Electric Dreams

 Dreams and Meaning in Science: 
Neural Nets

Richard Catlett Wilkerson

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Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (1998 December). Dreams and Meaning in Science: Neural Nets. Electric Dreams 5(11). Retrieved July 8, 2000 on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

It was hoped that with the discovery of REM sleep that soon all the questions about the meaning of dreaming would unfold. But with the discoveries of dreams occurring outside of REM, not only in NREM but in hypnosis, daydreaming and waking dreams, the hope faded.

A shift was made away from the content analysis to the process of dreaming itself. The gist of the thinking behind this is as follows - If you want to study muscle functions, its not really necessary to know if a person is using his muscles to pick up a can of tomato soup or chicken soup. And so why focus on the particular dream to understand dreaming? The general question was how dreaming might function to help the biological organism.

REM dreaming has been found in not only non-humans (most all mammals have REM sleep) but also in new infants and pre-natal infants. How might this be adaptive to the survival of a mammal? The current thinking on this is that REM might be used at different developmental times for different purposes. In infants, REM might be stimulating associate neural development while in adults it might be functioning a little this way but also serve other functions, such as allowing the brain to be prepared and stay oriented in sleep. All these theories are still quite distant from any proof.

Another track that has developed is the case for dreaming having to do with learning and unlearning. Earlier suggestions and research focused on dreaming as processing the residue of the day and coding it into long term memory.

Hobson and McCarley found that dream activity in cats begins after random firings in the brain stem. They feel that the sleepy brain gets stimulated by these random firings and tries to make sense out of them and the memories that are initiated. Flying and paralysis, for example, would simply correspond to periods of brain stem activity and inactivity. They do suggest in the Activation-Synthesis model that there is some synthesis by the higher brain functions and thus the dream does contain some higher cognitive actions.

Crick and Mitchison combined this research with a model of neural networks to suggest that the brain is actually unlearning during dreaming. They suggested that the neural networks that the mind loads during the day get saturated with information and create false links between neural nets that produce what we see as bizarre dreams. The random firing cleans these out during the night. Thus, they hypothesize, remembering dreams may be counter productive to the unlearning process.

The mistake in all these theories, according to Harry Fiss and other, is in our model of science. They way it works now, science ignores all meaning and value. All the tools and methods of science work outside the realm of meaning - they work on quantity, not quality. To use such a method from the beginning and then conclude that dreams are meaningless, is to go beyond what the tools can offer us.

One solution, on the edge of the edge, is a re-vision of neural networking. Gordon Globus has suggested that the brain works not only with stimulus-response and chemicals, but with models of whole worlds. He uses a similar model to Crick and Mitchison, but points out that there is a complex interactive brain system best described as neural nets that *produce* as well as respond to events. In waking life there is feedback and corrections from a more concrete world. In sleep we continue to produce models of worlds, but they have their own rules and we then interact with these.


Crick, Francis & Mitchinson, Graeme (1983). The function of dream sleep. Nature, 304(14), July,111-114.

Crick, Francis & Mitchinson, Graeme. (1986). REM sleep and neural nets. Journal of Mind and Behaviour, 7(2&3), 229-50.

Fiss, Harry (1986). An Empirical foundation for a self psychology of dreaming. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 7(2&3), 161-192.

--------. (1984). Toward a clinically relevant experimental psychology of dreaming. The Hillside Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 147-159.

Globus, Gordon G. (1993). Connectionism and sleep. In A. Moffitt, M. Kramer, R. Hoffman (Eds.), The Functions of Dreaming. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

--------. (1991). Dream content: Random or meaningful? Dreaming, 1(1), 27-40.

--------. (1989). Connectionism and the dreaming mind. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 10(2). 179-196.

Hobson, Allan J. (also see articles in Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal. March 1994, volume 3, number 1. Special issue: Dream Consciousness: A Neurocognitive Approach.)

--------. (1988). The Dreaming Brain. New York: Basic Books, Inc.