Category Archives: Literature

Why Do We Dream?

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Key Dream Research Equipment

“What does my dream mean?!”

“Sorry…?”

“I’ve heard you study sleep. I mean I think I’ve worked it out myself but I wanted an expert opinion.”

“Erm…”

It doesn’t take long to drift into questions about dream analysis when I tell people that I study sleep. I don’t entirely blame them. It’s a subject which has fascinated society for millennia and it doesn’t look like that is going to stop any time soon. I’m sure most of us have had a dream which we are convinced has some greater significance: a dream about facing our fears or that person who you hadn’t thought about for years.

In the distant past, dreams were associated with divine will and prophetic qualities. Ancient Egyptian and Greek scholars produced dream manuals which were used to interpret nightly visions. Flash forward to the 19th and early 20th century and there was a shift towards understanding dreams in terms of their psychological causes and consequences. It was not until 1953 with the discovery of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that the objective study of dreaming was possible.

Since then, we have come to appreciate that not all dreams are not created equal. Depending on which stage of sleep the dream is recalled from will depend on the type of dream. Firstly, dreaming does not only occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep but can occur at any stage during the sleep cycle. Dreams at sleep onset and during short naps appear to be relatively faithful, if not stripped back, representations of daily activities. By contrast, dreams reported during REM sleep and after longer periods of sleep appear more bizarre and less clearly linked to daytime activities.

So why do we dream? What attempts have there been to try to understand these nightly visions of the surreal?

Wish Fulfilment

Freud stated in ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ that all dreams were wish fulfilment of our uninhibited desire. The dream provided an outlet for these desires and prevented them seeping into wakefulness. The dream (manifest) content could thus be interpreted and inform the analyst about the unconscious desires of an individual. The latent, or unremembered and unconscious, dream content could be reached through employing dream analysis and psychoanalytic techniques. Although you can still buy manuals which claim to teach you how to analyse dreams in line with early psychoanalytical thought, the validity of these are questionable at best. The steps required to reach the ‘latent content’ can be idiomatic and despite claims that an airplane can represent unconscious desires sometimes “…a cigar is just a cigar”.

Dreaming to Remember

It has been shown that dreaming is linked to the activities which we complete during the day. This should come with little surprise to most. We can often pinpoint our dreams back to activities we have completed during the day – even if they appear in bizarre contexts.

Robert Stickgold at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Harvard, showed this with a simple experiment. Participants were required to play Tetris at fixed periods and to sleep in a monitored laboratory setting. During this time, participants were asked about their thoughts and dreams in the first hour of attempted sleep.  He found that by asking participants to play Tetris for extended period of time that a significant number of sleep-onset dreams and images were found to be linked to Tetris (i.e. images of the blocks falling into place and lines of blocks disappearing when complete).

tetris

A study from the same group led by Erin Wamsley at the University of Harvard built on this by exploring whether the presence of task-relevant dreams was associated with performance. They asked participants to complete a virtual navigation task whereby they had to reach a goal (e.g. a tree). Participants were then re-tested just over 4 hours after the initial completion of this task.

Half of the group were then provided with an opportunity to nap and the other half remained awake. Unsurprisingly, from what we already know, the nap group were found to show a greater improvement on the task at re-test. Interestingly, and importantly for dreaming, the participants who dreamed about the maze during the nap also reported the greatest re-test improvement. Okay, perhaps this might simply have been due to the fact that these participants were simply thinking of the task more? However, this doesn’t appear to be the case. The wake participants were also asked about their task-relevant thoughts but the researchers found no benefit to re-test performance here.

Collectively, these studies suggest that dreaming may be a result of the brain consolidating and organising new memories alongside existing ones. However, they don’t tell us that dreaming is responsible for our improvement but that dreaming may be a marker of it.

Activation Synthesis Theory (and Dreaming to Forget)

Other theories suggest that dreaming has little relevance to memory or other functions. The Activation Synthesis theory proposed by Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley in 1977 claims that dreaming is the product of seemingly random or automatic brain activity produced during REM sleep.

