Developments in the Neuroscience of Dreams

by Global PhD student, Bryrony Shaw

Humans spend roughly one third of their lives in bed sleeping and dreaming. Dreams have
been a source of fascination to many philosophers and psychologists. Main purpose of this
short review is to explore the history of dreams and the scientists fascinated by them and to discuss developments in neuroscience as they relate to dreams and sleep. I discuss differences between approaches between Sigmund Freud and Gustav Jung. This historical comparison suggests certain parallels between the psychologists and the philosophers. I examine perspectives on dreaming from the philosophers Rene Descartes, Aristotle and Plato.
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EARLY PHILOSOPHERS AND DREAMS
Plato was one of the first philosophers to discuss dreams. In “The Republic,” Plato discusses dreams in book IX. He is the first to discuss dreams and connect them to psychological underpinnings of the dreamer: “I can imagine a healthy man who lives in harmony with himself. He goes to sleep only after he has summoned up the rational element in his soul, nourishing it with fair thoughts and precepts” (Plato, 1985, p. 260). Plato argues the dreams of a healthy man will have less violent content than the dreams of a man “wild and brutish, sated by food and drink” (p. 260). Both Plato and Aristotle believed food or digestion affected sleep and dreaming.
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THE PSYCHOANALYTICAL PSYCHOLOGISTS
Sigmund Freud was the first to write a whole book about dream interpretation (something
Aristotle disagreed with; Aristotle did not believe there was any predictive element to the act of dreaming), and his hypothesis involved dreams as a manifestation of wish fulfillment. Freud’s theory on dreams helped substantiate his theory of the unconscious, and emphasized the importance of the unconscious as evidenced by the dream world.
DEVELOPMENTS IN NEUROSCIENCE RELATING TO DREAMS
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In 1953 dreams became more than a topic of conversation between philosophers,
psychologists and dreamers. A student and his professor in a sleep laboratory at the
University of Chicago discovered Rapid Eye Movement (REM). REM was discovered to not
only be apparent during sleep, but it seemed to be connected with humans as they were
dreaming. People were woken during periods of REM and asked to report on their dreams.
“In the years since Aserinsky & Kleitman’s discovery, a considerable amount of dependable information has been gathered about the physiology of sleeping and of dreaming” (Shafton, 1995, p. 11). It has been discovered since these experiments that dreaming does not only occur during REM sleep.
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