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New studies show that some people can hear and respond to questions while dreaming.
- Four research teams in four countries independently communicated with sleeping volunteers.
- A total of 36 participants correctly responded to questions 18.6% of the time.
- Researchers believe this could open up new avenues for treating anxiety, depression, and trauma.
From Leonardo DiCaprio to Freddie Krueger, pop culture has long been fascinated with the idea of entering someone else's dreams to influence their thoughts—or steal their souls. Of course, dreams have a much longer track record than blockbuster movies. We've long been enthralled with the possibilities of what occurs when we drift off into that "other" world.
But what if that world isn't as "other" as we believed?
Unlike many studies, which are conducted by one team of researchers, four teams in four labs in four countries (France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States) recently attempted to communicate through dreams. The results were published in the journal, Current Biology.
In total, 36 volunteers—a number of lucid dreamers and some novices who claim to remember at least one dream per week—were asked a total of 158 questions. Methods of replying ranged from smiling and frowning to eye movements. The German team went so far as to request Morse code tapped out with eye patterns in a display of, as the team writes, "interactive dreaming."
While lucid dreaming dates back to at least the writings of Aristotle, the term was coined in 1913 by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden, who identified seven types of dreams. He believed lucid dreaming was "the most interesting and worthy of the most careful observation and study." Lucid dreaming is described as the ability to take control of elements of the dream due to an awareness that you're dreaming.
A link between lucid dreams and the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep was first made in 1975 by Keith Hearne. Roughly half of the population experiences at least one lucid dream in their lives, though some people regularly have them—some even train for them.
Philosophy professor Evan Thompson investigates the intersection between Buddhism and lucid dreaming in consciousness studies. In his book "Waking, Dreaming, Being," he describes what occurs when you experience metacognition—in this case, an awareness that you're awake while asleep—while dreaming.
"Use your imagination to manipulate the dream. Be playful. Change things and transform them… Explore the plasticity of the dream. In this way, the mind's supple nature will manifest, and you'll gain a deeper understanding of the dreamscape as a mental construct, a product of imagination."
Dream Hacking: Watch 3 Groundbreaking Experiments on Decisions, Addictions, and Sleep I NOVA I PBS
Participants in this study certainly experienced their imagination stretching, with one volunteer "hearing" the math problem (what is eight minus six?) through a car radio while another dreamer was questioned by a movie narrator.
The results were not overwhelmingly positive mind you, yet still proved successful enough to warrant further research. One researcher called this "proof of concept" more than total confirmation. Over 60 percent of the questions went unanswered. Another 17.7 percent were unclear, while just over 3 percent answered wrong. Yet 18.6 percent of respondents were on the money, an impressive feat for the sleeping.
While the researchers aren't stealing secrets from the subconscious, they hope this discovery could open up new avenues of therapeutics in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and trauma. The idea of accessing "dream content" that they can inform with new content could lead to non-invasive forms of treatment—or "Inception."
As the team writes,
"The scientific investigation of dreaming, and of sleep more generally, could be beneficially explored using interactive dreaming. Specific cognitive and perceptual tasks could be assigned with instructions presented via softly spoken words, opening up a new frontier of research."
Of course, more research is needed, though volunteers will likely not be hard to find. Peeling back the layers of consciousness is both a philosophical pursuit and a nighttime hobby, one that continues to reveal possibilities as we evolve our understanding of the unconscious.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Night owl or early bird?
As with almost all life on Earth, human beings also function in cycles of light and dark. Look what happens to the human organism (and psyche) every day.
2am: Highest level of lymphocytes. The body heals well overnight.
3am: Blood flow through the brain is at its greatest at night.
4am: Growth hormone is secreted at night. It is responsible for tissue regeneration in adults and growth in children. The level of vasopressin is also raised, thanks to which we don't have to run to the bathroom for a pee. In children, where the endocrine system is still developing, bed-wetting is more likely. At night, the level of prolactin, the hormone responsible mainly for lactation, is at its highest.
5am: Body temperature is at its lowest. For night owls, the minimum temperature occurs during the middle of the sleep cycle. For early birds, this occurs at the end of their sleep.
5am–7am: Large intestine movement and body detox.
6am: Reveille! When light hits the retina, the hypothalamus reduces production of melatonin (the sleep hormone). Within 30 minutes of waking up, we observe a steady increase in our cortisol level, which reaches its maximum at about 7am. Cortisol accelerates gluconeogenesis (the production of glucose, mainly from amino acids) above all in the liver, but also in the kidneys and small intestine. It accelerates the breakdown of fatty acids (allowing them to be converted into energy), and inhibits the immune system. Cortisol increases the secretion of vasopressin and noradrenaline, which mobilizes the body to action. The effect of this is to increase the concentration of glucose in the blood, thanks to which we have the energy to start the day. During these hours, it is a good idea to move a bit, stretching our tendons and muscles, stiff from sleep. Cortisol also participates in the laying down of short-term memories (it is worth looking at your timetable in order to start the day better prepared). This is also a good time for meditation.