These ‘random’ activations have their origin in the brain stem and are transmitted to the forebrain during REM sleep. The cortex then compares this activation against previous memories to make sense of the neural activity produced by the brain stem. It is claimed that a similar mechanism may explain non-sleep hallucinations and dreaming. This theory forms the basis for another hypothesis for why we dream: not to remember but to forget. This should seem counter-intuitive based on what we know about sleep and memory – and all that advice you’re given by teachers or colleagues before an important exam or meeting.

However, Francis Crick (yes, that Francis Crick) and Graeme Mitchison argued in 1983 that sleep has an important role in identifying faulty connections within the brain – an inevitable problem facing a neural network of sufficient complexity. These ‘faults’ arise during development and as a part of the multitudinous memories and connections we develop throughout any ordinary day. During REM sleep, these ‘faults’ are dampened down and their connections weakened. This ensures the brain works efficiently.

So, where does dreaming fit in?

Quite simply the ‘faults’ in the brain are experienced as dreams. Our dreams are the connections which our brains’ are trying to suppress during REM sleep. The overall purpose of such a mechanism is to ensure the efficient functioning of a brain with finite processing power.

However, if our dreams are the memories we are trying to erase, in one form or another, why do we have recurrent dreams? Crick claims that this is tricky for the theory but may be as a result of the threatening nature of recurrent dreams. The anxiety and fear associated with such dreams is likely to wake up the dreamer and to subsequently be remembered. This may interfere with the reverse learning process.

Primitive instinct rehearsal theory of dreaming

Another appealing theory is that dreaming is not a product of vital or random brain activity but rather that it serves an evolutionary advantage. More specifically, it has been claimed that dreams may help us deal with threatening situations in our daily lives by giving us an opportunity to practise overcoming them. In turn this increases our survival odds and also increases the chance we will successfully reproduce – passing on that ability to dream to our offspring.

Anecdotally this might explain why anxiety and fearful dreams are commonly reported by many different people, and why they share a common theme. However, like Freud, this theory assumes that dream content must have a distinct purpose. It’s hard to falsify such a theory and provide evidence which would conclusively disprove its existence as many dreams could conceivably be interpreted in a practise or threat-related manner.

Dreaming and Creativity

Finally, it’s an old claim that creativity and dreaming are linked together. Authors such as Mary Shelley and Steven King relate their tales of horror back to dreams they’ve remembered. Salvador Dali enjoyed the phantasmagorical images produced through his dreams and used them as inspiration for his surrealist art.

What does the science say about creativity and dreaming?

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Surveys of students’ ability to remember and recall dreams correlates with openness to new experiences, fantasy proneness, and may even be associated with a lesser ability to filter out environmental input. Cumulatively, this suggests that traits associated with creativity and ‘thinking outside the box’ are associated with an ability to recall dreams. However, this does not mean that we dream in order to improve creativity but that creativity is likely a product of bizarre, frightening and fantastical dreams. We benefit from dreaming but only insomuch as an incidental source of inspiration.

Overall, even though the content of your dreams may not necessarily provide a convenient road to your hidden thoughts and desires, they can provide us some fascinating insights into the sleeping brain. Despite frustrated responses from others, that remains my response when they ask about last night’s dream about planes, trains and giant chickens.

Don’t ask.

Inquisitive Tortoise

References:

Crick, F., & Mitchison, G. (1983). The function of dream sleep. Nature, 304(5922), 111-114.

Stickgold, R., Malia, A., Maguire, D., Roddenberry, D., & O’Connor, M. (2000). Replaying the game: hypnagogic images in normals and amnesics. Science, 290(5490), 350-353.

Wamsley, E. J., & Stickgold, R. (2010). Dreaming and offline memory processing. Current Biology, 20(23), R1010-R1013.

Wamsley, E. J., Perry, K., Djonlagic, I., Reaven, L. B., & Stickgold, R. (2010). Cognitive replay of visuomotor learning at sleep onset: temporal dynamics and relationship to task performance. Sleep, 33(1), 59-68.

Image Credits:

Dream Catcher (Header)

Tetris (Body Text)

Nightmare (Body Text)

 

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Can a Lack of Sleep Kill You?

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“Have you forgotten so easily?” the subject asked. “We are you. We are the madness that lurks within you all, begging to be free at every moment in your deepest animal mind. We are what you hide from in your beds every night. We are what you sedate into silence and paralysis when you go to the nocturnal haven where we cannot tread.”

