When Science Dreams

“I’VE ALWAYS WONDERED WHY my brain doesn’t simply rest at night, as my body does, but instead sets to work creating an artificial world that seems as real as waking life.”

The use of the phrase, “my brain,” in Andrea Rock’s book, The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why We Dream, beautifully displays the problem of language, where body parts become separate entities, and dream states are artificial in comparison to waking states.

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“Landscape with the Dream of Jacob”

Rock’s book collects an amazing amount of research on brain function and dream states, including a look at the cause of dream content, sleep disorders, lucid dreaming and dream states of non-human animals.

For science though, causality, function and purpose are valued, while quality, meaning and subjective states are deemed unreliable. Scientists tend to over-value measurement, as acceptable verification of objective fact. What we dream takes a back seat to how and why we dream:

“The current revolution in thought about how and why we dream debunks some elements of the theories proposed by both Freud and Jung. But as you’ll see, there are significant pieces of each of their theories that are now supported by scientific evidence.”

The book dabbles in the fascinating but contentious debate over the source of consciousness.

“Ultimately, dream research may also help answer what many consider to be the most intriguing question of all: what is the source of the peculiar brand of self-reflective consciousness that appears to separate humans from other creatures—that nebulous quality that allows us to make intricate plans, fantasize, string memories together to create a personal history, or use abstractions such as language and art to represent our own mental processes?

At the end of the book, consciousness is said to be, “a con job beautifully carried out by neural circuitry of astonishing complexity.”

“Thanks to those who are in the forefront of the quest to comprehend those larger questions about how brain becomes mind, we are now seeing that even when we are interacting with the “real” world in waking hours, our experience actually occurs not “out there” but within the brain itself, just as it does in dreams.”

1345672If only the measurable is real, the source of consciousness will be sought only within the material brain itself. At its worse, there are more than a few scientists who are quite certain that free will itself is an illusion, because so much behavior corresponds to measurable brain physiology. One has to wonder though, has all of nature evolved only to realize that we are machines programmed to realize we are programmed?

Measuring electrical circuitry and chemical reactions does not address what drives fluctuations. Passivity and lack of agent is assumed. Can the human quality of our awareness, as it changes over a life time, affect measurable brain function? If so, I await the day that science seeks to measure our willful attempts at change over a larger span of life.

The author discusses J. Allen Hobson’s theories that all dream imagery is dependent on externals absorbed from waking states. The stranger in your dream is an amalgamation of people you have seen, that’s it. But, can you measure an unknown or prove the image is a blend of people you’ve seen? This assumes that all of our states of awareness come from internal sources.

Anytime I hear the word random being used, I am troubled. For example:

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The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

“In this altered state, Hobson says, the brain does its best to spin a dream plot to match brainstem signals that may randomly stimulate an intense feeling of fear one minute or a sensation of freefalling the next. Hobson and McCarley’s landmark study maintained that since the signals that initiated the creation of dream imagery came from the primitive brainstem and the more highly evolved cognitive areas of the forebrain were just passively responding to them, the dream process had “no primary ideational, volitional, or emotional content.” The resulting dream was the product of the forebrain “making the best of a bad job in producing even partially coherent dream imagery” in response to chaotic signals from the brainstem.”

Does measuring neurochemical activity in the brainstem prove involuntary stimulation, or that dream states have no correspondence to anything outside the physiology of the brain? Perhaps the seeming randomness of brain activity in sleep states is driven by something not yet understood. Can it be proven that the signals from the brainstem are “chaotic?” Here is where I think dream content itself could be studied for patterns corresponding to an individual’s dayworld experience. Correspondence between waking and dreaming states might be found to have conscious, volitional correspondence. It would be interesting to monitor the dreams of people who are in therapy or doing dream work to discern meaningful physiological brain patterns.

Below, Rock refers again to Hobson’s work on the physiology of dreaming:

“In his view, the settings and characters our brain dredges up from our personal memories or imagination as it scrambles to form a plot to respond to this chaotic electrochemical state may reflect our emotional preoccupations, and reflecting on those preoccupations can provide insight.”

The choice of the words “dredges,” and “scramble,” reveal the difficulty in accounting for the images in the dream. If not dredging and scrambling, what else might we discover to be going on in the formation of specific dream content? Perhaps there is a bridge between physiological process and symbol formation, even if locating it in matter is not possible.