7am: Melatonin production stops. Its level falls. The body is now particularly sensitive to gentle stimuli.
7am–9am: Stomach activity. A high level of digestion and nutrient absorption. A good time for breakfast.
8am: Noradrenaline raises our body temperature. The highest concentration of cortisol (the stress hormone). A jump in the concentration of ghrelin, the hunger hormone; we eat breakfast.
9am: High concentration of glucose in the blood due to the high concentration of cortisol.
9am–11am: Spleen and kidney activity. Production of digestive enzymes. Work and exercise.
10am: An increase in body temperature increases vigour and alertness.
11am–1pm: Concentration and cognitive abilities at a high level.
2pm: The highest concentration of glucose in the blood. Glucose is the main fuel for muscles and the brain. Its concentration is directly correlated with physical and mental activity.
3pm: Noradrenaline and body temperature increase the coordination of movement and muscle activity.
3pm–6pm: The best results from intensive physical activity and the least vulnerability to injury. The mitochondria of the skeletal muscles exhibit their most active cell respiration. Increased oxygen uptake in the lungs. By the by, intensive muscle activity can reset a disturbed biological clock.
8pm: The pineal gland starts to produce melatonin. It is made from tryptophan. Pumpkin seeds and dried spirulina (seaweed) are excellent sources of this. It may be worth snacking on these during the day to have the raw materials for sweet dreams. The production of melatonin is inhibited by light, so during these hours we should avoid intensive screen time and the solarium.
9pm: The melatonin level rises. It can be detected in plasma and saliva.
10pm: Intestinal activity slows. It is not a good idea to stuff your face now, although food at this time of day tastes best.
11pm: Low cortisol level. It will rise while we sleep and, reaching a high level, will be the signal to wake up.
12am: High level of testosterone; it peaks after three hours of sleep. During the night the level of ghrelin, the hormone that signals hunger, rises. If we are sleeping lightly, we may feel hungry.
Nobel 2017: Proteins CLOCK and BMAL1 activate the transcription of the PER and CRY genes. The created PER and CRY proteins connect together and inhibit the work of the genes CLOCK and BMAL1. Over time, the PER and CRY proteins break down which allows CLOCK and BMAL1 to appear, again activating PER and CRY…
This sequence repeats and, in some sense, pulsates in a 24-hour cycle.
The most important influence on synchronizing the biological clock ('zeitgeber') is light. The suprachiasmatic nucleus is located in the hypothalamus, above the intersection of the optic nerves (hence its name). This is where the synchronization of the biological clock with the daily rhythm takes place. Other things that influence the clock are food intake and physical activity.
Blue light (emitted by the screens of electronic equipment), inhibits the production of melatonin much more so than orange light. This is why it is hard to fall asleep right after switching off your computer or putting down your smartphone.
In 1962, the caver Michel Siffre, as part of an experiment, shut himself in a cave for two months. It turned out that he ate, slept and woke up according to his internal clock (in a cycle lasting 24.5 hours). Interestingly, his perception of time changed. Every day he counted to 120 at the tempo of one number per second. After some time spent in the dark this exercise took him as long as five minutes.
Depending upon the time of day, plants not only open and close their flowers but they also raise and lower their branches.
It was once thought that bacteria are too primitive to count time. But it turns out that cyanobacteria also have an internal clock. Those that have an inactivated biological clock fare worse with the day/night cycle.
Mushrooms also have a biological clock, which evolved independently from that of bacteria and animals.
Animals fed at a time when they ought to be resting have a tendency to gain weight.
Depression, sleep disruption and metabolic disruption can be caused by impairment of the circadian rhythm (the 24-hour cycle).
The efficacy of medicines and their toxicity depends upon the time of day they are given.
The signals between two selected neurons always run at the same time and with high accuracy. This is how our internal stopwatch works.
The metaphor of Indra's diamond net, which originates from the Garland Sutra, postulates that everything that exists creates an endless net of diamonds, extending throughout the universe. Each point in this net is a jewel whose facets reflect all others, and each is also a universe containing its entire past, present and future. If a new element appears in one of the diamonds, even a speck of dust, the whole net will react to its presence. The human body resembles a net of common interactions and dependencies. An external or internal stimulus causes a whole range of physiological changes, whose effects spread and affect each other like waves on the surface of a lake. There's no way we can reduce such a complicated system to a binary description, but we can see in it some repetitive events and tendencies that seem to pulse in time with the repetition of sunrises and sunsets. The biological clock is a masterful achievement of evolution, and understanding how it works can play a significant role in setting the rhythm for a successful day.
Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz
Heard about the phenomenon of FNE, or 'first night effect'?
Have you ever woken up in a new place and noted with disappointment that you are still tired?
I am thinking, for example, of the first night in a hotel at the start of your holidays, a night staying with friends, or the first night of a business trip. We aren't talking here about the first night with a new lover, because then there are other variables at play that might give false results in the study we want to conduct.
