Do people dream of homeostatic field dwellers?
December 5, 2006 10:57 AM   Subscribe

DreamALittleDreamFilter: girlfriend and I have this ongoing friendly debate, and it goes something like this:

Girl #1: Even if you cannot remember the dreams that you have, you are nonetheless dreaming. This is what occurs during REM sleep.

Girl #2: I disagree. I think it's entirely possible to achieve REM sleep and not dream.

Girl #1: Then what is your brain doing?

Girl #2: Perhaps it is merely performing some systems management. You know, filing some information away, healing the body...that sort of stuff.

Girl #1: Don't you think that the filing you speak of is visualised via dream sequences?

Girl #2: Not necessarily. Why do we have to be aware of the filing? Perhaps the brain is moving things around so that it can function more efficiently; like a computer might do with programs that are rarely used.

Thus, the question - Do we dream when we reach REM sleep? Is there some sort of proof that this happens (I mean real, scientific proof)? Is it at all possible that the brain activity so prevalent during REM is just a systems management type thing?
posted by AlliKat75 to Science & Nature (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Whoever defines the word 'dream' will win the argument.

Some say dreams are only the fantastic (or terribly dull) imaginative story-ish sequences we have at night, whether we remember them or not. Many believe this is the mechanism by which the brain does its 'information filing and body healing' etc that Girl#2 is talking about.

I know you are asking 'is there proof that REM sleep = dreaming', but the way it's worded above gives me the feeling that the girls are simply not on the same page when it comes to the simple definition of what a dream is. I could probly argue they are both correct.
posted by johnstein at 11:07 AM on December 5, 2006

I vote for Girl #1. If I am awakened in the middle of sleep, I am much more likely to remeber the dream that I was having. I have also read that if you write down your dreams immediately after you wake up, you can train yourself to remeber them better. I think that means you dream every night.
posted by elkelk at 11:17 AM on December 5, 2006

REM sleep is rapid eye movement sleep. I believe the current understanding is that whenever you are in REM sleep you are dreaming, the REM is your eyes tracking things in the dream.

Thus when johnstein says whoever defines the word is the winner, he's right.

From wikipedia:

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the stage of sleep characterized by rapid movements of the eyes. It was discovered by Nathaniel Kleitman and Eugene Aserinsky in 1952. During this stage, the activity of the brain's neurons is quite similar to that during waking hours; for this reason, the phenomenon is often called paradoxical sleep. Most of the vividly recalled dreams occur during REM sleep.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:19 AM on December 5, 2006

Me belief (I have no proof) is that we always dream during REM sleep, and our dreams are a communication mechanism from our higher selves. The imagery is an easily deciphered "code" that can help us address issues we're having with different parts of our personality. The best tool I've found so far to help with interpretation is this book.

(for those without any metaphysical beliefs or tendencies: don't bother reading it)
posted by Bradley at 11:22 AM on December 5, 2006

Girl #1 is right.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 11:39 AM on December 5, 2006

From here:

In 80 percent to 95 percent of all cases, people who are awakened during REM report that they are dreaming, whereas people who are awakened during non-REM sleep report dreaming only about 10 percent of the time.

It would be good to have a proper cite to the original research though.
posted by teleskiving at 11:41 AM on December 5, 2006

This is a truly semantic argument undermined by a lack of understanding of the mechanisms of dreaming.

Girl #2 is basically arguing that if you do not recall your dream, then you did not have it.

My personal belief is that the narrative of our dreams is only constructed during the time when we are conscious and that what we think of as remembering a dream is actually applying semi-logical semi-coherence to the brain activity that occurred while asleep. What makes this fascinating to me is that you can extrapolate the idea to our very idea of self-consciousness even while awake. Our brains are order-imposing, pattern-discerning machines. We attempt to apply this to everything around us, including the brain activity while asleep that stimulates our cognitive processes.
posted by mzurer at 11:47 AM on December 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

Girl #2 is basically arguing that if you do not recall your dream, then you did not have it.

Exactly, and put that way it should be clear that it doesn't make any sense. If Girl #2 persists in that belief, she should arrange to be awakened at random intervals during REM sleep until she realizes how much dreaming she's doing.
posted by languagehat at 11:54 AM on December 5, 2006

I don't think there's any "scientific" answer to this question. Dreams aren't physical phenomena; they're mental constructs. They are in your mind, not your brain. Thus, while johnstein is technically right, I think there's no unabsurd way to define your way to winning this argument. Consider the possibilities: you can either define dreams as a specific EKG reading that always happens during REM, thus concluding that you always dream in REM; or you can define dreams as a specific EKG reading that doesn't always happen during REM, thus concluding that you don't always dream in REM.

But EKG readings, or any other physical assessment of brain activity, isn't "dreams." It might coincide with dreams, and there might be physical causes / manifestations of the experience of dreaming, but the task of matching them is so difficult as to be impossible, as least as far as I can tell. The only way you can match observed physical brain activity with mental experiences is to have communication with the person being observed during the observation; that is, to say, "okay, think of a cat," and then observe the physical manifestation of thinking about a cat. You just can't do that with dreams; the only avenue I can think of for communication with the sleeping is certain hypnotherapy techniques.

