Sleep and Dreaming Fundamentals
By David Worrell
I. Sleep Fundamentals
The following points, taken from research on sleep and dreaming, could be considered a "foundation" or jumping off point in arriving at different theories as to some of the fundamental purposes of dreaming. In other words, if we start with a few simple truths, instead of with a bunch of wild semi-religious bullshit, maybe, just maybe we'll have a chance of eventually drawing some real conclusions.
These points, considered a basic foundation of current knowledge, are taken from Christopher Evan's book, Landscapes of the Night: How and Why We Dream:
First: Sleep is a phenomenon which involves a period of relative quiescence
on an animal's part, and in particular a loss of consciousness and responsiveness to stimuli which puts it, in principle and often in practice, at considerable risk of its life.
Second: Despite the risky nature of the exercise, sleep is an exceedingly widespread phenomenon in the animal kingdom, being present in all mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and in some amphibia. There is no evidence of its occurrence to any significant extent in molluscs, insects and the numerous phyla equipped with primitive nervous systems. It does not appear to be present in plants.
[While these points may seem obvious, they are very important. Sleep, including its accompanying process of dreaming, MUST provide some advantage (or be an essential part of the support system for some advantage) which is vital to an advanced organism, or there is no way it would have evolved in a predatory world.]
Third: There seems to be a rough equation between the amount of sleep taken and complexity of the species' central nervous sytem. Those species such as the mammals which have highly evolved brains and are capable of elaborate sensory discriminations and psycho-motor responses, spend large parts of their lives asleep. Birds need less sleep, but still indulge in it. Reptiles and fish need even less. Among the mammals the carnivores on the whole need more than the herbivores.
Fourth: Sleep is not a period when the central nervous system lapses into inactivity. The relative immobility of the body during sleep is misleading, for the brain is highly active for much of the sleep period.
Fifth: Sleep does not appear to be one continuous process, but is made up of a number of different types of activity whose individual characteristics are not properly understood. In purely descriptive terms most of the sleep period is dominated by rhythmic, rather slow electrical patterns. Between a fifth and a quarter of the total time, however, features vigorous, rapid and irregular patterns when muscle activity is absent, with the curious exception of the eye muscles which give rise to the burst of rapid eye-moments.
Sixth: This differentiation into what is sometimes known as REM and non-REM sleep, sometimes as desynchronized and synchronized sleep, and more recently as active sleep (AS) and quiet sleep (QS), occurs only in those animals with highly evolved nervous systems, notably mammals and birds. It is only controversially present in reptiles and fish.
Seventh: Animals deprived of sleep for any substantial time exhibit symptoms of behavioural disorder, and in the case of humans hallucinations occur, plus delusions and bizarre trains of thought. If animals are deprived of sleep for long periods they tend to die, and death occurs sooner than death from food deprivation. There is anecdotal evidence that man too dies from prolonged sleep deprivation.
[Sleep then, with its accompanying dreaming processes, is not only vital somehow, evolutionarily speaking, it is essential to the very survival of a higher animal]
Eighth: The effects of sleep deprivation appear to be more marked with older than with younger animals, though the very young are particularly seriously affected. Young human adults have gone for as long as 250 hours without sleep and suffered no detectable long-term effects, but hallucinations etc. make the process an unpleasant one.
Ninth: The sleep requirement falls off steadily with age. Babies and very young animals need the most sleep, and the elderly (when healthy) need the least.
Replica Watches Replica Watches
[Consequently, babies and very young animals also dream the most, and this brings up a very interesting question, which is: WHY do they need to sleep and dream the most?]
Tenth: REM periods or active sleep are almost always associated with the mental process known as "dreaming" in humans. It is not, of course, possible to make the same assumption about animals.
Eleventh: Animals and humans may be deprived of REM periods for days and even weeks with no conclusive evidence of dramatic long-term psychological or behavioural distrubances. On the other hand, when animals and humans are allowed to sleep normally following lengthy REM-deprivation they spend a significantly greater proportion of the recovery sleep in the REM phase.
[So it would appear that sleep (as a whole) is the process which is essential to survival, and that the accompanying dreaming adds something which is also vital enough to attempt to recover when it has been denied, but which is also a bit more of an "extra" somehow.]
Twelfth, and finally: There are very striking similarities between the hallucinatory and ideational disturbances that occur in sleep deprivation and those seen in certain drug-induced states, in the peculiar transitional zones between sleep and waking, in mystical experiences and, of course, in many mental disorders and psychoses.
