The science of dreaming

So last night, my 6-month-old puppy lay sleeping at my feet. At one point, his eyes began moving rapidly beneath his eyelids, his front legs began to twitch, and he emitted these tiny little whines. Obviously he was dreaming about something rather traumatic. But what? He's a 6-month-old dog for crying out loud! The sum total of his existence includes chasing a ball, eating, and pooping. What's there to dream about? Being chased by a giant rawhide bone?

I think most everyone is fascinated by the dream process, what it is and what it means. Sometimes our dreams are easy to decipher. A dream about having to take a test that you forgot to study for is probably a reflection of some other kind of anxiety you're having in your present life. ( I still have unprepared-for-school dreams 720 years after having attended my last class. How neurotic is that?)

This is why I was drawn to a recent blog written by Searchbeam in which he tries to get to the bottom of dreams from a scientific point of view. His interest in deciphering the dream mechanism began when he was a computer science major. He says that our brains do the back-room operation of "sorting through the massive analog data collected during our waking hours, converting it into digital form, and indexing it, labeling it and filing it with a suitable tag, so that it will be easy to retrieve." And that dreams are the retrieval of this data. Now that's just cool.

A few years ago, Discover magazine published a piece about dreams that mirrored this statement. That article said that dreaming reflects "a biological process by which the brain sifts through new information and incorporates it into its existing memory." So that's why you could dream of your dead Uncle Roscoe driving that brand new sports car that you saw in a catalog that day. It's not a paranormal message that means that ole Roscoe is living in up in heaven.

One of the scientists interviewed for the story, Jonathan Winson, had been doing dream experiments on lab mice for many years. Winson believes that our dreams are made up of visual symbols because the memory mechanism developed before involved language evolved. As a result, abstract concepts can only be expressed in images, not represented by words. So if you're feeling anxious about something, your brain reaches back into your memory depository and finds the memory of an event that also caused you anxiety.

That or you're being chased by a giant rawhide bone.


Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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