In short, I don't think it's possible to answer this question, at least not scientifically.
posted by koeselitz at 11:57 AM on December 5, 2006

Just to clarify, I mean to say that the lack of understanding of the mechanism of dreaming is universal, not on the part of the arguers.

That being said, I have to take issue with both koeselitz and languagehat, though they both seem to agree with at least parts of my assessment.

I would tread lightly into using a mind/body dichotomy to discuss a scientific analysis. All processes in living creatures are physical. All else is outside the realm of science and into religion.

And I think the only meaningful way to discuss dreams is to discuss our recall of them. It goes back to the tree in the forest. Is the sound the wave, or the perception of it. The wave is a physical process. The sound is our brain's interpretation.

Something happens in REM sleep. Our experience of dreaming is only available to us as a memory when we regain consciousness. So an un-recalled dream is not a dream in fact.

But again, all semantics, until we achieve brain-in-a-jar technology, and possibly even then.
posted by mzurer at 12:24 PM on December 5, 2006

I've read the study teleskiving mentioned, although I don't have the reference in front of me. The gist of it is, if you wake up patients during REM sleep, they'll report dreaming nearly every time. If you wake them up during other parts of the sleep cycle, they're more likely to report less vivid or no dreams at all. The conclusion generally drawn is that, although it's possible to experience dreams outside of REM sleep, dreaming occurs during REM sleep, even if we don't remember the dreams at the end of the night.

More than you ever wanted to know about REM sleep and dreaming.
posted by muddgirl at 12:34 PM on December 5, 2006

It is also possible to be conscious during REM sleep. I practiced lucid dreaming for a year or so about a decade ago and managed to have 8 or 10 memorable long lucid dreams where I was in complete control of all events, while fully aware that my experiences were in the dream state. I could be a giant and wade into the middle of the ocean, do a Superman flight around the moon, or whatever. No drugs required.

I'm fascinated by the fact that we know so little about sleep...something that we all do 1/4-1/3 of our lives.
posted by Bradley at 1:35 PM on December 5, 2006

I agree that the definition of a dream is key here. For a start, Girl #1 mentions dreams as visual, but mine very rarely are. Instead I dream in audio or, more often, in movement and touch. Just because I don't see pictures doesn't mean it's not a dream or is a lesser dream somehow.

Objectively pinning down what is a dream and what's just filing or systems management is very difficult (or possibly impossible), it's all such a subjective thing by nature. This goes for physical measurement of brain activity and for recall by the sleeper.

FWIW I lucid dream all the time too with varying levels of lucidity or control. Was having a seriously weird one this morning while part of me was thinking "this is all very well but I really should get up".
posted by shelleycat at 2:15 PM on December 5, 2006

The gist of it is, if you wake up patients during REM sleep, they'll report dreaming nearly every time.

But, as mzurer mentions above, this could also mean that if you are woken during REM sleep then your brain is so flooded with signals and the brain does what it is best at doing - imposing narratives.

Put another way, it could be your brain creates a remembered-dream at that very moment you are awakened - along with a sense of passing time. That is, there is no moment at which you are dreaming, only the moment at which the brain "tricks" itself into thinking it was dreaming.

Now what I say above may or may not be true but my point is that the experiments cited above wouldnt differentiate this.
posted by vacapinta at 3:02 PM on December 5, 2006

Girl #2 is basically arguing that if you do not recall your dream, then you did not have it.

I guess what I'm saying, surprising as it may sound is:

Even if you remember your dream, you may not have had it.
posted by vacapinta at 3:08 PM on December 5, 2006

*high-fives vacapinta*
posted by mzurer at 3:15 PM on December 5, 2006

Response by poster: Oh, how I love the hive mind!! Such fantastic answers - it always sends me in 100 more directions. Quite a few of you mention the semantics of the definition. We (girls #1 and #2) have argued this point as well, and as shelleycat pointed out, the idea of the visual nature of a dream has become part of the debate as well. True, something does happen during REM sleep, but just what is it? Does our brain, when we awake, convince us that we were dreaming? Or were we dreaming? The brain is such a wonderful machine.
posted by AlliKat75 at 3:16 PM on December 5, 2006

well yes, vacapinta, but we're just back to arguing the semantics of "dream". If we can't separate the physical act of discarding and creating synapses from the mental process of showing up to school in our underwear, or running from the boogey man or whatever (I'm biased towards visual dreams, but of course this includes smel-o-dreams or audi-o-dreams as well), then the research agrees with Girl 1 - particular brain wave patterns experienced during sleep produce dreams - it doesn't actually matter whether it happens during sleep or if it's filled in as you awake.
posted by muddgirl at 3:30 PM on December 5, 2006

Well true say above:

...dreaming occurs during REM sleep, even if we don't remember the dreams at the end of the night.

