Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dreaming as Emergency Training

I was leafing through Psychology Today recently and came across an interesting article on dreaming entitled, Dreams: Night School (you have to subscribe to get the whole article). The article takes a look at why we dream according to one Finnish researcher, Antti Revonsuo:

A dream researcher at the University of Turku, in Finland, Revonsuo believes that dreams are a sort of nighttime theater in which our brains screen realistic scenarios. This virtual reality simulates emergency situations and provides an arena for safe training. As Revonsuo puts it, "the primary function of negative dreams is rehearsal for similar real events, so that threat recognition and avoidance happens faster and more automatically in comparable real situations."

Faced with actual life-or death-situations--traffic accidents, terrorist attacks, street assaults--some people report entering a mode of calm, rapid response, reacting automatically, almost without thinking. Afterward they often say the episode felt unreal, as if it were all a dream. Threat simulation, Revonsuo believes, is why.

Revonsuo began studying dreams and had his students keep logs. He found that dreams were filled with "dangerous events, negative emotions, monsters, chases, escapes, fights and near-death experiences. These weren't the misfirings of diseased brains. Threat dreams were the norm, accounting for a staggering two thirds of all dreams."

So, next time you have nightmares and wonder what the heck is wrong with you, just remember, it may be nothing more than a rehearsal for dealing with real life danger and your mind's way of learning to more quickly and efficiently respond to that danger.


Blogger Serket said...

I don't have nightmares very much and I don't think I have ever dreamed about a natural disaster. Most of my dreams are rather bland. After hearing from people who specialize in dreams, I think sometimes it alerts you to problems that are going on in your personal life that you need to deal with.

Of course, I've also noticed that dreams tend to recreate what you've experience throughout the day. I think I had a Harry Potter dream once after reading the book. Another thing I've heard is that dreams help to filter through your day to determine what was the most important to remember.

12:30 PM, November 15, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Monsters? That explains the recurring ex- MIL dreams.

12:39 PM, November 15, 2007  
Blogger tomcal said...

I dream about the wires, which from what I understand is a common pilot dream. In it, I am always flying very low, looking for a way to climb above a maze of wires overhead, and more appear all the time.

Now, however, I always come to the point that I realise I am dreaming, or at least am 90% sure; so I just go for it and sure 'nuff break out into blue skys.

I just hope that one day I'm not really trapped under the wires and make the bet that I am simply dreaming.

5:13 PM, November 15, 2007  
Blogger wild chicken said...

I used to dream that a guy was outside my bedroom window. Maybe because my did comne came through my window when I was about 5. Anyway, years ago I bought a cheap .22 revolver and the next time the dream was, guy is coming through the window - but I have a gun. It was a great feeling. As a woman I was a little too accustomed to feeling helpless.

5:23 PM, November 15, 2007  
Blogger ak said...

I have long, complicated, episodic dreams and often wake up with dream hangovers--the emotional state that lingers from the mood of your dream. Some of my dreams are crazy (talking gorillas and the like), while others are obviously "preparation" dreams for a variety of situations. But either way, I usually enjoy my dream life. Being a writer and an avid fiction reader, I guess I just enjoy imagined events.

Other times, I wonder if I even have an unconscious mind. E.g., I dream about eating ice cream and shopping. That must be the equivalent of a dog dreaming about running.

My husband never remembers his dreams and isn't even convinced that he dreams regularly. We just had this discussion last night, as a matter of fact. He was amazed when I told him (correctly, I think?) that everyone dreams every night. He's a very calm and steady person, and I've often wondered if that's why he doesn't remember his dreams--he deals with things rationally while he's awake. His dreams aren't troubling or complicated enough to remember.

5:23 PM, November 15, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

serket - We don't remember the bulk of our dreams. The best way (not terribly controllable) is to awaken during REM.

Fantasy (imagination) is closely connected too. I always taught my students to visualize repeatedly moves they needed to learn. Works.

7:14 PM, November 15, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am similar to ak's husband. I think I must have dreams, but I never remember them if I do. I go to bed, and the next thing, I awaken, usually on my own, and sometimes to the alarm clock. I have one nightmare, of a true happening, that has finally subsided mostly. My son got dragged down the asphalt in front of my house by a farmer's tractor. He was a small boy at the time. I saw it happen and ran out to stop the farmer, and rushed my son to the hospital. That replayed for a few years, over and over in a nightmare that always woke me up, yelling. It rattles me when it crosses my mind when I'm awake, still. Like just now, by reading this thread.

The thing about the ex mother in law was a joke. Even though she was a living nightmare.

10:04 PM, November 15, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hmmm, so my brain must be teaching me to handle confusion as most of my remembered dreams are confusing, they do not make any sense.

