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Is Dreaming Complex? – And Why Do We Dream at All?

By Guest Author RTW

It doesn’t take much to become slightly overwhelmed at the sheer complexity of the world we live in. There’s so much to learn that it’s easy to simply sit in awe and ponder the intricacy of the world around us. Everything from the device you’re reading this on, to the social structure of our society, and further still to the ecology of this planet and its climate system. The universe is a big place, with more stars then grains of sand, and a near infinite number of things for curious minds like ourselves to discover.

Humans have many ways of approaching challenges, especially big-picture concepts which many might be familiar with. The ‘Butterfly Effect’ helps to at least quantify the scale which the real world operates within – a intertwined system that it is highly sensitive to even minute changes driving a complex nonlinear system. The world is a big place and since the earliest days of mankind, we’ve been searching for ways to explain what we observe around us. Thankfully, humans have a certain way of thinking about things that make everything from the universe-scale to the quantum-sized theories manageable for the everyday amateur intellect.

We’re all naturally systematic thinkers – capable of analysing and describing complex phenomenon in terms of simplified constituents. Concepts can be broken down into manageable chunks and big problems explained by a combination of much simpler terms. However, some people naturally seem to be a lot better at this than others.

So-called ‘Reductionists’ are some of most inspiring and influential thinkers that have shaped human history. Up to the present day, there had been a great number of people that have progressively broken down complex systems into a few small relationships – Theories that we can get our ape-like brains to understand. Some of the most famous are figures I bet we can all recognise. Newton could explain the motion of almost all matter with three simple laws. Charles Darwin was able to explain the intricacy of natural ecosystems through natural selection. And more recently, the pioneering work of John Nash has begun to explain the complexity of economic systems. We humans really should be proud at how easily we can come up with simple relationships that underlie and define the world around us.

But there are a few realms of science which lack this reductionism. Many fields of current research maintain the same appearance as the messy and complex systems they really are. This includes the science (and psychology) of dreaming, which still lacks the illumination of simple principles governing how dreams behave – as well as why we dream at all! We have yet to be blessed by the creative genius of insight into the so far mysterious processes creating and governing dreams.

There may be a number of reasons for this.

The primary issue regarding the study of dreams is derived from problems in data collection. Dreams are presently being studied by the recording of anecdotal evidence in the form of written or auditory data. Such data is prone to the bias that that human mind naturally includes. Interpretations become muddled with observations, with anecdotes prone to patchy dream recall and storyfication. On a more principle level, as dreamers we are only ever experiencing the finished product of dreaming itself – rather than the underlying mechanics creating the phenomenon. Much like when watching a movie, you don’t see the cameras, the microphones, and the sheer volume of people that go into making a film. You see the end product – the story we’re given. Of course dreams look like complex on the surface! – but will we ever be able to pull the curtains and see the underlying machinery of it all?

A lot of questions can be asked in regard dreams, but very few can be answered clearly. At least on the surface, dreams appear to be intricate stories dragging emotions and expectation into complicated looping experiences. Many theories have developed over the past century trying to explain why we dream – although perhaps the most popular pioneering work was developed by Sigmund Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis) with ‘The interpretation of Dreams’ published in 1899.

Freud proposed the concept of two dominant mental processes driving dream creation. This involved an unconscious force which expressed wish fulfilment, and a secondary censorship process which acted to then twist this expression – turning it into the often kooky dreams we experience. Freud suggested that the human mind was composed of an unconscious force which includes thought processes in the brain the individual is not actively aware of. He further hypothesised that dreams were the perfect tool to allow a person to study how the unconscious mind operated.

Freudian thinking remains very much ingrained in the realms of dream science even to this day. His logic behind how the human brain works has retained its legacy in psychology. However, he wasn’t as successful with his analysis of dreams. The beautifully simple concept that dreams are representations of wish fulfilment never really stuck. In fact, discontent with the theory was quite considerable and can only be truly appreciated by the resulting development of a term known as ‘Kettle logic’. This phrase was invented by Jacques Derrida to describe the multiple of inconsistent arguments (largely by combing contradicting interpretations) that Freud used to support the case that dreams were a form of wish fulfilment. So even if the theory was simplistic and elegant – it wasn’t as well received as Freud intended.

Thankfully things have progressed over the last hundred years or so. Today, there are a number of modern theories that provide more logical arguments for exactly why we dream. These include suggestions that dreams are:

  • A requirement for the consolidation of memories, including turning short-term memories into long-term memory

  • A method by which the mind can work through issues, experiences, and emotions to achieve psychological balance (especially emotionally)

  • An act of natural protection in which the brain learns from past experiences and prepares itself to face future perceived threats when awake. Simulating real world dangers and practicing facing them.