Surviving participant from ‘The Russian Sleep Experiment’ in the late 1940s. This volunteer went 15 days without sleep.

Before you start looking over your shoulder for the demonic presence presented above, don’t be alarmed. The quote above is from a piece of horror fiction from a website called Creepy Pasta and is completely fake. I hope.

I wanted to start with this as Halloween is fast approaching and I thought that a more fiendish sleep myth was worth looking at. Can a lack of sleep be directly responsible for your death?

A complete lack of sleep is something new parents and those of us with upcoming deadlines may know all too well. It’s draining, depressing, and leaves us eyeing up any available floor space as prime real-estate for your exhausted brain and body.

We have already looked at the effects of getting too little or too much sleep in my earlier post, but not the more extreme side of this. Research conducted with animals at the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century suggests that not only is sleep important, but that it is vital for sustaining life. In experiments which looked at puppies, cats and rats, it was found that after anything from a few days to around a month of no to very little sleep would lead to death in these animals. This should be taken with a pinch of salt as animals tend to have to be forced to stay awake, and this is typically through stressful contraptions.

How about humans though? What is the longest any one has gone without sleep and gone on to tell the tale?

Well there are two main sources which we can look at. Firstly, there are the people who have willingly deprived themselves of sleep and secondly we can look at people who no longer sleep. Starting with those strange souls who willingly deprive themselves of shut-eye we can look towards a reality TV-show, our trusty sleep-deprived student population, and a couple of radio DJs to start to answer this question.

People are seemingly keen to show off their endurance when it comes to neglecting or overindulging in the necessities of life. Some will do it to win a fabulous prize and others because… Well I’m sure they know why they do it. Anyway, one such contest is relevant here.

The reality TV show ‘Shattered’ provided contestants a chance to win £100,000. All they had to do was be the last one standing in a competition to stay awake the longest. The show was screened on channel 4 in 2004 and its questionable premise didn’t put off a group of eager participants keen to deprive themselves of sleep for fame and glory. The winner stayed awake ultimately for 178 hours. The show capped the length of time participants could remain awake for, and a number of increasingly soporific tasks eventually weeded out one overall victor. If you are interested in this ‘experiment’ you can watch it here.

However, 178 hours was meagre compared to the next contenders. It seems that at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s there was a surge in radio DJs attempting to promote themselves and further their careers in bizarre ways. Collectively they felt that staying awake and parading their increasingly fatigued selves in a department store window was the way to do this.

Our first member of the media to tackle a lack of sleep was a young radio announcer referred to as W.A. He managed to stay awake for a total of 220 hours or just over 9 days. Previously, another radio DJ by the name of Peter Tripp had managed to last 201 hours without sleep. Finally, our last radio DJ, Tom Rounds, shortly after moving to Honolulu in 1959, managed to stay awake for 260 hours and appeared to suffer no long-term effects of his sleep deprivation.

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Is sleep necessary for sustaining life?

However, their collective records did not last long. The radio DJs were swiftly beaten in 1964 by the efforts of a student called Randy Gardener. Randy was a 17 years old student who felt that he could provide something more interesting than a papier-mâché volcano to present at his school’s science fair. He went without sleep for 264.4 hours, which equates to about 11 days and 24 minutes, and supposedly suffered no long-term problems. The often cited report claims that Randy suffered no ill effects of his experiment, yet others claim he experienced hallucinations, paranoia, fluctuations in mood, and problems in short term memory and concentration. The latter would fit with what we know about acute sleep disturbances (Petrovsky et al. 2014; Kahn-Greene et al., 2007).

Interesting, there have been reports of others having seemingly beaten Randy’s record and by a sizeable margin. These have not been validated in part due to scientists and those responsible for recording ‘world records’ not wanting to encourage these record attempts. For example, the Guinness Book of World Records no longer prints updates to the sleep deprivation record since Randy Gardener.

Okay, so far it looks like we can go a long time without sleep and survive. This seems to suggest that although we need sleep (try not sleeping tonight if you’re not convinced), an acute loss is not going to be directly responsible for your demise (but likely indirectly).