[If you deprive the brain of sleep and dreaming, it starts doing its best to
bring states very similar to sleep and dreaming right into your waking life. And
as many of us have discovered, it is possible to train oneself to consciously
bring states similar to sleep and dreaming right into your waking life.]
II. Dreaming Fundamentals
First, I'm going to give a couple of anecdotes illustrating cases where a dreaming experience accounted for something quite "useful", then I'm going to detail Christopher Evans' theories on why we dream. (the background material in his book was almost more interesting than his theories, perhaps because he died before finishing the book. . .)
Evans gave an example from his own life of how dreams can be very useful. He had his watch stolen, and when he attempted to report it to the police he realized that he could not recall the make of the watch to save his life, even though he had undoubtedly stared at it a thousand times. But that very night he dreamed of an expanded close-up of the face of his watch, clearly showing the name: BIFORA. He then remembered having seen it on countless occasions.
This is a great example of how useful information we cannot recall in waking can be pulled out of our memories and brought into sharp focus when dreaming. I would guess that many of you have experienced this.
The next anecdote is great, because it shows how dreams can often drive a point home in an extremely intense and emotional way. It also shows how dreaming sometimes gives one "future projections" based on current behavior, allowing one to be confronted with a realistic representation of certain possibilities . . .
"Some years ago I was a heavy cigarette smoker--up to two packs a day. Then one night I had an exceptionally vivid and realistic dream in which I had inoperable cancer of the lung. I remember as though it were yesterday looking at the ominous shadow in my chest X-ray and realizing that the entire right lung was infiltrated . . . I experienced the incredible anguish of knowing my life was soon to end, that I would never see my children grow up, and that none of this would have happened if I had quit cigarettes when I first learned of their carcinogenic potential. I will never forget the surprise, joy and exquisite relief of waking up. I felt I was reborn. Needless to say, the experience was sufficient to induce an immediate cessation of my cigarette habit. . ."
Now, while the above dream was not an aware dream, who would dare call such a life-changing experience "mental masturbation"? I would assert that literally thousands of such anecdotes could be found. There have certainly been comparable dreaming experiences in my own life. So, one purpose of dreams, at very least, is to bring home the emotional truth of important life situations by allowing one to have an intense "virtual experience" of the possible outcomes.
EE asked if they had done studies on lizards. It turns out that they did. :-) Biologists at the University of Houston decided to study reptiles, because they are thought to be the common ancestors of both birds and mammals.
"To do this, they kitted out some cayman crocodiles in the latest thing in EEG detection outfits and lulled their unlikely subjects off to sleep in a warm tank. As the caymans sank into unconsciousness, with a slowed heartbeat and breathing and reduced muscle tone, the EEG picked up slow wave, or quiet sleep, quite distinctly. However there was no sign of REM or active sleep or any other features of mammalian-style snoozing."
Evans believed that one of the main purposes of sleep and dreaming is to maintain the basic "programs" of an organism--similar to the way in which a computer, when its programs are being updated, is often taken offline for a while so that necessary compilation and simulation and testing can be done before hooking back into "real world real-time" operation. He saw such experiments as the one on crocs as being in support of his theory, for the "behavior programs" of lower organisms should be relatively restricted, compared to ours, and so should require a lot less in the way of "maintenance".
So, sez I, reptiles would be more like DOS 3.3 while mammals could be more like Windows NT or Unix with X-Windows. REM state dreaming could be seen as being part of the maintenance utilities for running "the new graphical interface". Okay, Evans uses the computer metaphors a lot and it's catching. . .
Evans saw much of dreaming as the brain "rerunning daytime experiences", sometimes in creative or disguised form, somehow in the process "inserting" any new information deemed as comprising useful modifications into the basic "programs" we use. And there IS a good deal of experimental evidence that dreams frequently do contain material which is somehow related to recent waking experiences.
Evans believed that dreams also serve a "housekeeping" function in the brain, sorting out what is and isn't needed, organizing things. Evans' frequent assumption is that many of the functions of dreaming are related to serving the needs of the brain for keeping itself in good shape for the daytime world. It therefore makes perfect sense that infants would sleep and dream a great deal, because so much of what happens to them is NEW and would thus require more "assimilation time".
