One prominent neurobiological theory of dreaming is the “activation-synthesis hypothesis,” which states that dreams don’t actually mean anything: they are merely electrical brain impulses that pull random thoughts and imagery from our memories. Humans, the theory goes, construct dream stories after they wake up, in a natural attempt to make sense of it all. Yet, given the vast documentation of realistic aspects to human dreaming as well as indirect experimental evidence that other mammals such as cats also dream, evolutionary psychologists have theorized that dreaming really does serve a purpose. In particular, the “threat simulation theory” suggests that dreaming should be seen as an ancient biological defense mechanism that provided an evolutionary advantage because of its capacity to repeatedly simulate potential threatening events enhancing the neurocognitive mechanisms required for efficient threat perception and avoidance.
So, over the years, numerous theories have been put forth in an attempt to illuminate the mystery behind human dreams, but, until recently, strong tangible evidence has remained largely elusive. Yet, new research published in the Journal of Neuroscience provides compelling insights into the mechanisms that underlie dreaming and the strong relationship our dreams have with our memories. Cristina Marzano and her colleagues at the University of Rome have succeeded, for the first time, in explaining how humans remember their dreams. The scientists predicted the likelihood of successful dream recall based on a signature pattern of brain waves. In order to do this, the Italian research team invited 65 students to spend two consecutive nights in their research laboratory. During the first night, the students were left to sleep, allowing them to get used to the sound-proofed and temperature-controlled rooms.
During the second night, the researchers measured the student’s brain waves while they slept. Our brain experiences four types of electrical brain waves: “delta,” “theta,” “alpha,” and “beta.” Each represents a different speed of oscillating electrical voltages and together they form the electroencephalography (EEG). The Italian research team used this technology to measure the participant’s brain waves during various sleep-stages. (There are five stages of sleep; most dreaming and our most intense dreams occur during the REM stage.) The students were woken at various times and asked to fill out a diary detailing whether or not they dreamt, how often they dreamt, and whether they could remember the content of their dreams.
While previous studies have already indicated that people are more likely to remember their dreams when woken directly after REM sleep, the current study explains why. Those participants who exhibited more low-frequency theta waves in the frontal lobes were also more likely to remember their dreams. This finding is interesting because the increased frontal theta activity the researchers observed looks just like the successful encoding and retrieval of autobiographical memories seen while we are awake. That is, it is the same electrical oscillations in the frontal cortex that make the recollection of episodic memories (e.g., things that happened to you) possible. Thus, these findings suggest that the neurophysiological mechanisms that we employ while dreaming (and recalling dreams) are the same as when we construct and retrieve memories while we are awake.
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