From the Archives: Artists and Scientists Envision Dreaming

Dana Alliance member J. Allan Hobson has long been interested in sleep and dreaming, including classic research on rapid eye movement sleep. After he retired from Harvard, Hobson even built a museum, Dreamstage, on his farm in Vermont. In 1999, he filed a rather playful essay for our Cerebrum journal, “From Angels to Neurons: Artists and Scientists Envision Dreaming.” Collecting and describing science data and great artworks, he invites us to dive into our own impressions of consciousness and dreaming. Here are two bits from the essay:

The Music of the Spheres

15th century etching, artist unknown

15th century etching, artist unknown

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Despite enormous strides in our understanding of the brain over the last few decades, lectures and panel discussions featuring neuroscientists regularly conclude with the following admission: the more we learn, the more we realize how far we are from definitive answers. In a Brainwave discussion between actor Jake Gyllenhaal and neuroscientist Moran Cerf on the impact of dreams, that often-repeated refrain was reaffirmed as the duo waxed philosophical and queried each other on various aspects of what Freud called “the road to the unconscious mind.”

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World Science Festival: The Mind After Midnight

When I bought my ticket to Friday’s World Science Festival (WSF) event, The Mind After Midnight: Where Do You Go When You Sleep?, I didn’t think one of my main takeaways would be “birds are even cooler than I thought they were.” It’s not enough that they can fly, but did you know that some birds, such as the Bar-Tailed Godwit, can fly for several days without resting? And, that many birds (and some marine animals, for that matter) can sleep with one eye open?

According to Niels Rattenborg, group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and one of the three scientists presenting at the WSF event, the first phenomenon is still in the process of being studied, although Dr. Rattenborg’s lab has issued a hypothesis that “some forms of sleep could well be compatible with flying.”

The Max Planck Web site notes,

Like mammals, birds exhibit two forms of sleep: slow-wave sleep and REM sleep (rapid eye movement). While slow-wave sleep can occur alternately in each of the brain's two halves, REM sleep always takes place in both sides of the brain simultaneously. During unihemispheric slow-wave sleep, the eye connected to the awake side of the brain remains open. This condition might allow birds to continue visually navigating while asleep. If it is not necessary for the birds to watch their environment continuously, a version of slow-wave sleep involving both halves of the brain should also be possible. The reduction in muscular tone that accompanies REM sleep makes it unlikely that birds experience REM sleep in flight.

In addition to potential navigation, Dr. Rattenborg and his colleagues have proven that some birds sleep with one eye open to detect predators. He described one experiment in which he literally put his ducks in a row and found that the two birds on either end kept the eye facing away from the group open while they were sleeping. He explained that the brain connected to the open eye can function in a half awake or drowsy state.

While humans obviously don’t have this ability, Rattenborg did note that parts of the human brain can sleep more deeply. For example, if one arm experiences a more rigorous workout, the brain area connected to that limb will experience a deeper sleep, he said.

Completely switching gears from birds to humans, another key takeaway at the WSF event was that sleeping can be dangerous for some people. Dr. Schenck spoke about extreme parasomnia cases such as sleep aggression, sleep terrors, and sleepwalking. He showed several videos of people exhibiting these types of behavior and told the much-publicized story of Ken Parks, a Canadian man who murdered his mother-in-law and attacked his father in law while asleep (he was tried and acquitted).

Parasomnias of this nature occur because the mammalian paralysis in REM sleep is not working, resulting in people acting out their dreams. Many diagnosed people have been successfully treated with the drug clonazepam, Schenck said.

And while the studies on parasomnia in and of themselves are quite fascinating, an eye-opening discovery has been the relationship between REM sleep behavior disorder (the category of parasomnia in which muscle paralysis does not work) and Parkinson’s disease (PD). According to Schenck, 81 percent of REM sleep behavior disorder cases convert to PD. He views this as an exciting opportunity for early intervention for PD, and explained that it is an area being researched by a collaborative international effort. 

–Ann L. Whitman

Dreaming of Henry Rollins

The Rubin Museum has officially kicked off its fourth annual Brainwave series, which pairs artists and scientists in conversations about the brain. This year’s theme focuses on dreams, and last night punk rocker turned spoken-word artist Henry Rollins opened up to neuroscientist David Eagleman, Ph.D. about the violence and anxiety that plague him in his sleep.

According to Eagleman, there is an over-misrepresentation of grief and misery in dreams. And, even more fascinating, dream content does not appear to be dependent on personal circumstance and environment. He noted a study by Susan Malcolm-Smith et al. at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, which compared the number of “threat dreams” experienced by the inhabitants of a sleepy town in Wales and to those of a high-crime area of South Africa. Contrary to predictions by the researchers, the number of threat dreams experienced did not significantly differ based on location.

Some lucky sleepers, Rollins included, have the ability to take control of their nightmares, forcing a more amenable outcome or prompting themselves to wake up. This state of mind, said Eagleman, which is somewhere between consciousness and REM sleep, is called lucid dreaming.

Rollins explained that he is sometimes able to get a “do-over” in dreams where he is back in a familiar dream, but this time has the ability to control the outcome. For those not naturally in possession of this ability, lucid dreaming is actually something that can be learned through training, said Eagleman. Upon assuming control of one’s dreams, “most people fly or have sex,” he quipped.

I’ve experienced the “do-over” type of dreaming that Rollins described, turning potential nightmares into more of an Indiana Jones-esque adventure.  But, my most memorable lucid dream, and possibly my first, is from my childhood. I dreamt that I was in the back of a taxi and decided to change the driver’s hair color several times. Maybe not the most exciting action in a dream world of endless possibilities, but at the time I thought it was pretty amazing.

The Brainwave event ended with a disclaimer by Eagleman that science still doesn’t know exactly how we dream and why, but, he said, it’s clear that the awake state and the asleep state find the brain in two completely different modes that are equally active.

To learn more about dreaming, the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series runs through April 20.

–Ann L. Whitman


Inception and the neuroscience of dreaming

First things first: no spoilers here. I don’t think I could provide any even if I wanted to—Inception was that complex a movie. I saw it last night, and its intricate plot revolving around dreams got me thinking about them. I rarely remember my dreams, and when I do, they contain only a few possible “plots.” The images and themes represented in Inception were far more interesting and intricate than what I remember of my dreams, leaving me once again jealous of Leonardo DiCaprio (or at least Cobb, the character he plays).

Dreaming has long fascinated psychologists and neuroscientists, as well as many of the rest of us. Why exactly do we dream? Does dreaming serve any purpose? Dr. Guy McKhann wrote about dreaming in the April Brain in the News, and offered three reasons: memory consolidation, pruning, and creating.

One recent study represents dreaming as a combination of all three. In the study, volunteers studied a maze before attempting to navigate through it. After a few attempts, half of the participants napped. All were given the maze test again later in the day, and those who napped performed better than those who had stayed awake. And nappers who dreamed about the maze performed 10 times better than the other nappers.

I can’t say I’ve ever had useful dreams. While in school I never dreamed about course material I had just reviewed, as some of the participants in the study did. Sleeping without dreaming is still very valuable, but Cobb and others seem to be luckier at making better use of their resting times.

–Andrew Kahn

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