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Time to Wake Up–You’re Dreaming? November 12, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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Why do we dream? And why on earth do 3rd trimester fetuses dream when they have nothing to dream about? New research gives an answer that goes in a new direction. Instead of focusing on the dream itself, what Freud called the “manifest dream content” and trying to figure out what it may symbolize of hidden wishes and memories, sleep researcher Dr. J. Allan Hobson suggests to look to a physiological explanation rather than a psychological one. We dream to prepare our brain for waking up.

“It helps explain a lot of things, like why people forget so many dreams,” Dr. Hobson said in an interview. “It’s like jogging; the body doesn’t remember every step, but it knows it has exercised. It has been tuned up. It’s the same idea here: dreams are tuning the mind for conscious awareness.”

Drawing on work of his own and others, Dr. Hobson argues that dreaming is a parallel state of consciousness that is continually running but normally suppressed during waking. The idea is a prominent example of how neuroscience is altering assumptions about everyday (or every-night) brain functions.

This theory isn’t the only one to focus on the brain function of dreams rather than the dream content. Theories have been floated for a while, suggesting that the purpose of dreams is to get rid of superfluous mind activity from during the day, like “clearing” your computer’s “cache.” Hobson’s theory seems to hold some additional promise, though; for one thing, it explains the “fetal dreaming” phenomenon. For another, it also may explain that intriguing phenomenon of lucid dreaming, but it still doesn’t address why some dreams seem so meaningful to us. The dismissal of the meaning of dreams is going to run into another feature of human nature that is not hypothetical: Our pervasive, universal, fantastic capacity for storytelling as a way of making sense out of chaotic life. And dreams are certainly a form of narration. Still, I have been wondering about dream and their supposed meaning for a while, and this theory may give at least partial answers: if dreams are somehow unconscious messages to our conscious self (according to traditional Freudian theory, as well as a multitude of other dream theories), then why do we forget most of them before they even reach our conscious mind? Messages without a listener? Stories without an audience? Seems like a wasted effort…Or perhaps the intended audience is not our conscious self at all? Hobson’s theory may provide the answer: No audience is needed other than the brain itself that needs to gear up and be ready for when we do wake up. And why do some of us lapse into daydreams—especially teens? Well, maybe it is the brain reverting to a dream state as a form of growth process for the young brain? The brain taking a break and absorbing new impressions? (That may actually have been sufficiently explained by neuroscience, and I’m just not hip to it. In that case I apologize for my ignorance!) Philosophers can only hope that dream researchers may actually come up with some useful answers (because we don’t have the credentials to do it ourselves!), but once the research is out there, we can make it work for us in our continued search for the nature of Human Nature. But with our narrative capacity being so deep-seated, a dream theory will have to address the narrative function of dreams, if only as the brain function best suited to get the brain up and running. That in itself would be interesting.

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