  • The brain responding to biochemical changes as well as electrical impulses occurring during sleep.

Researchers today go as far to suggest that there is unlikely to be a simple answer at all! Maybe dreams really are as complex as they seem? Still, no key theory has been proposed to explain why we dream and their role in humans (and mammals in general actually) especially from an evolutionary perspective. However, although we may not know why we dream we do know what dreams are good for! It’s been established that dreaming is important for a range of functions ranging from the cognitive to the biological. It’s also something we frankly cannot go without.

It’s been shown in a range of studies in which people which were prevented from experiencing REM sleep (the phase of sleep in which we dream) that without dreams humans become anxious, depressed, tend to gain weight. Not only that, but it becomes much more difficult to concentrate on everyday tasks. Eventually the REM phase of sleep is forced upon deeper sleep stages, meaning that prolonged periods of REM deprivation are not possible – It’s that important! For more extensive studies competed in rats, prolonged loss of sleep was found to be devastating. A rather morbid study completed by Allan Rechtschaffen in the eighties showed that total sleep deprivation in rats resulted in death within 11-32 days. The world record for the longest a human has stayed awake was achieved by Randy Gardner in 1964 with a total time spent without sleep of 11 days and 25 minutes. Although attempts were made to beat his time, the Guinness Book of Records rightly stopped certifying attempts, believing it could be dangerous to people's health.

At the time of writing, we still haven’t had any ground-breaking theory on exactly why we dream. Nor can we expect one any time soon. This realm of science is tangled up in studies of how the mind works right at the cutting edge of present research, which is exciting stuff for us lucid dreamers. Although we might never know for sure why we dream, nor what evolutionary advantage it may have, we may be able to identify just how we dream. And this time around you won’t need a PET or MRI scanner to get a glimpse – all you have to do is fall asleep each night!

There have been many proposals that a certain rationale lies behind the imagery we experience when dreaming. Such ‘dream logic’ is a subject which has been touched upon briefly by many lucid dreamers typically since LaBerge published his initial works in 1985 and 1990. Already broad concepts have trickled down into the many lucid dreaming communities gathered across the internet. The use of terms such as ‘expectation’ and ‘assumptions’ influencing how we experience dreams is something I’m sure everybody has come across at some point or other. The theory is simple and fairly reductionistic – that dreams create themselves around what we expect to experience in a given situation.

Creation around expectation is a trait plucked straight from our waking lives. This mental process is occurring continually during our lives to simplify our conscious experience – largely by assuming that the physical world will continue to work as expected. Such natural assumptions of the workings of everyday life allows the brain to run many processes on autopilot, leaving space to allow our conscious awareness to focus on things of interest. The same process is seen vividly inside out dreams with imagery effectively an expression of all the things we take for granted – everything from gravity to the sky being blue. Dreams mimic reality, but in a way based on our natural experiences. These have taught us how to expect the waking world to behave. It’s also this behaviour we commonly seeing cropping up in our dreams too.

Have the reductionists finally exposed the logic behind dreaming?

To be honest, we’re not quite sure. Our uncertainty can be summed up by the following question – to what scale do dreams really mimic reality? If we assume that dreams are created purely by the individual, then surely what we experience can only be derived from our own experiences? But then how is it possible to dream of things that we have never seen? As a rather extreme example, this includes studies (Voss et al., 2011) on people born paralyzed which have later dreamt of activities like running and swimming – even when they’ve never been able to experience them. Dreams can surprise us with the unexpected, allowing humour as well as fantastical and completely unrealistic scenarios to develop. Why would we get such crazy imaginative dreams if they were simply a continuation of genuine expectations derived from the waking world? Is it really that simple?

More recent studies (including Malinowski and Horton, 2014) suggest that most of the content of our dreams are based around autobiographical memories, or memories of the self. We are more likely to dream about experiences focusing on ourselves rather than exterior events, locations, or specific times. Taking things a step further – we are more likely to dream about things we often do when awake, typically work. This provides support to our rule of thumb but fails to explain the abnormal things we dream of. However, it is a step in a right direction.

In truth we are still in the infancy of the scientific study of dreaming. There’s so much we don’t know, and more we cannot even fathom yet. Researchers aren’t really sure why we dream, or exactly the reasoning behind what we dream of. Present day lucid dreamers have found themselves at the dawn of a science in such a way that it’s either a blessing or a curse. There’s so much we don’t know – but there is also so much yet to discover! And perhaps (just like the reductionists of old), it may be you reading this article that manages to find the hidden relationship underlying it all!


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About the author:

Arty is friendly writer and blogger from the UK. A practiced lucid dreamer, he runs a popular blog under the pseudonym RTW. You can visit his site here: RTW on Tumblr


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