The seriousness of dreaming

We've long assumed that dreams are trivial, we might be missing the point.....
05 May 2022

Interview with 

Sidarta Ribeiro, Federal University for Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil


Dream and hope


Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an uptick in the number of reports of vivid dreaming. Many people claimed their dreams were becoming graphic and easier to remember. Harry Lewis speaks to neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro to find out why…

Sidarta - Absolutely. We are all united in the fear of death. We spend most of our lives thinking that death will not come, or come much later, or we don't want to think about it. Suddenly, we all felt very unsafe.

Harry - I assume there's a lot of neurological mechanisms that are changing due to this fear. Can you talk us through any of those and what's happening in the brain?

Sidarta - Well, we are all capable of fear responses. When you're living life as an affluent member of society, most of the anxiety is delayed, postponed or just repressed. We're talking about hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, dopamine. There's several mechanisms, molecular mechanisms, that will make us urge for novelty, or be afraid of novelty. If you put a rat in a new space, before exploration goes on, they tend to freeze. They freeze for a while and then they will not go to sleep and at some point they will go to sleep. If they didn't experience anything bad, then everything normalises and they will become quite curious about the environment and show novelty seeking behaviours. I think in terms of what happened, and is still happening, with COVID - we have to remember many people in the world are not vaccinated in Africa, in the Caribbean, in many countries in the world, in fact - but for most people, the first few months, the first year, the first year and a half, was a period of loss. Many, many things were compounded and in different studies across the globe it was clear that most people were responding with insomnia, with anxiety, an increased latency for sleep onset, and very vivid nightmares and nightmares that started to have some common themes of contagion. For example, in the study that we published on COVID dreams last year, we found that there's a continuity between what people experience during their waking life in terms of symptoms of mental suffering, and in terms of the contents of the dreams using probe words such as contagion. Similar results have been observed by different groups of researchers. It brings us to a collective experience: a lot of what goes on in dreams is to do with your personal unconscious, with your personal life, with your personal challenges and desires and fears. But sometimes these are also the same as your neighbours.

Harry - Why do we have these dreams? Is there a reason behind them?

Sidarta - I believe so. Dreams are part of the neurobiological machinery of adaptation. Sleep is super important for adaptation. It really helps us make a triage of the memories that need to be kept, those that need to be forgotten or repressed, the stuff that needs to be recombined so that we can have new ideas. Dreams come on top of that as a very sophisticated simulation of potential futures, of counterfactuals. Of course, this is not apparent for most people in contemporary urban societies, because this is not the setting in which dreams evolved at all. If we want to understand what dreams are or how they were selected, we need to think of the evolution of dreaming.

Harry - There's a notion that dreams are pretty meaningless, right? So, it might be a result of stress, they might be a result of something going on in your life...

Sidarta - I think this notion is detrimental to human beings. Our ancestors were dreamers - I'm not talking just about human ancestors, I'm talking about mammalian ancestors. Dreams were a very important part of the cultural process. It's very obvious. If you look at the earliest literary texts in Sumerian Egypt, you'll see that the roles were very complicated, very sophisticated already. We have to imagine that this before writing was invented. Every culture before, let's say, the last 500 years assigned a very special role for dreams as a space for divination, revelation, and decision making, in public as well as private life. And in most, if not all, current, semi-nomadic societies, hunter gatherer societies, dreams occupy a very special place. It's actually quite naive of us contemporary, urban people to believe that we can fare well in this world without the advice of dreams. That's not to say that all dreams are clearly meaningful. That's not to say that they're easy to interpret. That's not to say that there's only one interpretation to a dream. But to believe that dreams are nonsense is not to connect with our own introspection when we were children or adolescents and we had easier contact with our dreams. We all have dreams every night, but few people in cities remember their dreams, much less apply dreams to aid in their navigation of life. This is what I think we need to rescue.

Harry - Sidarta, do you get enough sleep? Do you dream enough?

Sidarta - Nowadays? Yes. Until the pandemic, I was not getting enough sleep. When the pandemic hit, I changed my life in many ways, and this is one way in which things got much better. I'm sleeping as much as I need, as much as I want, every night.

Harry - How do you measure that? How do you know that you're getting enough?

Sidarta - I live near the equator and the sun is up around 05:15. Now, I usually go to bed with my partner around 9:00 PM. Then I wake up spontaneously.

Thanks very much there to Sidarta. 


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