Review of The Mind at Night by Andrea Rock (Basic Books/Perseus – 2004)

What the heck is a dream?  Over the years I’ve tried to make sense of the dream world, simply because the process and the content were so interesting – and wildly unpredictable.  A weird nightclub your head goes to after lights out.

Contemplating the dream world is like a research study where every night you might get more data to ponder, though to be fair the stuff of dreams is like sand through your fingers…it disappears fast. One second it makes sense and is vivid; the next you only have a few weird shreds left.

There has been plenty written on dreams.  The big guns came out – Freud and Jung – putting a psychological spin on dreaming that appears to have guided generations of therapists keen to turn what you dream into some meaningful statement about yourself.  For Freud, dreams were largely the work of a kind of censor suppressing taboo content – mostly sexual in nature.

I ascribe more to the explanations in the very readable The Mind at Night by Andrea Rock (Basic Books/Perseus – 2004), who gently places Freud and Jung to one side (though her conclusions don’t entirely debunk Freud).  Rock takes us on a journey of plucky dream research via a string of post-Freud/Jung researchers, a mix of pro-Freudian psychologists and less Freud-supportive neuroscientists, and advances a more biological explanation for the nightly film show in the head.

Based on plenty of actual studies – waking people up and recording their dreams and viewing what’s happening in the head using the new technologies like EEGs and MRI scans – Rock gives a convincing argument for dreams being a mix of the brain reviewing and filing the action of the day (and binning the stuff it doesn’t want to keep) and having a bit of a “play” – splicing together random bits from the massive archives and running them through the projector. A dream may make sense in a haphazard way because it draws on actual snippets of action, with a bit of a creative working–over.  But they’re often quite bizarre and haphazard because the part of the brain that “focuses attention, runs reality checks and makes logical conclusions” when you’re awake, shuts down when you sleep.  The inmates are in charge of the asylum.

We dream pretty much all night but tend to remember the ones that occur during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep which rolls around every 90 minutes or so for 10-15 minutes and lasts longer as the night goes on, culminating in big, vivid gangbuster dreams towards the end of the night. But not everyone dreams – or can recall them.

We forget most of our dreams (we generally only recall around one percent) because the chemicals (neuromodulators to use the scientific term) that imprint stuff on our memory in the day also don’t tend to flow at night; another neuromodulator takes precedence and it’s more of a party animal.  The research suggests dreams aren’t actually meant to be remembered – we just get a glimpse of the brain doing this off-duty filing and funning.

Most dreaming is emotionally driven and it’s generally more negative than positive.  There are common themes too, flying, falling, being chased for example. The research also suggests dreaming is therapeutic: the brain making sense of the emotional episodes from the day and how they impact on who you are.

Interestingly, some people can control their dreams, says Rock. They’re aware, as they are dreaming, that it’s a dream and they can actually direct the action towards a preferred outcome. The fairly well documented phenomenon of “lucid dreams” is intriguing; not everyone can do it but you can train yourself to.

That’s a taste of the journey Rock explores.  For me, her book (and there are probably others that will also inform about the subject) was very illuminating; I feel I “get” things better now.  I even manage the odd lucid dream. Fascinating.