That may be a hasty conclusion. I'm saying that if you are not woken up during (or near) REM sleep then perhaps this critical "assembly" phase never took place and so there was no dream to remember. So its a bit more than semantics.
posted by vacapinta at 3:51 PM on December 5, 2006

Matters of the brain, especially the least understood functions, have always fascinated me (thus my moniker). After reading through the comments here, my brain took off in several directions...

First: In my own experience, I have been able to dream lucidly at times - at least to the point that I was aware that I was dreaming and could influence events to some degree. But I like the suggestion that some "dreams" may only be your brain's rationalization or "imposed narrative" on the last state your brain was at prior to being aroused. I wonder if this is why you usually won't remember entire dreams, or why they tend to diminish so quickly; should the narrative be totally illogical and fractured beyond rational comprehension, your brain just decides to dump the whole thing and move on. We need some error logging here, or some debugger script.

Second tangent: Somnambulists and the newly discovered "sleep sex" - I've sleep-walked, but not sleep-shagged. I wonder how much REM activity is going on at the time... I know when I wake up somewhere else, I have no recollection of dreaming and am simply utterly confused. I've read that usually your brain essentially paralyzes your body in order to keep you from causing bodily harm to yourself or others while in REM, so I guess I'll have to read up some more on what is or is not functioning during these episodes.

Last tangent: Visual dreaming vs. other senses. This made me go look up whether people who were born blind dream visual dreams, and it turns out, sometimes - apparently Hellen Keller wrote about a dream she had, which seems to be fairly visual. Totally confounding. This also makes me wonder what/how my dog is dreaming when he starts "running" and barking under his breath.

Sorry, no real answers from me, but thanks for the post! Very interesting.
posted by krippledkonscious at 4:13 PM on December 5, 2006

In general, we experience events that happen while we're awake, happening around us, in a sequential fashion, one second of time following the next second in an orderly progression.

When we wake up, we may have new memories of things that didn't in fact happen - dreams. Dream memories don't stick the way that waking ones do, and I've often suspected that they probably weren't accumulated in a sequential fashion over time, but rather generated randomly.

I've never been able to think of a way to test this hypothesis, though.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:21 PM on December 5, 2006

This can quickly descend into the 'what if you're just a brain in a vat' argument. Ultimately, nobody knows anything. You might be a seven-limbed creature in another galaxy, and your whole life is just a video game that you don't remember turning on.

But if you're going to get past that and argue in the context of the world that we seem to live in, then Girl #1 is right.

Unfortunately, she soon oversimplifies her point of view when she refers to visualised via dream sequences, making the argument harder to win. No need to open the debate about whether dreams must be visual, nor whether they must occur in sequences. Just stick with the fact that they happen.
posted by bingo at 7:51 PM on December 5, 2006

It's a little more subtle than that, bingo. We can agree on the existence of other sentient individuals and still not be able to tell if our dreams are more like cognition or more like memories.
posted by mzurer at 8:44 PM on December 5, 2006

I seem to recall reading about hypnic jerks (where you feel you're floating or in my case walking down a sidewalk, then you suddenly jerk away, and feel like you're falling or tripping) that there's some evidence that the jerk happens first, then the brain quickly goes back and fills in the dream-like part. Was this linked from an AskMe thread on hypnic jerks?
posted by muddgirl at 6:16 AM on December 6, 2006

It's been argued by hardcore behaviorists that we don't actually experience dreams while we sleep: dreams are dispositions to tell stories and confabulate memories upon awakening. Norman Malcolm, a student under Wittgenstein, was the main proponent of this view, and I hear it's been adopted into some empirical theories that are taken quite seriously (I wish I could offer them to you, but I don't know them.) Vacapinta and ikkyu2 are pushing something like this.

Of course, you have to balance this with difficult empirical facts. For example, people's eyes tend to move during REM sleep in a manner that would be consistent with their having experiences at that time. If a subject's eyes are moving back and forth, then it's likely that upon awakening much later he will report that he was dreaming of watching a tennis match. There are certainly stories that a behaviorist could tell to handle cases like this, but they seem to be a lot more complicated than the 'dream-during-sleep' hypothesis.

Really, no one knows the answer to your question. And we likely won't until we have a much better understanding of the neural substrate underlying experience, and what experience is.

(Actually, your question is even harder because you're asking whether it's possible whether dreaming *sometimes* doesn't occur during REM. Many people in this thread are positing that dreaming *never* occurs during REM.)
posted by painquale at 4:14 PM on December 6, 2006

Well, we think that REM sleep is associated with the experience of having had a dream, for a couple of reasons: people awoken during REM sleep report that they were dreaming when roused, and people who are deprived of REM sleep, by waking them before it starts, report that they had no dreams.

These are pretty robust findings and taken together they are thought to mean that dreams are associated with REM. I don't know of any reputable sleep researchers who question that conclusion.

From last night, I recall a dream in which I became partly lucid and was able to make a collie dog transform into different kinds of dogs, then finally a pig with wings that flew away. There's of course no way to prove that this is not a "manufactured" memory, but is that really the simplest explanation? In the absence of proof or a good reason to think the contrary I think most of us would use Occam's razor.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:07 PM on December 7, 2006

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