Merigian Studios


Tug Of War

Tug of War

A year ago, a woman came into the office complaining that a dream of hers had frightened her. I asked her why. She told the following story:

While she was asleep, she dreamt that she had wings and could fly like a bird. She soared above bright fluffy white clouds and saw several of her friends flying alongside her. As she was attempting to return to Earth, a man shot her out of the sky. As she fell, she felt severe chest pains. When she hit the ground, she turned into a black wolf. She attacked the man who shot her and killed him. She finished him off by eating his heart. She awoke cold and clammy in a sweat-drenched bed.

When I heard the tale, I felt a bit uneasy. She seemed to be caught in between Carl Jung and a Salvador Dali painting. She wanted to know what her dream meant. I told her that only she held that truth, and that it was probably locked deep inside her repressed thoughts. She told me that she had purchased a dream analysis manual to help her understand the meaning, but the standardized text was no help. She left the office bewildered. I was unsatisfied that she had suffered such a traumatizing dream adventure of which conventional and non-conventional medicine had no real truth to soothe. I not only remember her story, but a few strange dreams of my own as well. Most of us have dreams that haunt us from time to time. Why?

A number of professional men and women are considered authorities when it comes to dream analysis, but most of their ideas have come from an oral tradition, not scientific investigation. A great amount of research has focused on sleep; further research related to sleep is currently ongoing. Sleep is divided into stages. Some scientists believe there are three stages, and some believe there are four. Regardless, I believe everyone agrees that dreams occur in both deep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Recently researchers used MRI scanning techniques on sleeping test subjects to elucidate what areas of their brains were active or inactive in each specific stage. With the onset of slow wave sleep, there is a decrease in activity in most regions of the brain. The reticular activating system shuts down as well as the motoric areas. Our alertness now is in the tank and we do not move. After about 90 minutes or so, the first REM stage occurs. Suddenly some regions in our brains become active. Many areas of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system activate. Heart rate increases, respiratory rate increases and blood pressure tends to rise. It's as if your involuntary system goes mad for a while.

Another area of the brain that activates is the limbic system. The area of the brain that is about emotion: aggression, sexual arousal, anxiety, frustration, greed, hunger, jealousy, and fear. Emotions are all on overdrive in REM. Another area, mostly associated with memory, the hippocampus is also hyperactive. Perhaps that is why our experiences that are trapped in memory become the focal points of our dreams. Another area that becomes energetic in REM is the associative sensory cortex. Even though areas of the associative visual and auditory cortices are extremely active during this stage of sleep, the primary visual and auditory cortices are absolutely silent -- images and sounds come into our minds even though we aren't actually seeing or hearing them.

One of the oddest findings in sleep research is that when we achieve REM sleep, our prefrontal and frontal cortices become quiet. They are off duty. This area of the brain provides executive function. It's the area of the brain that keeps you from taking your clothes off in order to weigh naked in the office, or stops you from telling your wife that she had too many lumps in her gravy. We all know people who have frontal lobe brain damage. They cannot regulate their behavior despite knowing what is fair or unfair, right or wrong, ethical or unethical. They are the ones shouting at the top of their lungs in the library because they were assessed a fine because their books were overdue. The frontal cortex keeps you from shooting someone who cuts you off in traffic or from strangling someone who cuts in front of you in the line at the movie theater box office.

So, what does this have to do with dreaming? Everything! While you are in REM sleep, the limbic system, the associative sensory cortices, and the hippocampus all run wild while your prefrontal and frontal cortices shut down. There is no control over what comes into your mind. Situations that are held repressed become alive, vivid, and real. We have bits and pieces of our experiences blended together regardless of logic. That's why dreams seem so dreamlike.

What remains unknown about dreaming is far greater than what is known. We cannot account for the differences in dreaming between individuals, or the differences in dream activity within an individual, during the night. Our frontal and prefrontal cortices go metabolically silent in REM sleep and we get to experience our fears and follies in high definition. Without dreams, I think sleep would be rather disturbing.

I hope you're lucky in your next dream. Perhaps you will be playing a game of tug of war with a group of pink water buffaloes in the Land of Oz while a Led Zeppelin concert floats down the river that is flowing next to the purple and green playground you are on.

Then again, maybe not.

Posted by Amanda Sanders at 8:39 AM
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