Let’s move to the second source of human sleep loss evidence now: those who no longer possess the ability to sleep.

We’ve already looked at people who for one reason or another have decided to willingly deprive themselves of sleep. Yet, for some the ability to sleep is lost. Although insomnia fits this bill, in this case we are referring to the rare genetic brain disease known as Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI). As the name suggests, this disease is associated with a prolonged and severe insomnia which ultimately leads to death. There are some experimental treatments to delay the fatal consequences but these may only provide a couple of extra years at best.

Fatal familial insomnia is a prion disease. Prions are misfolded proteins that cause damage to the brain as they clump together. In the case of FFI, these prions clump at a specific part of the brain known as the thalamus. The thalamus plays a prominent role in regulating sleep and in coordinating the brain as it drifts deeper and deeper in somnolence. As a result, as the damage to the thalamus accumulates this unsurprisingly leads to worsening insomnia.

These individuals seemingly sleep very little or not at all and will survive from a few months to about several years following the presentation of symptoms. The course of this illness would suggest that it is possible to die from sleep deprivation, at least at extreme durations. However, we can’t say that it is the complete lack of sleep alone which kills those with FFI as damage to the thalamus affects other functions rather than just sleep. Moreover, as this disease is so rare that it would be wrong to make a firm conclusion based on this alone. More likely, it seems that the lack of sleep contributes significantly, but not completely, to the decline of those with this illness.

So, what’s the verdict on sleep deprivation being capable of deadly consequences?

The research in animals suggests it can be but the human studies tell another story. Although common myths and horror stories might like to toy with our inbuilt fears about the unknown, it looks like a lack of sleep will not directly lead to your death. Instead, the host of effects already covered may be the true driver between mortality and sleep loss.

Inquisitive Tortoise

References:

Luby, E. D., Frohman, C. E., Grisell, J. L., Lenzo, J. E., & Gottlieb, J. S. (1960). Sleep deprivation: effects on behavior, thinking, motor performance, and biological energy transfer systems. Psychosomatic Medicine, 22(3), 182-192.

Petrovsky, N., Ettinger, U., Hill, A., Frenzel, L., Meyhöfer, I., Wagner, M., … & Kumari, V. (2014). Sleep deprivation disrupts prepulse inhibition and induces psychosis-like symptoms in healthy humans. The Journal of Neuroscience, 34(27), 9134-9140.

** http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/The_Russian_Sleep_Experiment

**In case you find yourself wanting to read the rest of the fictitious foray into the effects of sleep deprivation.

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The Creature at the End of the Bed: What is Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep Paralysis

A fitting depiction of the sleep paralysis experience for many.

My limbs won’t move. I can’t scan the room or, more importantly, run if I needed to. This feeling in itself is terrifying, but I become aware of an evil presence in the room. It’s behind me and is waiting there. All I’m aware of is a jagged shadow which means me some ill. I’m desperate to move, to escape, to scream out and run from this figure watching me. Minutes pass and my focus is on moving, willing my failing limbs to spring into action. Suddenly they return back to life and I instinctively look towards the corner of the room where I felt a malevolent being was sizing me up. There’s nothing there but darkness and my old blue wooden wardrobe. Shaken and tired, I attempt to drift back to sleep and forget that the shadow could still be out there.

My first, and only, experience with sleep paralysis occurred when I was about 6 years old and coincided with my sleep-walking phase. It was a brief but terrifying experience and although I don’t remember it perfectly, the feeling of vulnerability and that shadow’s presence remain with me.  The experience of sleep paralysis differs from person to person but there are constants to everyone’s experience. There is the characteristic paralysis of voluntary muscles and often, but not always, this is accompanied by hallucinations which can leave the person frightened and disoriented. The hallucinations experienced by sufferers of sleep paralysis also appear deeply embedded in different cultures, literature and history (see sleep paralysis as a cultural phenomenon below).

These hallucinations can be grouped into intruder, incubus and vestibular hallucinations. The intruder hallucination, whereby there is a feeling that there is a being in the room with you, with the feeling of malevolent intent is the type I experienced as a young child. However, experiences of a great weight on your chest attributed to a demon-like creature and the feeling of floating can be identified as incubus and vestibular hallucinations respectively. These experiences are particularly distressing for those who are unfamiliar with their cause and has led some to wrongly believe they were suffering from psychosis.

Although a bizarre experience, it is not all that uncommon. A large systematic review (a comprehensive report which gathers all of the studies, in theory, ever conducted on a topic) of the prevalence of sleep paralysis found that “7.6% of the general population, 28.3% of the student population, and 31.9% of psychiatric patients experienced at least one episode of sleep paralysis” (Sharpless & Barber, 2011). It’s interesting to note that it should be so prevalent amongst student populations.

So, what is at the root of sleep paralysis episodes? It appears that sleep paralysis is linked to REM sleep and the transition to and from this stage of the sleep cycle. Interestingly, in a sleep disorder known as narcolepsy, characterised by sudden onsets of sleep, the prevalence of sleep paralysis is around 50%. This is considerably higher than the normal population, and it might be due to the sudden onset of REM sleep seen in individuals with narcolepsy. Moreover, narcolepsy is also associated with partial sleep paralysis. This is where there is some limited movement available to the individual but they are likely paralysed and experience the powerful and frightening hallucinations seen in sleep paralysis.

In my last article, I talked about how it is possible to induce sleepwalking in those with a genetic risk by sleep depriving them. It appears that the same trick can be useful in eliciting sleep paralysis episodes in students. A study by Takeuchi and colleagues (1992) showed that by waking students up at just the right time they were able to elicit sleep paralysis in their sample. More specifically, by waking up participants when they were just about to enter REM, they were able to manipulate it so that participants were more likely to go directly into REM sleep as they drifted off again. However, this technique is far from perfect in eliciting sleep paralysis as out of 64 successful REM interruptions, only 6 episodes of sleep paralysis were recorded in 5 out of 16 participants. This suggests that sleep onset REM is involved in sleep paralysis but there are likely other factors which play a role here. For example, stress and physical tiredness (beyond being woken up in a sleep laboratory) may also contribute to the likeliness of sleep paralysis occurring. This may explain why student and psychiatric populations are more prone to sleep paralysis episodes.

As I have already, hopefully, addressed with sleepwalking, there is a clear and long history of sleep paralysis as recorded in literature and historical medical reports. We have identified the different subtypes, linked it to a particular stage of sleep and started to identify some connections with other sleep disorders (e.g. narcolepsy). However, this is largely where our understanding of the phenomenon ends. It appears that problems in the REM stage of sleep are important in the production of sleep paralysis but more work is needed to understand what these are and why they are important.

Sleep Paralysis as a Cultural Phenomenon

S5765870281_a51d288e54_zleep paralysis occurs across a wide range of different cultures and there is historical evidence of it occurring throughout the history of medicine and literature. Folk terms such as the “old hag”, the “Pandafeche”, and visitations by demonic presences such as succubi and incubi have been attributed to sleep paralysis.
Many of these lay blame for experiences on paranormal or spiritual beings, with a focus on witch or ghost-like beings (old hag and pandafeche), and given the content of hallucinations experienced alongside sleep paralysis this is not surprising.

The painting, ‘The Nightmare’ by Henry Fuseli is commonly believed to be a depiction of sleep paralysis and a case study from the 1600s exists which describes sleep paralysis in vivid detail (Kompanje, 2008). Interestingly, the previous case study also highlighted how body position while sleeping might contribute to sleep paralysis and hallucinations experienced with it. There is some recent evidence which suggests that lying in a supine position (on your back, face up) may be associated with increased rates of sleep paralysis and associated hallucinations. The 17th century case study provided the earliest evidence of this facet of sleep paralysis.

Inquisitive Tortoise

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Header Image: Sleep-paralysis-pic 

Additional Info Image: Demon

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Hearing the Voice at Durham Book Festival, October 2013

I was going to write something about the exciting Hearing the Voice events, held at the Durham Book Festival, this year; however, it seems it is already here in a far superior format.

Hearing the Voice at Durham Book Festival, October 2013.

I hasten to add there are also a number of other interesting talks and discussions going on at the book festival, which is taking place in and around Durham from the 2nd October up until the 29th October.

 

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