The scientific lowdown on post-Freudian theories of dreams and dreaming.
Science journalist Rock begins with Eugene Aserinsky's discovery in the early 1950s that REM (rapid eye motion) sleep is characterized by vivid dreaming. That was the first indication that the sleeping mind was not in some passive state, but was hard at work. Aserinsky's fellow grad student William Dement took the next step, describing the five stages of normal sleep, from relaxed presleep to deep sleep characterized by slow brain waves, during which sleep-walking sometimes occurs. REM episodes occupy a quarter of sleep time, and occur several times a night. During the 1960s, Dement stayed up to monitor thousands of sleeping volunteers, waking them when their eye movements indicated dreaming and asking them what they were experiencing. Animal experiments showed that cats also experience REM, often at the same time going through the motions of hunting. The next generation of dream researchers debated whether Freud's theories that dreams recapitulated childhood trauma were still tenable in the face of evidence that dream images arise from random activity of the brain stem. For one thing, REM sleep evidently occurs in the womb; on the other hand, studies indicate significant differences between juvenile and adult dreams, suggesting that experience does play a part in both the content and complexity of dreams. The brain wants to make sense of whatever it views, organizing the imagery of dreams into coherent stories even when the images themselves appear nonsensical. Some dreamers can recognize that they are dreaming—and even influence the plot and content of their dream. While the biological purpose of dreaming remains controversial, the application of new technologies (MRI scans, etc.) is expected to further expand our understanding of one of the mind's most fascinating activities.
A well-written, often entertaining look inside the mind.