Nov 21 2007

Why Are Dreams So Weird?

Recently I had a dream in which I was called upon to perform emergency surgery on someone outside of the hospital setting. (I am not a surgeon, and this is a bit of a recurring anxiety dream – as a doctor I may be called upon to do something I am not qualified to do, but as the most qualified person present may need to take responsibility for it.) In the dream I was told by a surgeon (and in the dream I did not question why they were not doing the surgery) that the person needed an emergency appendectomy. It did not strike me (my dreaming self) as at all odd that the person’s chest was exposed for surgery, rather than their abdomen, or that the patient was wide awake. My awake self, of course, laughs at the absurdity of the situation with the realization that I would have responded completely differently to the situation than my dreaming self.

Most people have noticed that dreams often have a surreal feel to them, or that your dream-self accepts as perfectly natural absurd occurrences and situations. I was recently asked about this on the SGU forums. Evil Eye asked:

Why when something …ESPECIALLY only one thing… is absurd… in a dream… do we still accept it as normal until we wake up and think about it?

The answer to this question is actually well known. First, we must understand a little bit about the nature of the self – our perception that we exist and are conscious. The self is the net effect of all the parts of our brains working together in real time. Thinking tasks are segregated to specialized parts of the brain, but they combine seamlessly to create the experience of one conscious mind, the self. If you remove or suppress the function of one or more pieces of the brain, then you change the net effect and therefore the self. Neuroscientists are doing this, in fact – using magnetic fields to suppress the functioning of pieces of the brain, while using functional MRI scanning to see the activity in different parts of the brain, all while performing neuropsychological tests.

In order to understand the dreaming state we must fundamentally realize that the dream self is different than the waking self – it is the product of a subset of brain systems functioning to produce awareness. Researchers at present distinguish three types of awareness: awareness of phenomena and events (that stuff is happening), awareness of the the mental state (called meta-awareness, basically the awareness that ourselves and others possess an internal mental state), and awareness of the self (that we exist and are conscious). While our waking selves have all three forms of awareness, current models suggest that our sleeping selves lack meta-awareness.

Another aspect of this is that meta-awareness seems to be a critical part of another brain function called reality-testing, in which we test our internal mental model of reality against external experience. So our reality testing is not functioning during dreaming – we are incapable of noticing that things in our dreams don’t make sense.

Yet another way to explain this is that reality testing serves also to distinguish external reality from ideas that arise within our brain. We can therefore distinguish what we imagine from what we experience. This process is not perfect, and our memories are especially vulnerable to failures of making this distinction. Delusions and hallucinations are also a manifestation of failing to distinguish ideas from external reality.

While we are dreaming the reality testing part of our brains, part of the frontal lobes, is not as active as when we are awake. Therefore our dreaming selves are incapable of noticing that the weird and bizarre stuff of dreams is not “real.”

I don’t know why, evolutionarily, this is how dreaming works. My suspicion is that because dreaming is mostly produced internally within the brain (although it may incorporate some external stimuli) there is no reason to reality test it. In fact, we know what happens when reality testing starts to function while dreaming – this produces a state called lucid dreaming. When a dream becomes lucid you know that you are dreaming, usually because your reality testing kicks in and you can tell that the dream is unreal.

While is is fun, and people have learned to increase the frequency with which they can enter the lucid state, it is inherently unstable. While lucid dreaming there is a tendency to either actually wake up or to dream that you wake up, in which case you no longer know you are dreaming.

This fits with the notion that we do not have reality testing while dreaming in order to make the dream state more stable – to keep us dreaming by preventing the dreaming self from realizing it is dreaming. (This reminds me of the Matrix – the computers that have enslaved the human race have made the Matrix as realistic as possible in order to keep people from realizing they are in a computer simulation. But a few people sense the unreality of the Matrix, they are unstable, and have to be removed from the Matrix.)

There may be other benefits as well, and I suspect dream researchers are and will be sorting this out. For example, lucid dreaming may not be as conducive to restorative sleep and full dreaming. There is evidence to suggest that dreaming serves to consolidate and reinforce memories from the previous day, and perhaps lucid dreaming does not serve this function as well.