The phenomenon of FNE, or 'first night effect', has been known of for a long time. Thus far, scientists haven't been able to come up with a reasonable explanation for it, which has kept sleep researcher Masako Tamaki awake at night. So, she brought together a team of experts in human brain processes and began to look for answers. After examining dozens of brains of people while they slept in a new place, it turned out that the activity of both hemispheres of the brain was significantly different from normal.
In a new place, we sleep a little like some animals. One hemisphere gives in to the embrace of Morpheus, but the other remains alert. This is what happens with, for example, dolphins. In humans, the second hemisphere also goes to sleep, but this is an unusually shallow and vigilant sleep. This is in order to react to potential threats. Of course, in the majority of cases, we are not at risk of being torn apart by a tiger, but evolutionary changes have not kept pace with our lifestyle changes. This is why, during the first night in a new environment, almost any noise can wake us up; the creaking of a door, or the distant barking of a puppy. In most cases, the left hemisphere is on night watch. Will we always be like this? Another scientist, Yuki Sasaki, claims that, because of the relative peace and security of our existence, over time this function of the human brain will be extinguished as unnecessary.
Meanwhile, when turning out the light in a new place, it's best to give up on any hope of a good night's sleep. Evolution works slowly.
Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz
A new theory suggests that dreams' illogical logic has an important purpose.
For a while now, the leading theory about what we're doing when we dream is that we're sorting through our experiences of the last day or so, consolidating some stuff into memories for long-term storage, and discarding the rest. That doesn't explain, though, why our dreams are so often so exquisitely weird.
A new theory proposes our brains toss in all that crazy as a way of helping us process our daily experiences, much in the way that programmers add unrelated, random-ish nonsense, or "noise," into machine learning data sets to help computers discern useful, predictive patterns in the data they're fed.
The goal of machine learning is to supply an algorithm with a data set, a "training set," in which patterns can be recognized and from which predictions that apply to other unseen data sets can be derived.
If machine learning learns its training set too well, it merely spits out a prediction that precisely — and uselessly — matches that data instead of underlying patterns within it that could serve as predictions likely to be true of other thus-far unseen data. In such a case, the algorithm describes what the data set is rather than what it means. This is called "overfitting."
The value of noise
To keep machine learning from becoming too fixated on the specific data points in the set being analyzed, programmers may introduce extra, unrelated data as noise or corrupted inputs that are less self-similar than the real data being analyzed.
This noise typically has nothing to do with the project at hand. It's there, metaphorically speaking, to "distract" and even confuse the algorithm, forcing it to step back a bit to a vantage point at which patterns in the data may be more readily perceived and not drawn from the specific details within the data set.
Unfortunately, overfitting also occurs a lot in the real world as people race to draw conclusions from insufficient data points — xkcd has a fun example of how this can happen with election "facts."
(In machine learning, there's also "underfitting," where an algorithm is too simple to track enough aspects of the data set to glean its patterns.)
Credit: agsandrew/Adobe Stock
There remains a lot we don't know about how much storage space our noggins contain. However, it's obvious that if the brain remembered absolutely everything we experienced in every detail, that would be an awful lot to remember. So it seems the brain consolidates experiences as we dream. To do this, it must make sense of them. It must have a system for figuring out what's important enough to remember and what's unimportant enough to forget rather than just dumping the whole thing into our long-term memory.
Performing such a wholesale dump would be an awful lot like overfitting: simply documenting what we've experienced without sorting through it to ascertain its meaning.
This is where the new theory, the Overfitting Brain Hypothesis (OBH) proposed by Erik Hoel of Tufts University, comes in. Suggesting that perhaps the brain's sleeping analysis of experiences is akin to machine learning, he proposes that the illogical narratives in dreams are the biological equivalent of the noise programmers inject into algorithms to keep them from overfitting their data. He says that this may supply just enough off-pattern nonsense to force our brains to see the forest and not the trees in our daily data, our experiences.
Our experiences, of course, are delivered to us as sensory input, so Hoel suggests that dreams are sensory-input noise, biologically-realistic noise injection with a narrative twist:
"Specifically, there is good evidence that dreams are based on the stochastic percolation of signals through the hierarchical structure of the cortex, activating the default-mode network. Note that there is growing evidence that most of these signals originate in a top-down manner, meaning that the 'corrupted inputs' will bear statistical similarities to the models and representations of the brain. In other words, they are derived from a stochastic exploration of the hierarchical structure of the brain. This leads to the kind structured hallucinations that are common during dreams."
Put plainly, our dreams are just realistic enough to engross us and carry us along, but are just different enough from our experiences —our "training set" — to effectively serve as noise.
It's an interesting theory.
Obviously, we don't know the extent to which our biological mental process actually resemble the comparatively simpler, man-made machine learning. Still, the OBH is worth thinking about, maybe at least more worth thinking about than whatever that was last night.