Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Secret Science Club Zoom Lecture: Perchance to Dream

 Tonight, I am participating in a Zoom lecture with my great and good friends of the Secret Science Club.  Tonight's lecture features sleep researchers Dr Antonio Zadra, professor of psychology at the Université de Montréal and a researcher at the Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine, and Dr Robert Stickgold, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition. Drs Zadra and Stickgold are the authors of When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science & Mystery of Sleep

Dr Zadra began the lecture by joking that he and Dr Stickgold would be running the lecture like a tag-team wrestling match- he would set the stage and Dr Stickgold would wrestle the topic into submission.  He then posed the question: why study dreams?  We all dream, and these vivid experiences are usually quickly forgotten.  What are the origins and meanings of dreams?  Dreams are as old as humankind and feature in literature, philosophy, and medicine.  Both as a concept and an experience, dreams are trickier than most people imagine.  Dreams are often dismissed... "it's just a dream" is a common rejoinder to a dreamer.  It takes a while to understand what dreams are.

Dr Zadra noted that his five year old nephew had a pretty good handle on what dreaming is all about, believing that dreams occurred before his eyes.  Questioning the lad, he'd tell him that his eyes were closed while he was dreaming, resulting in consternation.  He joked that, now that he has children of his own, he doesn't have to torment his nephews. 

Most preschoolers believe that dreams are real, that they originate outisde the body, and can be seen by others.   Usually by ages six to eight, children realize that dreams are private, originate in the mind, and cannot be perceived by others.

An understanding of dreams requires the ability to distinguish between real and imagined event.s  Narcolepsy effects the sleep-wake cycle and can interfere with this distinction.  False awakenings, a dream that an individual has awakened, also occur.  Confusion between dreams and reality can manifest themselves in different ways.  Among our ancestors, supernatural causes were often posited to explain dreams

 Thre are challenges to studying dreams.  Being private, dreams cannot be studied, only dream reports.  An analogy is that pain is difficult to study, patients must describe pain for physicians to study it.

There is no real consensus about what counts as a dream.  A broad view of dreaming encompasses everything from fragmented, thought-like dreams to sweeping, epic dreams with dramatic imagery and emotional content.

In sleep labs, heart rates and brain patterns can be measured. Patients can be awakened soon after REM sleep to increase retention of dreams.  Home dream journals and questionnaires can also be used to study dream reports.  Dream reports can study settings, characters (real or imagined), social interactions, emotions, bizarreness, length.  

Four questions drive dream research.  What are dreams?  Where do they come from?  What do they mean?  What are they for?  Dr Zadra then turned over the lecture to Dr Stickgold.

Dr Stickgold started his lecture by stating that he would address the cognitive nature of dreams.  He described dreams as 'memory evolution'.  During the day, we form memories, but have little time to process them.  We 'file them away', but these memories evolve overnight, over a lifetime.  In one experiment, subjects typed a number sequence over and over, in a thirty second cycles interspersed with thirty seconds of rest for twelve minutes.  They would be sent away for twelve hours and return, if they conduct the test at night and re-test in the morning, their performance improves in terms of speed and accuracy.  Given a more complex task, a number reduction problem, ten percent of the subjects figure out a shortcut to figuring out the pattern (Dr Stickgold joked that they are taken out back and shot).  Given a period of sleep and re-tested in the morning, subjects are two and a half times better at discerning the pattern.

Dr Stickgold's student Erin Wamsley tested subjects with a maze problem.  Individuals allowed to sleep performed better the following morning.  She also had her subjects report dreams.  Subjects reporting no dreams didn't get faster at performing the task.  Subjects who dreamed about the maze solved it an average of three minutes faster, using one hundred fewer grid movements.  Subjects reported dreaming about swimming above the maze, seeing everything, or looking for a friend in the maze, or being in a real labyrinth, such as a hedge maze.

Drs Stickland and Zadra formed the NEXT UP model of dreaming: Network exploration to explore possibilities.  Dreams are related to memories of recent events.  Dreams don't just replay memories.  Our dreams search for, discover, and activate related memories.  Most sleep dependent memory processing serves to extract information from recent memories, seeking answers.  Dreaming seeks possibilities, potential uses of memories.

