The brain is truly an amazing organ. Its complexity and abilities have perplexed us for centuries. From dissections and crude electrical experiments to today’s MRI’s and other medical advancements we have attempted to understand and explain how it functions. Much has been written and many theories advanced on the brain, many being very complex. Some aspects of the brain that have caught our imagination are the sleeping brain and dreams. One would be stunned to discover that the brain is hardly dormant during sleep.
Just what is it doing? Well, I’m no psychologist or neurologist or any other kind of “gist” that is truly qualified to answer that question, but I have some ideas. You see, all during our waking hours the brain is receiving all kinds of data, most of which we’re completely unaware. Yes, we are more physically and mentally active, but many of our functions are purely automatic and handled by specific parts of the brain…our autopilot so-to-speak. Some information that we have used to go about our daily routines has been analyzed and properly stored, but all that other information that slips by our conscious selves also has to be processed.
So when does the brain do that? It can’t do that while we’re awake because we demand too much from it. The most efficient time would be while we’re asleep. In sleep mode the brain can devote more time and brain power to sorting and cataloging the various bits of data received by the five senses. In doing so it activates our sensory functions, including emotional responses. Hence, you have dreams. The body has built-in safeguards that hold the body still since motor functions are activated, as well. However, it isn’t uncommon for those safeguards to be bypassed from time to time.
So just what is a dream? I have no qualified answer, but rather a hypothesis. It is my opinion that a dream is an interpretation of the data as it is being processed. Since the data has been received from all five, possibly six senses if you believe those who claim we can access higher spheres of consciousness, we are able to see things, feel, hear, taste, and smell, some of which we actually experience in our dream state. The data isn’t processed in any particular order, but not quite randomly. So when our dreams seem a bit crazy or down-right strange, it is because of the order the information is processed. Sometimes data is processed through memories and/or other embedded experiences. Our synapses are criss-crossed into several dream cycles in any given night. Indeed, you might be surprised to know that you dream, on average, four to six dreams per sleep.
We don’t fully understand dreams. No, let me rephrase that. We have only vague ideas about dreams. There is a plethora of books on the interpretation of dreams, and some actually make sense and are good reading, or about as much sense as an educated guess can make. However, they base their notions on people’s recollections of their dreams. Have you ever tried to recall a dream? Most are difficult, if not impossible, to remember. Sometimes it seems the more you try to recall, the more fleeting they become. Some people seem to be able to retain most of their dreams. But do they really? Consider the human memory. It is very efficient in many aspects, but details are usually unreliable as time passes…and not much time at that. The reason for this is in the way memories are stored. There is not some chip as in a computer that stores memories in one convenient place. No, no, no. Our information is distributed here and there in the brain and is connected via association. This association is evolutionary for self defense, but details, even those stored in long-term memory, degrade over time and are susceptible to suggestive change. So what makes our recollection of dreams any better?
Do dreams have meaning? Do they foretell the future? Do they reveal hidden secrets of time and space? There’s a sign post ahead; you have entered the Twilight Zone. Who knows for sure? Maybe they do, maybe not. I do believe they tell us something, something about ourselves and the world we live in. Sometimes they clarify things, other times they muddle things. Sometimes they reveal a truth. All we have to do is listen.
References for further reading on memories, dreams, and their interpretation: