Brains in Dreamland Scientists Hope to Raise the Neural Curtain on Sleep's Virtual Theater

Article excerpt

After his father's death in 1896, Viennese neurologist Sigmund Freud made a momentous career change. He decided to study the mind instead of the brain. Freud began by probing his own mind. Intrigued by his conflicted feelings toward his late father, the scientist analyzed his own dreams, slips of the tongue, childhood memories, and episodes of forgetfulness.

Freud's efforts culminated in the 1900 publication of The Interpretation of Dreams. In that book, he depicted dreams as symbolic stories in which sleepers' unconscious sexual and aggressive desires play out in disguised forms.

Later in his life, Freud acknowledged that dreams don't always gratify wishes. For instance, he noted that some dreams represent attempts to master a past traumatic experience. Yet the father of psychoanalysis always held that dreams contain both surface events and subterranean themes of great personal importance. For that reason, he wrote, "the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind."

Freud's theory of how dreams work has had a huge cultural impact over the past century, even as it attracted intense criticism. Now, brain scientists--members of the discipline that Freud left behind--have stepped to the forefront of this passionate dream dispute.

One prominent group of scientists asserts that Freud profoundly misunderstood dreams. In their, view, the act of dreaming yields a guileless collage of strange but heartfelt images that carry no hidden meanings.

These scientists say that dreaming occurs when a primitive structure called the brain stem stirs up strong emotions, especially anxiety, elation, and anger. At the same time, neural gateways to the external world shut down, as do centers of memory and rational thought. The brain then creates bizarre, internal visions that strongly resonate for the dreamer.

An opposing view corresponds in many ways to Freud's ideas. Its supporters portray dreams as products of a complex frontal-brain system that seeks out objects of intense interest or desire. When provoked during sleep, this brain system depicts deep-seated goals in veiled ways so as not to rouse the dreamer.

A third group of investigators regards the brain data as intriguing but inconclusive. Dreams may serve any of a variety of functions, they argue. Depending on the society, these uses include simulating potential threats, grappling with personal and community problems, sparking artistic creativity, and diagnosing and healing physical illnesses.

"It is striking that 100 years after Freud [published The Interpretation of Dreams], there is absolutely no agreement as to the nature of, function of, or brain mechanism underlying dreaming," says neuroscientist Robert Stickgold of Harvard Medical School in Boston.

A broad consensus exists on one point, though. If neuroscientists hope to understand the vexing relationship of brain and mind, they need to get a handle on dreams.

Freud's royal road to the unconscious looks like a scientific dead-end to psychiatrist J. Allan Hobson. Neuroscientific evidence indicates that the sleeping brain churns out dreams as an afterthought to its other duties, argue Hobson, Stickgold, and Edward F. Pace-Schott, also of Harvard Medical School.

"Unconscious wishes play little or no part in dream instigation, dream emotion is uncensored and undisguised, sleep is not protected by dreaming, and dream interpretation has no scientific status," Hobson says.

Hobson's assault on Freudian dream theory began more than a decade ago. At that time, he proposed that dreams result from random bursts of activity in a brain stem area that regulates breathing and other basic bodily functions. These brain stem blasts zip to the frontal brain during periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when the entire brain becomes nearly as active as when a person is awake. …