Evans believed that we just remember the highlights, the most striking parts of our dreaming, forgetting most of it completely simply because it is just "routine maintenance" and thus is not supposed to be remembered. That too fits with research, as even those with very good dream recall tend to naturally recall only a very small portion of their nightly dreaming (unless awakened in the midst of each REM period and questioned).
Meditation has been experimentally found to cause people to need less REM dreaming. Evans thought this is because the more "peaceful" and "harmonious" brain has to spend less time working out anxieties and other difficulties. It solves its problems more efficiently.
There are experiments which have shown that more hyper, sensitive, anxious individuals will tend to recall more dreams than relaxed, happy, "well-adjusted" people. My son, for example, almost never recalls a dream, while I recall at least one virtually every night. . . (he has begun to think it is weird that I dream so much and place so much emphasis on dreaming). I used to have another good friend who hardly ever recalled a dream, and . . . he too was a very relaxed, rather happy, handsome, easy-going, social kinda guy. I used to think this was because I was a "dreamer" and he was a "stalker", but now I think its likely that he was simply a lot less "anxious" a personality type than I am. I also wonder if perhaps CC created his types of "dreamer" and "stalker" after seeing some of the research related to this topic.
I can provide an additional observation here from my own experience. When I have myself worked into some kind of extreme emotional distress, in worst case scenarios, I will actually awaken after EVERY REM dreaming period in the night (5 or 6 times a night) to recall some dreaming experience I just had (often rather bizarre ones). It feels almost like my mind starts taking drastic steps to "deal with the problem" or something, and often if I look "holistically" at the weird scenes it creates, I AM able to derive some sort of "instruction" from it, enabling me to adapt to a situation more harmoniously, or at least I can see how the strange scenes come to bear on the feelings involved, somehow easing the pressure. Fortunately, this doesn't happen to me all that often. :-)
It may follow that people who become emotionally distressed to the point of being "mentally ill" are "living bizarre dreams" a great deal of the time, as their brains desperately strive to rebalance and retune their tortured consciousness. If this is correct, unfortunately, and paradoxically, it may even happen that the disturbing nature of "the cure" will just make a mentally ill person worse, if they do not understand that the bizarre dreams and visions are merely an attempt at "recalibration". And I wonder, if this is correct, if it would be possible to help some mentally ill people, simply by explaining this to them? Perhaps then some of them could stop taking their delusions, whatever they are, at face value, and start to see them more in terms of "counterbalancing self-therapy". Just ingesting that simple concept might be enough to allow some to successfully "rebalance". This is my own idea here, I have not seen this in print. Freud had something like this idea, but IMO got the details way wrong--way too complex, convoluted and obsessive. IMO, it is not usually necessary to "analyze" dream images extensively, for most often an entire bizarre dream sequence will coalesce into a very simple key idea, intuitively, if one just reviews the dream a few times, while asking something generic like "what is the general idea or feeling here?".
The "rebound effect", the way in which an animal attempts to makeup for lost REM dreaming time when deprived of it, might simply indicate that the organism gets behind on assimilating and sorting new information. Notice that this would not necessarily be fatal or disruptive, then again, in some cases it might be--it would depend on the personality, and on what is going on in waking life. And that would ALSO fit with known experimental results, where some studies found there were serious disturbances associated with REM deprivation while other studies found NO serious negative effects. One study even found individual differences, i.e. that some animals in the study (within the same species) were seriously disturbed by REM deprivation, while others could stoicly endure it virtually forever without having any major problems.
It has been observed that people who are starving have much less dreaming time than normal people, and that when anorexics begin to put on weight, they also begin to dream more. Perhaps this is because dreaming itself burns some energy, and so in this way too dreaming is treated as more of a "luxury" item than other more basic bodily "maintenance" needs (this is my own speculation).
Evans also mentions how people have solved important scientific problems, and/or have received profound creative inspiration from dreams, giving several famous examples. He quotes Patricia Garfield, another dream researcher who also did work in the field of lucid dream research: "if a person is consciously working on a problem, it is very likely that his or her unconscious will continue working in the dream state, drawing on all inner resources to put together new combinations and present them". In my own experience, this claim is quite correct.
Evans concludes by talking a little about the potential of lucid dreaming for consciously modeling realities in order to learn things about oneself, face one's fears, etc.--but LaBerge has covered all that much more thoroughly. . .
Again, the book was: Landscapes of the Night: How and Why We Dream.