Sweet dreams are made of ….. what? Even Annie Lennox of the Eurhythmics wasn’t quite sure. Although her comment that ‘everybody’s looking for something’ may hold some clues, according to the latest take on Freudian dream theory from South African neuropsychologist, Professor Mark Solms. He was drawing on new neuroscientific research about the function of dreams.
I heard Professor Solms on a Podcast while I was plugging away at the gym. Before you get the wrong idea, I hate going to the gym, but my osteoporotic bones and DEXA results tell me I have to do more resistance training than I’m doing with dancing, chi gung and walking. So I try to drag my body there at least once a week, bribing myself by listening to the never-ending wonders of Radio National podcasts to help pass the time. I usually have to stop to write down a fascinating titbit from the talks. Paper and pencil are attached to my gym towel.
Dreams are fascinating. Most of us dream, although we rarely remember details. On days without an alarm clock, I love to grasp the wisps of a disappearing dream as I lie in that borderland between sleeping and waking. Freud proposed that dreams explored our deep desires and fears in a symbolic way. He understood brain function as being about a balance between pleasure-seeking drives and learnt social behaviour. When the inhibitory functions of consciousness switch off at night, unconscious drives and desires can be explored. Jung maintained that dreams are also embedded in the collective, that is shared, cultural myths of humanity.
For decades neuroscientists thought that dreams corresponded with REM sleep that is controlled in the most primitive part of the brain, the brain stem. As the brain stem is well away from any mental processing functions, they maintained that the fantasies of dreams were the results of random regurgitations of the cerebral cortex as it quietened. New findings highlight that the limbic structures of the brain are associated with dreams; the parts implicated in emotion, memory and behaviour. So Freud and Jung’s theories may have a biological basis.
Hypotheses from this research suggested that the biological function of dreams is to protect sleep by processing desires in a way that avoided acting on them at that time. Therefore, if damage occurred to these parts of the brain and dreams were prevented, so the theory went, then those people would suffer poor sleep with multiple awakenings. Professor Solms early research findings are indicating just that. He is a leading researcher in the integration of psychological and neuroscientific findings about the workings of the brain.
It’s quite fascinating how neuroscience is finding evidence for what philosophy, psychology and social theory has developed over centuries. Whilst controversial, linking neuroscience with other ways of understanding the brain is allowing new perspectives to emerge. There have been studies on meditation of Buddhist monks and creative processes of musicians, for example, which I hope to explore in future posts. Exciting new neuroscientific discoveries have shown that the brain is more plastic than previously thought. As we age, new connections and pathways can be developed through the stimulation of learning and creativity as we continue to explore and engage in life.
Two books I’ve loved reading in my Gap year spring to mind in thinking about these topics. Gene Cohen’s ‘The Mature Mind’ explores the power of creative engagements in healthy productive ageing, drawing on neuroscientific research. James Hollis’s ‘What Matters Most’ uses a Jungian perspective to explore reflections on life as we age. He describes the insights we may gain from dreams as a way of listening to the ‘summons of our souls’. So what did I dream about last night, after a day thinking about neuroscience and other research at work. I dreamt I was dancing – and today – Iam!!!