This finding is interesting because the increased frontal theta activity the researchers observed looks just like the successful encoding and retrieval of autobiographical memories seen while we are awake. That is, it is the same electrical oscillations in the frontal cortex that make the recollection of episodic memories (e.g., things that happened to you) possible. Thus, these findings suggest that the neurophysiological mechanisms that we employ while dreaming (and recalling dreams) are the same as when we construct and retrieve memories while we are awake.
In another recent study conducted by the same research team, the authors used the latest MRI techniques to investigate the relation between dreaming and the role of deep-brain structures. In their study, the researchers found that vivid, bizarre and emotionally intense dreams (the dreams that people usually remember) are linked to parts of the amygdala and hippocampus. While the amygdala plays a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions, the hippocampus has been implicated in important memory functions, such as the consolidation of information from short-term to long-term memory.
The proposed link between our dreams and emotions is also highlighted in another recent study published by Matthew Walker and colleagues at the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at UC Berkeley, who found that a reduction in REM sleep (or less “dreaming”) influences our ability to understand complex emotions in daily life – an essential feature of human social functioning. Scientists have also recently identified where dreaming is likely to occur in the brain. A very rare clinical condition known as “Charcot-Wilbrand Syndrome” has been known to cause (among other neurological symptoms) loss of the ability to dream. However, it was not until a few years ago that a patient reported to have lost her ability to dream while having virtually no other permanent neurological symptoms. The patient suffered a lesion in a part of the brain known as the right inferior lingual gyrus (located in the visual cortex). Thus, we know that dreams are generated in, or transmitted through this particular area of the brain, which is associated with visual processing, emotion and visual memories.
Taken together, these recent findings tell an important story about the underlying mechanism and possible purpose of dreaming.
Dreams seem to help us process emotions by encoding and constructing memories of them. What we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real, but the emotions attached to these experiences certainly are. Our dream stories essentially try to strip the emotion out of a certain experience by creating a memory of it. This way, the emotion itself is no longer active. This mechanism fulfils an important role because when we don’t process our emotions, especially negative ones, this increases personal worry and anxiety. In fact, severe REM sleep-deprivation is increasingly correlated to the development of mental disorders. In short, dreams help regulate traffic on that fragile bridge which connects our experiences with our emotions and memories.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.