Mind you! I had one six-part progressive dream series starting the day of my father's death: Each dream built on the previous night's dream. THAT dream series I remember VERY well and there was NOTHING confusing about it!

4:19 AM, November 16, 2007  
Blogger Danny said...

I have been dealing with brain cancer and a brain tumor for the past almost 11 years. in the fall of 2004, the chemotherapy drugsand the some other eds I was taking gave me a serious heartattack. And when the EMTS arrived, Iwas dead, and the revived me. This happened one more while I was in transit to the ER,and the EMTs revived me again.
I sometimes dream about those 2 near-death experiences. It seems I am outside my body, sitting on the kindof tall structure film/movie directors sit on and yell "ACTION", a place that give the director a panoramic view.
I dream about sitting up high somewhere, and Iwatchas the EMTs frantically work on my body, doing CPR compressions, using a defibrilator, yelling "dont die on me, Man" etc.
Strangely,I dontwake up angry or agitated. I seem to wake up rather clam,and feeling serene.

As for the short periods of time,maybe 2 minutes at themost per episode, I dont remember much, did notsee a lighted tunnel or anything likethat that other people who have faced similar episode have reported.

8:42 AM, November 16, 2007  
Blogger Joe said...

I don't buy into this thesis at all. The problem being that negative dreams aren't at all realistic. Once again, meaning is being attached to where there is none.

Another point is that negative dreams are more likely remembered precisely because their content was so memorable. I'm quite sure that two thirds of all dreams are not threat dreams; it is far more likely that those are the dreams we remember (though this is rather self-fulfilling since the students were cognizant of the experiment, even if they didn't know the exact purpose, which I seriously doubt.)

(My explanation for dreams is quite simple--it's either a side effect of your brain rewiring and reorganizing itself, or integral to that process. Using a computer analogy, when you reindex database tables, you may "see" data that has been otherwise accessed for a long time. Continuing the analogy, two pieces of data that seem otherwise unrelated, may end up next to each other during the indexing process. Internally, this indexing makes perfect algorithm sense, but an outside observer may come to entirely different conclusions.)

2:45 PM, November 16, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure. The contents of dreams - pleasant and unpleasant - seem more varied than they need to be if dreams are just rehearsals for real life. I've dreamed about riding a bicycle through my old high school dressed only in my underwear; acting in Jesus Christ Superstar; dealing with a basement full of stray kittens; UFOs flying over my back yard; swimming in a giant fish tank in the middle of the local shopping mall; fighting Klingons in the woods; and having my johnson turn into a large snake. So far, none of that stuff has happened to me in real life. Conversely, I almost never dream about work, marriage, death, taxes, or anything else remotely connected to the daily grind.

Of course, that could be due to the drugs...

5:01 PM, November 16, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish I could remember dreams, if I'm in fact having them. Sounds as if they vary from frightening to fun. Right now, one third of my daily life has no meaning except as resting up for the other two thirds. I mean, I must have dreams from time to time, right? How do I catch and retain them? Anybody have any ideas?

7:15 PM, November 16, 2007  
Blogger a psychiatrist who learned from veterans said...

One of the common elements of a combat nightmare is dreaming that the
rifle doesn't fire. Terror is the associated feeling. Money may be the mother's milk of politics; fire is that of the combat soldier.

Veterans see the nightmare as a precursor to PTSD. One way to look at PTSD as excessive learning. In that sense I agree with your cited author.

12:51 AM, November 17, 2007  
Blogger Michele said...

I learned to drive a stick shift after dreaming about it one night. Just got in the Jeep the next morning, and shifting gears was no longer a problem. I practiced the night before.

5:03 PM, November 18, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


Cool, wish everyone could drive a stick that easily. I know people who practice for weeks and still have trouble!

5:33 PM, November 18, 2007  
Blogger Michele said...

Well, hills were still tricky:) I didn't dream about them!

10:33 PM, November 18, 2007  
Blogger Serket said...

helen, I think I tried once before I had my license and once after I had my license and that wasn't enough for me. Although I don't have access to one very often. Michele is very lucky if that is true!

I want to share a dream I had over the weekend. I managed to sneak into North Korea and was fluent in Korean. I found a facility that housed orphaned girls and I got the impression the people were really immature because of the authoritarian society. I convinced the director to let me take four of the girls with me. I think they ranged in age from 8-14. I asked them if they knew about prayer and they got into the kneeling position and started saying something about their dear leader. For some reason I asked what they knew about being romantically involved with a boy and they said they are taught how to kiss at age 19, but I guess they must have heard about! The only connection to real life I can think of is that I have an uncle who was adopted from South Korea.

1:12 PM, November 19, 2007  

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