What the Freud is Up with Dreams?

in Uncategorized
April 15th, 2011

Ranging from the Eastern Mediterranean in the 7th century, to China in the 16th century, and finally to Europe in the 17th century, dream interpretation has been viewed as a decryption of supernatural communications and symbolic messages. Sigmund Freud, the academically (in)famous founder of the field of psychoanalysis, whole-heartedly supported the hypothesis that dreams contain deeper meaning. He consequently produced one of the seminal works on the subject, quite obviously named, The Interpretation of Dreams. Today, revelatory and efficient techniques, such as MRI and EEG, have far surpassed Freud’s interpretive dream journal methods, and allow scientists to look at dreams from a very different perspective. Although these advancements lend more credibility to the field of oneirology, it is still somewhat tainted by its psychoanalytic past. Some even go as far to say that studying dreams is “academic suicide”. Nevertheless, modern neuroscience has forced Freud’s ideas to the background, making room for new theories of memory consolidation, experience organization, and emotional stabilization.

Let's hope he doesn't show up in your dreams.

Let's hope he doesn't show up in your dreams.

Since dreaming occurs while sleeping, it is no surprise that the sleep cycle, during which the brain experiences patterns of varying electrical activity, has been implicated in dream theories. Each cycle consists of five stages – two stages of light sleep, followed by two stages of deep sleep, and completed with a stage of rapid eye movement sleep (REM). Unfortunately, there is no representative electrical pattern associated with dreaming, but REM and non-REM sleep have both been connected to the brain’s analysis of waking experiences. Pierre Maquet at the University of Liege, Belgium, observed deep non-REM sleep and found that the brain’s electrical activity mimicked the electrical activity elicited during waking experiences.

Not only do we replay events in our dreams, but we also seem to process, integrate, and store the information for future use. Robert Stickgold of Harvard University found that those who had non-REM dreams about a task that they were asked to complete, proceeded to do better on it. Stickgold proposes that “non-REM dreaming might be more important for stabilizing and strengthening memories, while REM dreaming reorganizes the way a memory is stored in the brain, allowing you to compare and integrate a new experience with older ones”. On a different, albeit related note, daydreaming activates a part of the brain called the default network. This region has previously been shown to be associated with memory processing. Be sure to mention this to your professor next time you’re caught not paying attention in class.

Matt Walker of the University of California acknowledges that dreaming has an important role in memory, but argues that the main function is emotional homeostasis. Walker has found that REM sleep facilitates the strengthening of negative memories. He believes that experiencing the negative emotion in a dream state can diminish the intensity of the emotion, making it easier to deal with. In those with post-traumatic stress disorder, however, this process seems to fail. Boston University’s Patrick McNamara agrees with Walkers’ speculation. He believes that “non-REM dreams help us practice friendly encounters, while REM dreams help us to rehearse threats”.

While dreaming, the brain rewires itself and forms new connections. It seems that this curious kind of consciousness does not reveal our secret desires or open windows into our hidden selves, but instead plays an integral role in making us who we are. Sorry, Siggy.

To view the original article from New Scientist, click here!

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3 Comments on What the Freud is Up with Dreams?

  • Modern neuroscience has validated a number of Freud’s ideas about dreaming. See this study by Nir and Tononi:


    “In the 19th century, sensory experience was often regarded as the source of dreams, which were considered to be an attempt of the mind to interpret somatic nerve-stimuli (Supplementary Fig. 1). A similar notion was later adopted by Henri Beaunis, and recently championed by Allan Hobson (Table 1)[4, 11, 47]. According to his AIM model, internally generated signals originating in the brainstem during REM sleep, such as PGO waves, excite visual cortex and are later processed and synthesized by higher-order areas. High levels of acetylcholine in the absence of aminergic neuromodulation may enhance feed-forward transmission and suppress back-propagation[3, 107]. By contrast, Freud and some of his followers asserted that dreams originate from psychic motives that are later instantiated as sensory percepts, much like mental imagery[5].Deciding between these alternative views will most likely require difficult experiments in which the direction of signal flow during dreaming sleep is evaluated and compared to that during waking perception and imagery[108] (Box 4). However, various lines of evidence already suggest that dreaming may be more closely related to imagination than to perception. From lesion studies (Box 3) we know that dreaming requires an intact temporo-parieto-occipital junction[22, 23] and lesions in this region also affect mental imagery in wakefulness[109]. Cognitive studies indicate that the skill that maximally correlates with dream recall in adults is visuo-spatial imagery[110]. In children, dream recall develops hand in hand with visuo-spatial imagery (Box 2). In epileptic patients, direct electrical stimulation in high-order regions such as the medial temporal lobe, rather than in visual cortex, can elicit “dream-like” experiences[111], although such patients are simultaneously aware of their surroundings. Other evidence comes from lucid dreamers[25] who report that it is impossible to focus on fine-grain details of visual objects, as is the case in mental imagery[112]. Perhaps top-down connections lack the anatomical specificity to support detailed representations. The rare occurrences of smells or pain in dreams may also be related to our difficulty in imagining them vividly when awake. However, one important difference between dreaming and mental imagery is that while imagining we are aware that the images are internally generated (preserved reflective thought).”

  • Why does cheese give you vivid dreams and certain type of dreams. I did my own maybe not so interesting test and over a few days guzzled loads of cheese, different types, each night. Then looked it up what each type did and it was very amazing. Brilliant vivid dreams bang on the subject matter it should have been.

    Any ideas about that :-) Sorry just a fun thought…

  • Gotta Love the Cheese comment. Will give it a go :-) Great blog and info tho..

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