In 2004, researchers at the University of Wisconin at Madison robbed rats of their dreams. The outcome was astonishing.
Rats were placed in a tub of water with an upturned flower-pot in the center to allow the rats a dry resting place when they were bored of swimming or wanted to sleep. However, a draining hole on the top of the flower-pot meant that whenever the rats entered REM sleep, the accompanying muscular paralysis caused their bodies to slacken and in the water they went. They were free to climb back on and sleep again but whenever REM sleep was reached the same would happen to the long-suffering rats.
After several dreamless nights the rats were put through their paces to test their natural inbuilt survival abilities. When they were set down in the middle of a field they wandered aimlessly around these exposed and potentially dangerous areas rather than scurry to a more sheltered area.
When shocked by something in their environment a rat would instinctively freeze. These dream -deprived rats momentarily paused but then carried on regardless.
An unexpected twist came when during the final stage of the experiment the rats were given amphetamines expecting these to reverse the sleepy state and therefore reinstate the now alert rats’ survival abilities. What happened when retested was a surprise to all involved. Nothing changed. So what happened?
The Dream Dojo
Finnish psychologist Antti Revonsuo believes the rats lost their ability to defend themselves not because they were exhausted, but because they had been robbed of their dreams. Revonsuo believes dreams are a training ground in which people and animals go over and rehearse their survival behaviours.
Like martial art students repeating movements and honing their skills in the dojo, so the dream world could be a stage where we re-enact and learnt to react to perceived threats.
Revonsuo, a dream researcher at the University of Turku in Finland, believes the primary function of negative dreams is rehearsal for similar events in reality. Faced with life-or-death situations people often report entering a calm almost autonomic state and react almost without thinking, as if it were all a dream. Threat simulation, Revonsuo believes, is the reason why.
When people begin recording their dreams they are often surprised to find their nights are filled with negative emotions, threatening events, conflict and chases. Dreams of falling, drowning, fighting, or being trapped are common-place. Could they be rehearsals for the real deal? It is well documented after-all that mental rehearsal through visualisation improves skills and enhances learning in everything from sports to learning an instrument.
Dreams as Solution Centers
Not everyone agrees that dreams are merely a rehearsal for ‘real life’ however. Some researchers argue that dreams are designed to provide solutions. Most of us mere mortals rarely wake with an epiphany, nor can we trust our subconscious to come up with the goods when we ‘sleep on’ a problem. Some exceptions make this a compelling idea though; German chemist Friedrich August Kekule struggled to find the molecular structure of benzene until he dreamed about a snake eating its own tail. Kekule realised benzene was a closed circle- a ring, due to this particular symbolic dream.
Paul McCartney dreamed the lyrics of ‘Yesterday’, woke and wrote it down. Beethoven is said to have dreamed at least one of his masterpieces. William Blake was said to have received technical advice in his dreams about painting. Salvador Dali embraced and used his dreams to aid his creations. Robert Louis Stevenson claimed many of his books started out as dreams. In India people are taught that dreams are a good source of practical advice. Ghandi himself utilised his dreams to help him make life- changing decisions.
Whatever the case, dreams and dreaming are basic to human existence. In an age of magnificent scientific research and breakthroughs it is astonishing we do not understand what goes on inside our heads each and every night better.
We could learn a thing or two about ourselves while learning to better utilise the third of our lives we spend asleep, and the approximate six years we spend dreaming.
Explore Your Mind How to use dreams for personal growth and creative inspiration
Dreams of Awakening: Lucid Dreaming and Mindfulness. An amazingly thought- provoking and insightful look at the world of lucid dreaming
The New Science of Dreaming: Three volumes for the serious dream enthusiast.