Sleep Care

The Dream Series, Part 2: The Neurological Perspective

The human brain is the most complex and mysterious part of the human anatomy. Many of the unanswered questions surround the act of dreaming. has devoted a four-part series to explaining the various functions and theories of dreaming. In this part we discuss the neurological perspective of dreaming, where dreams are thought to exist to as a biologial function that serves a specifc purpose(s). The Neurological Perspective of Dreaming The neurobiological approach to dreaming focuses on how the actual, physical brain functions when a person is dreaming. Because of this perspective, dreams are viewed entirely as physiological events that do not have any deeper meaning that can be deconstructed and analyzed, as in the psychological view. The content of dreams is taken to be nothing more than a result of the processes that occur in the brain during dream sleep, which typically happens during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) periods throughout the night (although not exclusively). The Activation-Synthesis Theory Prior to the late 1970s, most of the research on dreams and dreaming focused on the content of dreams and psychological interpretations of them. In 1977, however, Harvard University psychiatrists John Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley suggested a new approach, which was called the Activation-Synthesis Theory. In EEG studies of the brain during sleep, they noted that an area of the brain called the pons generates brief, random signals that were

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called PGO (ponto-geniculo-occipital) spikes. Hobson and McCarley said that another section of the brain that is active during REM sleep—the forebrain—responds to all these random signals by generating various images. These images form the content of dreams and correspond to the quick eye movements and phasic bursts of muscle activity that are characteristic of REM sleep. Because the initial PGO spikes are random, as are the forebrain’s attempts to “interpret” them with dream imagery, Hobson and McCarley suggested the content of dreams becomes bizarre when compared with waking consciousness. Another explanation for the bizarreness of dreams comes from the brain’s neurochemistry during dream sleep: in particular, the levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine are lower, and levels of acetylcholine are higher. These result in the distortions, unusual juxtapositions, sudden scene changes, and illogical reasoning that are characteristic of bizarreness in dreams. Revising the Activation-Synthesis Theory Twenty years later, neuropsychologist and psychoanalyst Mark Solms would revise the Activation-Synthesis theory based on his research involving the dreams of 361 patients suffering from a variety of brain lesions and injuries. Upon examination, 29 of the patients did not have any actual damage and were designated as a control group. Of the 332 patients remaining, 220 of them had no changes to their dreaming despite their brain injuries. This meant that of the original group, 132 patients did experience a change in their dreaming. Solms determined that 112 of these patients had forebrain lesions, but no damage to the brainstem (where the pons is located). This suggested that the forebrain was just as important, if not more so, than the pons for dreaming to occur. While it was not possible to deliberately remove patient’s forebrains to investigate the effects of such operations, Solms did the next best thing: he looked at scientific literature between 1940 and 1975, when frontal lobotomies were done as a treatment for schizophrenia. The findings were fairly significant: between 70-90% of lobotomized schizophrenics suffered a complete loss of dreaming. Dreaming Not Limited to Just REM Sleep As early as the mid-1960s, researchers investigating the nature of dreaming reported findings that indicated dreaming occurred not just in REM sleep, but in NREM sleep as well (although the dreams were significantly less frequent and shorter in length). Because

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neurobiological theories used eye movements and phasic muscle events of REM as a key part of their explanation for dreaming, there wasn’t really a good answer for how dreaming could occur during NREM sleep from this perspective. The research Mark Solms did, indicating the importance of the forebrain network to dreaming (as opposed to primarily the pons, as in the Activation-Synthesis theory), bridged this gap. It did so by explaining that REM sleep provided the ideal conditions to trigger the forebrain network, although it was also possible in rare instances during NREM, particularly during sleep onset. Continue to Part 3 of the Dream Series. Review part one of the Dream Series, the Psychological Perspective.

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