Therefore, it is likely that we evolved so that while dreaming our reality testing is turned off, in order to make the dreaming state more stable and perhaps serve other functions. Alternatively, the lack of reality testing during dreaming may just be an epiphenomenon – not necessary, just a random consequence of evolution. Perhaps there is no advantage to having reality testing during sleep, even if there is no disadvantage. I tend to think that the former is true, however.

Getting back to the original question – why are dreams so weird, it is simply because the dream state lacks reality testing. There is a lack of reality testing during dreaming because it is not necessary and probably also because it is counterproductive. This can happen because reality testing is not inherent to brain function or the construction of consciousness. It is, rather, just one component of consciousness that can be localized to a specific part of the brain and can be selectively turned off, as it is during the dreaming state.

14 responses so far

14 Responses to “Why Are Dreams So Weird?”

  1. AttemptingReasonon 21 Nov 2007 at 2:38 pm

    In other words: dreams aren’t supposed to make sense, so they don’t :-).

  2. nowooon 21 Nov 2007 at 4:49 pm

    That explains why we don’t notice that the dream is weird, but it doesn’t really explain where the weirdness itself comes from. Is it just random thoughts and memories being thrown together into a version of consciousness that lacks reality testing?

  3. AttemptingReasonon 21 Nov 2007 at 6:20 pm

    Since the brain builds the dream, in a sense, its own inability to tell how weird it is partially explains why the dream is weird. I think of dreams as the brain freely associating concepts and qualia, without, as Steve just wrote, regard for whether the end result is realistic.

  4. DLCon 21 Nov 2007 at 9:05 pm

    Last night, I had a highly detailed dream concerning my performing a surgery to remove a tumor on a man’s gall bladder. It was highly detailed, very realistic, but completely outside my own capability as I am not a surgeon or even a medical student. I recall most of the details, even having seen the man’s gall bladder. Later, I did a bit of checking and my dream-vision of the anatomy, surgical equipment and setting were reasonably accurate. Of course, I had just recently been reading the SurgXperiences blog carnival, due to a suggestion from Orac, and one of the blog posts was indeed about gall bladder surgery, so I suspect that my subconscious just replayed that experience, casting me in the central role.
    On the weird side, I have also dreamed of sitting down to supper with dead relatives and former presidents.
    Someone once said :”Dreams are your brain’s way of going on a trip, it just takes you along for company.”

  5. AttemptingReasonon 22 Nov 2007 at 1:03 am

    I knew I was gonna get in trouble for saying the first thing that popped into my head :-).

  6. JoHon 22 Nov 2007 at 9:25 am

    Has any research been done related to stimulating the reality-checking function during a dream-state? I sense great potential for some personal entertainment devices. I’d love to hear about any real methods to increase lucid dreaming, also; the couple of times that I had the pleasure experiencing them were far too short and unstable, and it would be cool to improve opportunities, lol 🙂

  7. DLCon 22 Nov 2007 at 7:03 pm

    I’ve done a bit of lucid dreaming. It can be helpful, especially if you’re having a nightmare. Being chased by a formless, vague terror ? alter the situation by putting a form to the terror, and by granting yourself the ability to destroy or dispel the terror. Having a dream you know the outcome will be unpleasant? alter the outcome.
    Anecdotes are not evidence, but my experience says that if you can manage this it can help alleviate some of the bad feelings that come out of nightmares. (and no, I’m not going to go anywhere near dream-interpretation)

  8. JoHon 23 Nov 2007 at 5:34 am

    DLC, interesting… Do you have experience with any reasonably effective ways to increase the chances of having a lucid dream? Sleep deprivation, or something more convenient? 🙂

  9. DLCon 23 Nov 2007 at 10:48 pm

    JoH : Unfortunately not. I read a study on the subject back in the late 80s and decided to try it myself. My method was to try to bring the bad dream on as I was falling asleep, and when it did come to try to recognize I was having the dream and to alter the outcome.
    Again, I want to stress here that this is not scientific, merely a personal anecdote. Unfortunately there isn’t much science on lucid dreaming, and from what I have seen some of it is rather out-there.