Dr Stickland then moved to the subject of dream cycles, a brief onset of sleep, then cycles of slow wave sleep and rapid eye movement sleep throughout the night.  Different stages of sleep play different roles in memory evolution.  Different stages of sleep have impacts on different memory tasks, such as word pairs, motor skill tasks, or emotional memory tasks.  Sleep onset identifies and 'tags' memories for processing.  Non REM sleep explores strong associations.  REM sleep involves the exploration of weaker, more distant associations.  

The hard problem of dreaming is the question of are we talking about dreaming or about the underlying processes.  Why can't this processing take place in the background of consciousness.  Consciousness can be described as a 'gimmick' evolution gave us as a new means to solving problems.  It creates the world of the imagination, the world of planning and prediction.  A crucial value of sleep is to discover and evaluate previously unexpected associations in our minds.

Dr Zadra then took the mic in the tag-team match and returned to the NEXT UP model, which helps to explain recurrent dreams, nightmares, lucid dreams, and even dreams which seem to predict the future.  He likened dreaming to an artist who creates a work, then asks people to interpret the art, which is what people often do with dreams.  There is no 'one true meaning' to any dream.  To understand a dream, the artist, the dreamer, must be involved in the analysis.  Working with dreams can be useful in a therapeutic context- it can contribute to the alliance between therapist and patient, increase client involvement in therapy, enhance the understanding of the clinical progress, and improve patient well-being.

Dr Zadra advised us in remembering dreams- he advised us to close our eyes and review everything before recording the dream.  Once recorded, the dream can be re-read and re-examined.  Then you can explore the meaning- the images and emotions, the settings and people or animals encountered.  What associations come to mind?  Do your dreams remind you of things that you are experiencing?

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session.  The first question involved talking in one's sleep... could sleep apnea be a factor?  Sleep talking can occur in all stages of sleep, and can be in the form of gibberish, or be articulate.  One's statements can be related or unrelated to a dream, and can hear others and respond to them.  Sleep talking has no disruptive effects on sleep, and has no connection to sleep apnea.  Another question regarded lucid dreaming- there are practices during wakefulness to foster it, and gadgets of dubious value marketed to improve it.  Lucid dreaming draws a lot of attention and is learnable, but learning it is difficult.  What are factors in remembering dreams and are dreams really in grayscale, rather than in color.  Dr Stickgold noted that remembering dreams is best done by lying down.  People usually don't have the opportunity to remember dreams- they fall asleep quickly without hypnogogic dreams, they sleep deeply, and wake suddently to an alarm clock.  He suggested drinking a lot of water to cause one to wake up during the night.  Some people dream in gray but others dream in color.  Dr Zadra interjected that people who remember dreams often experience micro-awakenings, then mentioned that, until recently, people didn't report dreaming in grayscale.  Perhaps the advent of black and white photography had an effect on this perception.  Perhaps colors are not registered as important parts of dreams.  Some bastard in the audience asked how dreams affect our sensory cortices- these areas of the brain are activated during dreaming, but it is unclear if these activations are important.  The memories that are recalled activate the visual and auditory circuits and this might strengthen the sensory encoding of these memories.  Answering another question, Dr Stickgold indicated that his biggest regret was not studying the connection between memory and dreams until Erin Wamsley devised the maze test.  Another question regarded sleep among animals- sleep occurs throughout the animal kingdom.  Even fruit flies sleep, and mice and rats (and even fish) display sleep-dependent learning.  We have to shut down every so often and process information- what we learn during the day is the easy part, it makes us smart, but learning how to process the information requires sleep- that's what makes us wise.  Another questioner noted that she kicks when she sleeps- while in REM sleep, the body experiences muscle paralysis, but some individuals experience REM sleep behavior disorder, in which they can leap out of bed (this is distinct from sleep walking) or otherwise act out dream behaviors. 

Once again, the Secret Science Club has served up a dream of a lecture.  Kudos to Drs Zadra and Stickgold, and Dorian and Margaret.  Both Dr Stickgold and Dr Zadra have videos posted on YouTube.  Pour yourself a beverage, sit back, and soak in that SCIENCE!!!

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