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The meaningfulness (or not) of dreams

Scientific American has launched a new series this year called “Too Hard for Science?” It involves interviews with scientists “about ideas they would love to explore that they don’t think could be investigated.”
The interview on Monday was with Rob

Scientific American has launched a new series this year called “Too Hard for Science?” It involves interviews with scientists “about ideas they would love to explore that they don’t think could be investigated.”

The interview on Monday was with Robert Stickgold, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Harvard Medical School. The idea he would like to investigate: Why dreams seem profoundly meaningful to the person having them, but not to anyone else. In fact, as Stickgold tells science writer Charles Choi, dreams are “almost never amazing [to other people] — they’re almost always somehow embarrassingly uninteresting.”

The same is true, says Stickgold, of the “acid insights” that people report having while taking LSD. A person on the drug may claim enlightenment, but to everybody else, the insights seem, well, rather ho-hum and boring.

Interestingly, Stickgold points out, both REM sleep (the periods during sleep when we do most of our dreaming) and LSD have a similar biological effect on the brain: They both shut off the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a brain chemical intricately involved with mood.

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But why would the brain want to make dreams meaningful? What would be the value to us humans?

“It could be the brain is making you focus your attention on material that was only weakly associated before and investing this association with this feeling of profundity to help it mine these connections for something not immediately obvious but potentially important,” Stickgold tells Choi. “It makes sense that the sensation would be a positive and reinforcing one.”

Because meaningfulness is difficult to measure, exploring this idea of why we perceive seemingly mundane dream events as meaningful would also be difficult. Stickgold suggests it might be done, however — perhaps by giving people drugs that suppress or elevate their serotonin levels and then asking them to rate the meaningfulness of, say, various movie clips.

“It’s clear that there is a useful scientific question here,” he says. “What is it about the dream process that so frequently and universally across people generates this very strong perception of something like importance or significance or deepness, a feeling we find hard to define, and one that’s often totally wrong, in that when you tell others about your dreams, you find they don’t have any obvious significance? It’s just a matter of clarifying what the question really is, and then finding a good way of exploring it.”

You can read the Scientific American article here.