology of religion.  Many important features of religion (e.g., rituals, moral codes, symbol systems, conversion experiences, mystical revelations) involve a variety of psychological processes that are likely rooted in the interactions of multiple regions and systems in the brain.  The more we learn about how the brain functions as a whole, the more we will learn about the psychological dimensions of religion.

And the more we will learn about dreams, a natural part of brain functioning that is also a source of religious interest and fascination all over the world.  In a “Sunday Observer” column on February 23 for the New York Times titled “The Next Frontier Is Inside Your Brain,” Philip M. Boffey describes the exciting potentials of President Obama’s brain research initiative.  Boffey points to neuroscientific research on dreams as an example of how the Brain Activity Map could spark the public’s imagination:

 

“Scientists have even determined what animals are dreaming by first having them walk through certain locations in a fixed order and recording which neurons are activated. Then when the animal is sleeping, they can see if the same neurons are firing in the same order, an indication that the animal is probably dreaming about the walking it had just done. This rather simple experiment involves putting electrodes in the brain to record perhaps 100 neurons at a time. To really understand what is happening when an individual dreams, scientists will need to record what happens to many thousands or possibly millions of neurons as the dream is unfolding.

 

If the next decade of neuroscience can generate insights at this level of integrated detail, it bodes very well for the psychological study of dreams and all other forms of complex, multi-modal religious experience.

####

Note: This commentary was also published on the Huffington Post.

Sleep, Dreaming, and Human Health

Sleep, Dreaming, and Human Health by Kelly BulkeleyDominican University’s Albertus Magnus Society will present a lecture titled “Sleep, Dreaming, and Human Health” by Dr. Kelly Bulkeley, visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, on Thursday, February 11 at 7:00 p.m. The lecture will be held in Priory Campus Room 263, 7200 W. Division Street, River Forest. The event is free and open to the public.

     Bulkeley will explain how sleep and dreaming are natural processes hard-wired into the human brain, as well as universal portals into religious experience and spiritual insight. He will describe current scientific research on the health benefits of sleep and the evolutionary functions of dreaming. He will integrate these findings with philosophical and religious teachings about the healing power of dreams.

     Established in 2006 by the Siena Center of Dominican University, the Albertus Magnus Society pursues new information and insight in a setting that is both scholarly and congenial, and reflects the Dominican understanding of the compatibility of religion and science. The society was named for Albertus Magnus, patron saint of scientists, and thirteenth century Dominican famed for scientific discoveries and a theology reflective of the emerging science of his day. For more information on the Albertus Magnus Society, please call (708) 714-9105 or visit the website at http://www.dom.edu/ams.