Hobson concludes that many dreams in which we are trying to move, but can’t, have a physiological basis:

“Those circuits in turn are issuing orders for your body to run, but since the brainstem is preventing those signals from reaching your leg muscles, the perception carried through into the dream is that you’re trying to run but you’re stuck, so you weave that into the dream’s plot.”

What is not accounted for are the dreams in which we are moving. Having had many such dreams of walking, running, drumming, singing and even riding a bicycle, Hobson’s idea is not convincing.

Some cultural prejudices are apparent below  that I would question:

“As Jonathan Winson argued, dreams were never intended to be remembered in the first place, so when we do recall them, we’re just getting an unintended glimpse of our brain at work in its off-line mode. “It is a matter of chance, not related to their function, that we are aware of dreams at all,” says Winson.”

“Intended” by who, you might ask? “Function” for Winson, must be physiological only, which makes it “a matter of chance.” How one determines that dreams were never intended to be remembered is beyond me. Many cultures outside of western europe see dream states and images as meaningful initiatory experiences vital to their relationships with each other and the world.

Rock, however, is reporting the research without necessarily taking a stand on what she presents. I do though, sense her desire to show that dream states primarily have a physiological function. Although she acknowledges that psychological meaning is useful, she does not address its possible effect on brain function. Can we conclude that physiological brain function never corresponds to willful, active insights of meaning and symbolism that are a part of every person’s life? While correspondence may be difficult to measure, a less reductive approach to neuroscience may be useful to the field of mental health.

For many modern scientists, it seems taboo to speak of qualitative meaning as having a physiological basis or correspondence. Perhaps from a fear of losing objectivity, science believes that measuring and repeatability are the only means of validation. For those who have done dream work leading to meaningful, life-changing experience, it may be awhile before the results are recorded in the annals of science.

For a look at a more technical description of dreaming, I do highly recommend Andrea Rock’s book.

All quotes: Rock, Andrea (2009-03-25). The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why We Dream – Basic Books. Kindle Edition.




15 thoughts on “When Science Dreams

  1. A great read… I picked out this bit ” “Those circuits in turn are issuing orders for your body to run, but since the brainstem is preventing those signals from reaching your leg muscles, the perception carried through into the dream is that you’re trying to run but you’re stuck, so you weave that into the dream’s plot.”

    I once watch a scientific programme where I don’t know how they did it but the chemically induced a cat who in dream state had muscle action.. He was seen clearly reaching up and pawing what could have been a bird in his dream… ( I know I often witnessed my own cats paws muscles flex in dreamstate )

    I only know this past year my own Dreams have been more vivid and real, and I wake up sometimes feeling I have done more work in my sleep state than in my day job…
    Thank you Debra for this post…. lots to think, and dream about! 🙂
    Blessings Sue


    1. Hi Sue,

      I did enjoy reading about the latest neuroscience in dream research.

      Glad that you are enjoying an active dream life. It does seem like we’re doing lots of work during sleep. It feels vital, and now science can show us why.

      Thanks for reading and leaving a note too!


  2. Thanks for reading this one and sharing some snippets. I really enjoyed your commentary and the questions you asked. I can understand, sort of kind of, how scientists (some of, perhaps a large portion of?) whom were probably always smart with technical areas or left-brained thinking as children, and who moved through an educational system that valued a particular worldview, would then find themselves tied to that system for their acknowledgment, social interaction and livelihood, but I have often reflected on just how absurdly unscientific it is to discount particular interpretations when the retained interpretation also hinges upon an unprovable starting point.

    There is no system of logic that may be relied upon to draw conclusions about the phenomena in, as, and around us that rests on a provable beginning, is there? Materialism and reductionism are not provable. They are merely choices– analytical boundaries and/or methods of inquiry that hinge upon implied conditions that may or may not be the case.

    If you place a sleeper in a chair, and have the chair fall backwards, you may very well establish a correlation between the dream content and the sleeper’s dimmed physiology. I’m sure many of us have had dreams of falling, only to wake up having landed beside the bed. 🙂 This experience says nothing about ALL dreams, though. It only takes one dream that demonstrates the display of previously unknown or unknowable information to prove the point, and the world is littered with such cases.

