Most of us take dreams for granted, but now it seems there is much more to them than we thought.
For instance, the revolutionary notion that dreaming is a two way process.
This startling argument has been around in scientific circles for about a decade. Jonathan Winson of Rockefeller University introduced it in the early nineties; Scientific American reported him as saying, "Dreams in humans may reflect a memory processing mechanism in which information that is important for survival is reprocessed during REM (dream-sleep)."
Later, The New Scientist ran an article by Helen Phillips ('Perchance to Learn'), on further research in this same area, claiming that memories become fixed or consolidated as we dream. As well as receiving dreams, Phillips suggested we also put memories from our waking lives into our long-term memory store during dream-sleep. She then went on to link dreaming, memory and learning, declaring "We may think only practice makes perfect, but dream-sleep also plays a crucial role". Following this, Robert Stickgold, a research scientist from the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, backed up her argument this way: "I used to say that sleep was just a preferred time for learning, but now I'd say that learning can't happen without sleep."
More recently, The Australian Magazine' ran an article by Helen O'Neill where Dr David Joffe, an Australian sleep physician who researches the architecture of sleep, was quoted as saying: "My own theory about dream-sleep is, it's when the brain files away all the little bits of memory."
Much of today's scientific research into dreams involves brain imaging. A leading neuroscientist from Washington State University, Gina Poe, uses this technology to chart nightly periods of dialogue between the brain's hippocampus, (essential for short term memory), and its cortex, (the holder of long-term memory), and her research results support Winson's theory. Poe has found that dreaming is, as well as the experience that we know it to be, a selective process whereby recent memories are evaluated against a store of coded information. It's thought that this information store has been assembled during millions of years of evolution and is a set of rules for determining what it is to be a human being.
More than half a century ago, however, Carl Jung described something similar. He called it the Collective Unconscious, and claimed that it existed in all of humankind. In Jung's opinion, it contained archetypal material going back 30 million years. Many dream practitioners can confirm that material from the Collective Unconscious keeps appearing in our dreams alongside images from daily life, a phenomenon that fits perfectly with Poe's contemporary research findings on brain dialogues.
Twenty first century scientific investigation into Alzheimer's disease has also provided proof of what science has long suspected - a possible connection between dream and memory. The hippocampus is the part of the brain badly affected in people who suffer from Alzheimer's, while the cortex which holds long-term memory usually remains unaffected, at least in the early stages of the disease.
Medical doctor, psychologist and dream analyst Anthony Stevens reports that it takes three years for a short-term memory to be 'dreamed in' to our long-term memory store; that's why Alzheimer's sufferers with damage to the hippocampus recall nothing of what has happened over the previous three years but can clearly remember events that occurred before that time.
Sleep physicians researching links between dream and memory have discovered the results of learning can depend on how soon after study proper REM (dream-sleep) arrives. Robert Stickgold has shed light on this subject, claiming that, on average, five periods of dreaming consciousness occur during a good night's sleep. These, says Stickgold, are like five sessions with a therapist: he casts the hippocampus as the patient bringing memories of the day and the cortex as the therapist. "They have a conversation about what has happened, replaying autobiographical memories and gathering mutually shared information. Then they look at how it fits together. The short term and long term memory systems talk to each other… and finally reach consensus." He adds, "As with any kind of therapy, dropping out before you've had the full course won't do you much good. You should definitely get your eight hours!"
Do you remember the old saying, 'sleep on it'? It seems, from all of this, it's still good advice. 'Sleeping on it' (or more accurately 'dreaming on it') could explain why, when we've spent a day racking our brains to recall someone's name, or trying to remember where we saw something - in a book, on television, in the newspaper - the answer's often there the next morning.
Jenny Albertson BA Hons IAJS has lived and worked in London, New York, Sydney and Lightning Ridge, practising for many years as a Jungian psychotherapist. She is a Dreamcoach by personal appointment, or phone and email.
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