  10. SAMinNBon 25 Nov 2007 at 1:30 am

    I have lucid dreams a couple times a week. I have also 4-6 vivid dreams every single night, and I remember all of them. I wake up frequently because of the intensity. I have tried yoga, mediation, and, on rare occasion, melatonin and OTC sleep aids — but nothing seems to diminish the quantity or intensity of the dreams. I like that my mind plays full length movies every night with me as the star, but sometimes I would just like a quiet and peaceful slumber. Anyone have the same issue or any suggestions?

  11. Uncle Glennyon 25 Nov 2007 at 4:47 pm

    I, like DLC, frequently have lucid dreams. They enable me to maintain (some semblance of) sleep without waking in a state of horror or near-panic, which colors my mood for most the following day.

    I’ve also very occasionally suffered attacks of sleep paralysis, usually in small clusters (I haven’t had such an episode in a year or so for instance), but at times in the past I was literally afraid to go to bed. For a couple of the more recent ones I was able to sufficiently rationalize what was going on and go back to sleep.

    It didn’t help that I didn’t find out what sleep paralysis was until several years ago, when I was in my 40s, and my first recollection of it happening was when I was an adolescent.

  12. krissncleoon 12 Jan 2008 at 12:05 pm

    I like the Matrix example, it reminds me of the Chinese philosopher, LaoTzu. Did I ( he, you, us) dream that I was a butterfly dreaming that I was a person, or did I dream that I was a person dreaming that I was a butterfly? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Does it even matter?

    Carl Jung has his classic study in the book called Dreams, from the forties or whatever, but as we look back at that work we can see that it is steeped in Eastern mysticism. So is Eastern mysticism correct or not?

    Modern technology can measure brain waves and take snap shots of the brain in action, and even in sleep. But what does it mean? Is the brain defragging at night, repairing itself, processing the days events etc etc etc… As far as I know none of these have been proven scientifically and they don’t have to be. What are the meanings of dreams? What is the meaning of life? There is no meaning. We as humans, with our evolved brain, search for patterns in life as a survival mechanism. As humans we search for meaning, where there may be meaning or may not be meaning. That is philosophy, but what about science.

    Until science finds a way to test what dreams are and what they mean we can only interpet dreaming and dreams themselves just like we interpet art-it’s individual, and we add the meaning to it. It’s just like life. What is the meaning of life? There is no meaning to life, we add the meaning-to be good, to be bad, to try to not try. What is consciousness? Are we butterflys or are we alien food like in the Matrix. I don’t know, Im just a guy that works in a cafe, but I’d like (one day) to know. Personally I think that anwser has to do with the biological/chemical functions of the brain. Do you guys know?

    Once again, thank you so much…Lates


  13. indigoabodeon 21 Jul 2008 at 9:27 am

    I’d like to point out something I haven’t seen mentioned in the replies that I think is true: that consciousness does not wholly reside in the brain for one, and that the dreaming reality itself is independent of physical reality. Just because we wake up doesn’t mean the dream reality itself suddenly ceases 2 exist. I’ve been studying, recording and interpreting my own dreams since 1990 and I’ve gained tremendous insight and knowledge about not only my personal history but the nature of consciousness itself. Some dreams certainly do seem “weird” upon awakening, but it is a language that the mind (the non-physical counterpart of the brain) uses to communicate things to the ego portion of the personality. I also have had a surgery related dream, where I watched 2 guys do brain surgery on a friend of mine in a bathroom. The dream symbolism is highly individual & personal, and won’t be the same for any 2 people. Consciousness is not inherently a physical phenomenon, though it produces physical “results.” For example, the dreams, weird or not, are independent of time and space basically speaking, and though the brain censors dreams and has its part in their manufacture (acetylcholine neurons firing to the frontal cortex), that has basically nothing to do with the origin of the dream or dreaming reality itself. It is independent of physical matter, including brains.

  14. Paulon 18 Aug 2008 at 1:34 am

    Very interesting. Just the other day I dreamt that my girlfriend was dating a second boyfriend and that I was completely fine with it, until I learned that she liked him more.

    It’s cool to know what finally causes me to accept weird realities in my dreams.

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