    It is interesting they describe the data input from the brain stem as chaotic, for chaos has recently been a fertile area of scientific research. The science in the field suggests “chaotic” systems are those precisely most suited to displaying “emergent properties”, unexpected “phase changes”, “spontaneous ordering”, “irreversibilities”, and all manner of untidy phenomena on which all life depends… Extrapolating beyond the shores of science, it seems to me that chaotic, complex systems are PRECISELY those systems most likely to be conducive to psychoid type of behavior, to bridging the world of the psyche and the world of matter… to being subtle enough as to be promptable by very gentle nudges…



    1. Thanks Michael. The author’s attempt to have a foot in both worlds, was brave and noble. It also made the book readable. I couldn’t wait to read more attempts to discuss the inherently ineffable experience of dreams through the lens of physiology.

      Them premise that only our physiology can explain anything, certainly is a great way to limit your conclusions.

      Thank heavens for chaos, angels and time to take it all in.



  3. 4:45 am PST and I am up after wakening from a complex and vivid dream that now has faded into the ethers. It was powerful enough to leave me fully awake though and I am delighted to do a little check in here and find this great post which can help me piece back together all the adventures we have in the night.

    I have always loved sleeping. I am blessed to be a good sleeper with only rare bouts of insomnia. This is a true gift as my work requires me to “sleep around” while on the road…this meaning many different hotel rooms on the run with different pillows NOT with different people 🙂 .

    There is a running joke about turning a flight attendant loose in a dark hotel room and their being able to get the lights on the fastest as we are used to navigating so many different bedside lamps with different on switch configurations half asleep in unfamiliar rooms in the middle of the night!

    My personal favorite adventure is checking in for the night, running out to eat and then returning to the wrong room with key in hand because I have recalled to mind and remembered the room number from the hotel the night before by mistake! Such fun life on the road and the many places we dream from!



    1. HI M,

      I have always thought being a flight attendant and especially the travelling, to be very exotic. I have a horrible fear of flying, although, because my family live in various locations on the east coast, I do fly a couple of times a year.

      When I’m on the plane, I marvel at staff knowing that they fly a lot and have no fear (I assume). You give me hope that someday I lose my fear!

      I’m a pretty good sleeper myself and it makes sense to me that we would enjoy that activity all the more. I even napped, ever so briefly, on a NYC subway once.

      If I ever hear someone trying to get in my hotel room, I’ll think of you 🙂 I can understand making that mistake though, as most hotels look too much alike.

      The book does have some great tips on dream recall. They say that as soon as you wake up, don’t open your eyes, but think about your dreams for a few minutes. If you remember anything, write it down. The practice of recording your dreams is supposed to help recall.



  4. Dare I say this is the exact type of thinking Jung was reacting to when he said, “Knowledge does not enrich us; it removes us more and more from the mythic world in which we were once at home by our right of birth.”

    A part of me wants so much to find a balance between scientific knowledge and metaphysical truth….but a reductionist view seems more and more inherently flawed…

    Thanks for a brilliant review.


  5. Typical scientific arrogance mixed with some interesting observations. I am with Linda as far as my reaction goes to the claim about remembering dreams. They try to shun all metaphysics but in fact they are making the most unfounded metaphysical statement about the “intentions” of dreams.


  6. Again the debate of free will versus fate is up for discussion 🙂 I have wondered for a long time if the brain structure and activity is cause if behavior or if behavior is simply being reflected by brain structure and activity. Dr. Andy Newberg’s work may interest you Deb: http://www.andrewnewberg.com/
    I have heard him speak twice and have a book or two as well. He was featured in What The Bleep Do We Know? My dream is to work with him one day!
    The quote that we are not meant to remember our dreams really pissed me off! How ridiculous 🙂

    thanks for this provocative post!

    xx Linda


    1. Hi Linda,

      Yeah, I had very mixed feelings writing this post. There are some pretty silly ideas mixed in with a lot of interesting stuff.

      Thanks for the link!


    2. Dr Newberg and also Richard Davidson have put together some great work – much stems from observation and examination of Buddhist meditation benefits. There is a great deal of information on Youtube and I posted several time on this… a summary and links to other posts is included here: http://hunt4truth.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/meditation-changes-brains/

      The benefits of opening oneself to stillness and meditation even do effect dreams and expand awareness, self-acceptance and change behaviors greatly.

      ~ Eric


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