Thoughts on When Brains Dream by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold

Recently, I asked about good science-based books on dreaming. In my initial exploration, I’d come across two books, and picked one of them, When Brains Dream by Anthonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold to see if it fit the bill. It turns out I made a good choice. Zadra and Stickgold’s book is a survey of the history of dreams, dream research and what we know about why we dream. Part lit-review, part explanation of the science involved in sleep and dreams, I found the book to be a good introduction to something which I know very little about in scientific terms. People have all kinds of notions about dreams, but I was looking for a book that was grounded in science and this one fit the bill.

I was introduced to Freud’s theory of dreaming in high school. Even then, I found it to be something less than scientific and more like a fad diet. The scientific study of dreams is somewhat sparse before Freud, it seems, but Freud borrowed liberally from those who did study before him. I think my notion that Freud’s theories were mostly unscientific were confirmed in the review of the science of dreams up to and through Freud’s tenure.

That said, I fell into the camp of believing that dreams were mostly meaningless, a side-effect of memory processing. But as Zadra and Stickgold write:

Some believe that science has already shown that dreams are merely the meaningless reflections of the random firing of neurons in the sleeping brain. Nothing, we believe, could be further from the truth, and we argue almost the exact opposite of each of these claims.

Zadra and Stickgold’s research centers around a framework they’ve developed called NEXTUP: network exploration to understand possibilities. Briefly, NEXTUP,

proposes that dreaming is a unique form of sleep-dependent memory processing that extracts new knowledge from existing memories through the discovery and strengthening go previously unexplored weak associations.

If I understand what I read correctly, these weak associations account for why we dream of things that may be tangentially related to events of the day, but not directly related. These weak associations can also account, in part, for why dreams sometimes seem so bizarre.

The book details the standard set of dreams that people have, which is alway surprising, but their NEXTUP model explains this neatly. I’ve always thought it strange that we have common dreams like forgetting an exam, and I’ve often wondered what people six thousand years ago (before exams) dreamed about in their place. Possibly, they didn’t. When I read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, what I gleaned from it (it was a very challenging read) was that our idea of consciousness emerged only recently, with the birth of civilization, and that prior to civilization, humans awareness was not what we call consciousness today. Maybe they didn’t dream the same way we do?

Another one of these dreams is losing control of a vehicle. I’ve occasionally had a dream where I am backing up a car, and the brake doesn’t seem to work, or the car goes spinning out of my control. Apparently I am not alone.

The book goes into all aspects of dreaming, including nightmare (and how they differ from night terrors), and even lucid dreaming. The book is heavily footnoted, and frequently refers to the studies and experiments used to tease out what we know about dreams today.

I wanted to learn more about dreaming because I’ve been going through a spell of dreams that have me waking up feeling exhausted each morning, no matter how well I sleep otherwise. These dreams are vague, but busy, always busy, and when I wake up from one in the middle of the night and finally get back to sleep, another one starts up. I awake feeling wiped out. This has been going on for a while now, and part of my reason for reading about dreams was to learn if there was any way to tune down this noise so that I wake feeling refreshed, and not like I just ran marathon. So I was surprised and delighted when I discovered the following passage in a section describing types of dreams:

Imagine that every time you woke up, you felt exhausted, not because you slept poorly but because your nights were filled with long, tedious dreams of incessant physical activity such as repetitive housework or endlessly slogging through snow or mud. If this describes your nightly dreaming and ensuing daytime fatigue, you may suffer from epic dreaming.

Right there on the page was the perfect description of what I have been going through. Epic dreams. Even the name sounds cool. Or as my kids might say, “Epic.” How lucky was I to find just what I was looking for on my first try! I felt elated. And then I read on:

Not much is known about this pattern of excessive dreaming other than that it affects women more than men. Sleep lab assessments usually come up clinically normal; and though the seemingly relentless dreams are followed by feelings of fatigue or exhaustion upon awakening, emotions within epic dreams are usually described as neutral or entirely absent. Even when epic dreaming occurs alongside nightmares, it is the impression of dreaming all night long that pushes these people to seek help. Psychological, behavioral, and pharmacological treatments for epic dreaming have proven largely ineffective. (Bold text mine.)

Naturally, the one problem I came looking for, I found, and that one problem has no known solution.

Still, the book was a success. It was an engaging read, and it gave me the scientific overview of dreaming that I had been looking for. I learned that what I am experiencing is called epic dreaming, and that there isn’t much I can do about it. That’s something. Anyone who is interesting in the science of dreams, should find this book informative and engaging.

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