COVER

SCIENTISTS ARE CLOSE TO UNLOCKING THE BRAIN’S SECRETS

April 23 1990
COVER

SCIENTISTS ARE CLOSE TO UNLOCKING THE BRAIN’S SECRETS

April 23 1990

conclude that dreaming is another form of consciousness.

As a result of the Chicago scientists’ conclusions, scores of researchers around the world designed programs to study dreams in laboratories. But, within a few years, most gave up because the work did not seem to be leading anywhere.

Persistent: Among those who persisted was Toronto-born psychologist Rosalind Cartwright, 67, who runs the Sleep Disorder Service and Research Center at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center on Chicago’s West Side. At the centre, 15 psychologists, interns and technicians chat with patients during their waking hours, monitor the seismogram-like tracings that record their brain, eye and muscle activity while they are asleep and search through piles of printouts for dream patterns that may indicate mental aberrations. Cartwright says that dreams commonly reflect personal concerns about age, intelligence or the moral qualities of an earlier conscious action. Says Cartwright: “You had an experience today that said you’re getting old and you’re kind of dumb and you’re getting fat. You may dream on one side of those pairs and then you will dream the flip side—in one dream you’ll be old, in the next you’ll be young. With luck, you will have reached some resolution by morning and you get up and fight another day.” Dreaming’s nightly function, adds Cartwright, is to keep updating “the program of ourselves, who we are and how we’re doing in the world.”

Sometimes, however, usually during severe emotional stress such as bereavement or divorce, that process becomes distorted and turns dreams into repetitive nightmares. Cartwright says that she has found a way to help by teaching people to change their dreams. “I say if you’ve got a bad dream going, it’s your dream, own it; identify it, recognize it, stop it. Say, I’m in charge. Pop your eyes open. And then I tell them to think about it while they’re awake, design a better ending. It’s your dream, you can change it any way you like.”

Opposites: To change dreams, says Cartwright, patients have to first accept that problem-solving revolves around opposites and then be persuaded that they can, indeed, change them. Declared the psychologist: “If you’re giving yourself some bad message— you’re stupid, you’re ugly, you’re dumb—you possess the other side of those characteristics, and there will be images attached to them which you can activate. That’s what I’m training patients to do.”

Cartwright says that some of her patients have bad dreams and depression following divorces, frequently from partners who were abusive. She says that she encourages them to come to terms with the fact that the relationships are really over, to dream of themselves as capable rather than helpless, strong rather than weak. Added Cartwright: “Their dreams improve, and they wake up feeling so empowered.”

Still, says Cartwright, dream researchers and therapists face many unanswered questions: “If we work things out in a dream, do we make different choices the next day than we would if we stayed awake all night? Are there rich, inventive ideas going unremembered but maybe influencing your thinking the next day? We don’t know. Dreaming may be garbage, as some scientists would have it, but I don’t think so. It’s too cute. It’s too funny.”

Other researchers say that they are deeply skeptical that current psychological theories about dreams have any real significance. Says Dr. J. Allan Hobson, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School: “It is scientifically undemonstrated that dreams have secret meaning, or that the process involves some kind of rearranging of psychic furniture.” Added Hobson, who is also director of neurophysiology at Massachusetts Mental Health Center: “My guess is that dreaming is not critical. People will consider that heresy, but look: if it’s critical, why do so few people remember their dreams?”

Chemistry: Hobson claims that dreams are largely a result of brain chemistry, which undergoes changes between waking and sleeping. During waking, says Hobson, the chemical system, which seems to be necessary for learning, attention, memory and logical thought, also reins in a second chemical system with the result that both systems are in balance. But when a person falls asleep, the first system shuts down, and the second one “goes wild. We think this is the source of internal stimulation that is responsible, for example, for the visual system receiving impulses which it thinks are coming from the eyes.”

John Antrobus, the 57-year-old professor of psychology at City College of the City University of New York, says that he also doubts the significance of dreams. Added the native of Peace River, Alta.: “I don’t think dreaming has much relevance to the real world and our daily functioning.” However, he says, dreaming gives scientists an opportunity to study what the brain is doing at the only time when it is cut off from the senses and the body refuses to carry out its instructions. Says Antrobus: “In a dream, the brain gets information but none of it is from the sensory system, because you’re asleep. So where does it get this information? It gets it from various parts of its own nervous system, but there is probably not the order to those pieces of information that there is in waking perception.”

