Literature and The Biology of Dreams

hmarcia's picture


Herman Marcia

Professor Grobstein

Web Paper 3



Literature and The Biology of Dreams

 In Western literary tradition, dreams have always straddled between the supernatural and the reality.  Many stories involving dreams often exemplify this duality of the supernatural and the reality, and we see this in one of the most famous "dream" stories from the Western Tradition, the tale of Joseph in Egypt.  Found in the book of Genesis in the Bible, the story tells the adventure of Joseph and his time in Egypt.  Joseph was imprisoned by the Egyptians, and during his time there he successfully interpreted his cell-mates dreams and was able to then predict the futures of the dreamers.  Joseph's ability with dreams reached the Pharaoh who soon made Joseph an official of his court.  In the story, we see that although the dreams themselves contain bizarre and supernatural characteristics (the Pharaoh dreamt of skinny cows that devoured fat cows), they are very much intertwined with the reality.  Joseph accurately interpreted the dream, which allowed the Pharaoh to then plan for the famine that was to occur in the future.  Nowadays by understanding the biological processes that occur when we dream, we see how there really exists a connection between dreams and reality.  Of course, dreams do not predict the future as it was once thought in the past, but through research of scientists we are beginning to understand the connection dreams and our lives. 

One of the earliest attempts to understand the connection between dreams and reality come from Sigmund Freud.  In 1900, he published his theory on dreams and argued that dreams emerge from a troubled subconscious that struggles to contain forbidden desires (which were sparked by events that have occurred recently to the dreamer) that we cannot bear to recognize (Leonard).  As a result of this struggle, our dreams express our desires to complete the wishes, but at the same time disguise them by making the dreams unclear or extremely bizarre (Leonard).  An example of this is one of Freud's cases in which a young girl was haunted by dreams of spiders (this girls also had arachnophobia).  Freud concluded that the girl was in fact sexually attracted by her father (who had recently arrived after a long period of time away from the home on business, which would explain why her dreams have emerged), and that the spiders represent her father's hairy hands.  Since incest is not acceptable in her society, her dreams allowed for her to express her desires, but because of the taboo (which apparently her sub-consciousness was also aware of) of incest, her dreams changed the imagery of her father to spiders and also made her fear the spiders.  Freud tried to connect his theory to a more biological foundation, but because of the primitive nature of neurobiology at the time, he was unable to do so (Leonard).  It was not until the 1970's, when scientists began to develop sophisticated methods of analyzing the biological aspects of dreams, and with this data scientists began to develop complex theories about the connection between dreams and reality (Leonard).                                                     

In the 1970's, J. Allan Hobson, a psychiatry resident at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, attempted to understand the biology behind dreams by tracing nerve activity in cats during their REM sleep (Leonard).  Hobson observed how cats' sleeping patterns match those of humans, and by experimenting on the animals, he began to understand how dreams form in humans (Leonard).  These experiments created the scientific foundation of understanding the biology behind dreams.  Hobson discovered that REM sleep occurred when the brainstem sent bursts of nerve impulses to the rest of the brain, and they found that the chemical acetylcholine was responsible for this activity (Schmeck).  In other words, Hobson had discovered the chemical responsible for sleep and dreams.  Another important discovery of Hobson was that he noticed that there was a brainstem neuron that did not become active during REM sleep unlike all of the other neurons (Blakeslee).  This meant that there were two different neurons at work during sleep, one group of neurons stopped function during REM sleep, while the other neurons did.  With this information, Hobson and Robert McCarely, a scientist who helped Hobson during research, developed the theory called the "reciprocal interaction hypothesis", which states that sleep is caused when the brainstem stop producing the chemicals norepinephrine and serotonin, which prevents the brainstem from producing the chemical responsible for sleep, acetylcholine (Schmeck, Crabtree).  Once the brainstem stops producing norepinephrine and serotonin, the brain becomes overwhelmed by acetylcholine which in turn allows for the visual, motor, and emotional centers of the brain to become very active (Leonard).  In addition, the movement of acetylcholine from the brainstem to the brain also led to the movement of choppy and unclear pieces of internal information (memories for example) that are poorly stitched together by the brain during REM sleep (Leonard).  The combination of active visual, motor, and emotional centers of the brain with these choppy, unclear pieces of information lead to the development of dreams (Crabtree).                                                                                                                                                        

As we trace the usage of dreams in ancient texts to Freud's interpretation of them, and finally the biological processes behind dreams, we see how the literature was right to assume that dreams did have something do with our reality.  Although not specifically in the way of predicting the future like Joseph did in the old testament of the Bible, those in the past knew that dreams were not just random images that had little to do with the world around us.  Freud attempted to categorize the connection between dreams and reality, but without the biological understanding of how dreams form in our brains, he had to develop a specific purpose for why dreams formed to begin with.  Thanks to the research of Hobson, we now understand that dreams form because of the activity of neurons caused by a chemical released by the brainstem during REM sleep.  Hobson's research discredits Freud theory, which attributes the creation of dreams as a way for the subconscious to fulfill its darkest desires, but at the same time reinforces the notion that dreams are intertwined with our daily life.  Without our memories, we would not be able to develop dreams. The closer that biology comes to unraveling the mystery of dreams, the more we see that perhaps our ancestors were not wrong to attribute dreams as connections between the supernatural and the reality. 







 Work Cited

Blakesless, Sandra. “Scientists Unraveling Chemistry of Dreams.” The New York Times. 7         Janurary 1992. Online.      unraveling-chemistry-of-dreams.html?pagewanted=1?pagewanted=1


Crabtree, Vexen. “The Biology of Dreams.” Dreams and Nightmares: Vexen’s Dream Diaries.  2009. 6 May 2010.


Leonard, Jonathan. “Dream Catchers.” Havard Magazine. 1998. 6 May 2010.   


Schmeck, Harold M. “New Light on the Chemistry of Dreams.” The New York Times.  29 December 1987. Online.







Paul Grobstein's picture

dreams, brains, and ... what for?

"dreams as connections between the supernatural and the reality"?

Lots of intriguing bits and pieces in here, most particularly on the question of how studies of the brain (so far) do (or do not) help to better understand dreams.  Its an interesting idea that "without the biological understanding of how dreams form in our brains, [Freud] had to develop a specific purpose for why dreams formed to begin with."  And interesting to have now the notion that "The combination of active visual, motor, and emotional centers of the brain with these choppy, unclear pieces of information lead to the development of dream."  But how do these go together?  Do we have a better sense only of "how dreams form in our brains" or a better sense of "why dreams formed to begin with" as well?  And how does this in either case relate to the "supernatural"?  

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