Nightmare: Occasionally, those bizarre creations become exaggerated. Thousands of people regularly visit dreaming’s dark side—the nightmare. Dr. Ernest Hartmann, for one, a 56-year-old, Vienna-born professor of psychiatry at Boston’s Tufts University School of Medicine, found that patients who had a lot of bad dreams were “open, vulnerable, fragile.” Added Hartmann, who is also director of the sleep-disorder centre at suburban Newton-Wellesley Hospital: “They would get into relationships easily. They were trusting, over-trusting sometimes.”

But Hartmann also says that nightmares have the capacity to help mentally heal people who have narrowly escaped death or serious injury. “For instance, a boy has been burned in a fire but someone else, his brother perhaps, died in the fire. He begins to have dreams about his brother that show he is obviously dealing with the issue of survivor guilt—‘How come my brother is dead and I’m alive?’ ” Declared Hartmann: “He begins in a few days not to just dream about the fire but about other things he and his brother did, maybe times when his brother came out better than he did. After a few weeks, there is less and less about the fire in his dreams and more and more of other experiences.” Hartmann added: “It’s as though the dreams are doing psychotherapy for him; they are integrating this difficult event with other parts of his life. And after a few months, his dreams are back to where they were before.”

In another development, modem research has cast doubt on some old-fashioned ideas about nightmares. A principal theory of the 19th century, says Hartmann, “was that if, for example, you got caught under the bedclothes, you might have a nightmare about someone sitting on your chest or that nightmares would occur when you were almost dying for lack of oxygen.” But he said that he has found that people whose airways become blocked during heavy snoring—one illustration of a condition called sleep apnea—“almost never have nightmares and in fact don’t dream much at all, and yet here are people who 200 times a night are choking, literally choking.”

At the same time, Israeli psychologist Peretz Lavie of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa says that real-life experiences can be so psychologically shattering that nightmares, even dreams themselves, seem not to occur at all. Last June, Lavie told the annual meeting of the Association of Professional Sleep Societies in Washington that a study of survivors of the Holocaust showed that most of those who were well-adjusted had repressed their memories and emotions associated with the terror. Not only that, they said that they could not remember any dreams and they actually denied dreaming at all—even though their REM sleep patterns were similar to Israelis of the same age who had not lived through the horror. Lavie concluded that psychotherapists should examine the benefits of helping patients forget, rather than relive, terrible events.

Theoretical biologists Francis Crick of the Salk Institute in San Diego and Graeme Mitchison of England’s Cambridge University wrote in a 1983 paper that eliminating dreams may be a productive process. Brain development is so enormously complex, they said, that unhealthy behavior patterns may be accidentally created. REM sleep, they wrote, is “a reverse learning mechanism.” They added that sleep’s purpose is to eliminiate those “parasitic modes of behavior. In REM sleep, we unlearn our unconscious dreams; we dream in order to forget.” As a result, resurrecting dreams may actually be dangerous, because “such remembering may help to retain patterns of thought which are better forgotten.”

Capacity: But, says Dr. Jonathan Winson of New York’s Rockefeller University, man and the other higher animals have such a large capacity for learning it cannot be fully digested during wakefulness. During REM sleep, Winson says, the brain continues to process information even though it has been cut off from the outside world. The 67-year-old neurophysiologist added that dreams are reviews by the unconscious mind of waking experience that help people learn and teach them to think.

But the fact that dreams occur at all may be more important than whether individuals remember them, says Robert P. Vertes, a 46-year-old associate professor of neuroscience at Florida Q Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla. Vertes added that sleep puts the brain in a state not unlike a coma and the purpose of dreams may be to activate it periodically without waking the dreamer'. If that did not happen, he adds, there might be a “permanent loss of consciousness and possibly death during sleep.” In the fanciful and unpredictable world of dreams, there is clearly a lot still to learn. At some point in the future, says Tufts University’s Hartmann, “we are going to discover the biology of thinking and understand how the whole head is put together.” For science, it is all part of pursuing a dream.