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Too Hard for Science?: The sense of meaning in dreams

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In dreams, could we discover where the mysterious feeling of revelation comes from?

In "Too Hard for Science?" I interview scientists about ideas they would love to explore that they don’t think could be investigated. For instance, they might involve machines beyond the realm of possibility, such as particle accelerators as big as the sun, or they might be completely unethical, such as lethal experiments involving people. This feature aims to look at the impossible dreams, the seemingly intractable problems in science. However, the question mark at the end of "Too Hard for Science?" suggests that nothing might be impossible.

The scientist: Robert Stickgold, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Harvard Medical School.

The idea: Dreams often feel profoundly meaningful, bizarre experiences often interpreted over the centuries as messages from the gods or as windows into the unconscious. However, maybe our brains are just randomly stringing experiences together during sleep and investing the result with a feeling of profundity.

"When people learn about what I do, they often tell me about their dreams without me asking, and I can’t tell you how many times people told me they had the most amazing dreams, and they’re almost never amazing — they’re almost always somehow embarrassingly uninteresting," Stickgold says. "But this happens to me, too."

By investigating why dreams feel profound, one might learn how events get imbued with this sense of meaning — perhaps the same one felt during revelations. Stickgold notes that during REM sleep, when dreaming typically occurs, the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin is shut off in the brain. The only other time that happens is because of LSD, "when people seem to have these totally uninteresting experiences they describe as profoundly meaningful called ‘acid insights.’"

This sense of meaning may be a physical phenomenon "just like hunger or thirst, save that it’s the excitement we feel upon a great insight, that ‘Aha!’ feeling," Stickgold says. "Who knows why, for instance, fireworks often seem to trigger it — maybe there’s something about the geometric patterns that evokes this sense of awesomeness, the feeling that we can almost understand something amazing but not quite that drives us to seek a better understanding of things. It’s like what you feel during a religious experience — you sense the oneness of mankind."

During dreams, the brain might be associating disjointed experiences together to create potentially valuable combinations of thoughts. "It could be the brain is making you focus your attention on material that was only weakly associated before and investing this association with this feeling of profundity to help it mine these connections for something not immediately obvious but potentially important," Stickgold says. "It makes sense that the sensation would be a positive and reinforcing one."

The problem: The difficulty in exploring this idea is that how meaningful something is might be too hard to measure. "It’s a bit like beauty — it’s in the mind of the beholder," Stickgold says. "It’s not like heart rate or the level of electrical conductivity of the skin, which you have outside evidence of. If a person says something is meaningful, you’re not sure how to measure that, and you’re not sure how, if at all, that applies to others. One has to come up with a meaningful definition of meaningful."

The solution? Experiments with drugs that suppress or boost serotonin levels could explore any connections between the neurotransmitter and the feeling of meaning. "You could give people such compounds or a placebo and get them to rate how deep or meaningful specific movie clips seems to them," Stickgold suggests.

Although dreaming most frequently occurs in REM sleep, it also occurs in non-REM sleep. Researchers could ask people if dreams during non-REM sleep, when serotonin levels aren’t suppressed, "feel as intense and bizarre and emotional as ones during REM sleep," Stickgold says. One might also try giving serotonin-influencing drugs to people as they sleep and dream, he adds.

"It’s clear that there is a useful scientific question here," Stickgold notes. "What is it about the dream process that so frequently and universally across people generates this very strong perception of something like importance or significance or deepness, a feeling we find hard to define, and one that’s often totally wrong, in that when you tell others about your dreams, you find they don’t have any obvious significance? It’s just a matter of clarifying what the question really is, and then finding a good way of exploring it."


This idea from Stickgold, which I first heard when he was speaking at a preview screening of Satoshi Kon’s anime Paprika, was what inspired me to come up with this series in the first place. It seemed like an amazing concept worth reporting, but one that couldn’t fit into the confines of a traditional news story as there seemed no way to actually investigate it. Eventually, it occurred to me, "He can’t possibly be alone." One impossible dream might not be reportable, but a thousand might be.

The first item in this series, which appeared last week, was the first such notion I can remember running across as a journalist. I originally included it in my first story on bio-printing, but it was removed for essentially being too radical to run. Just the kind of concept this series hopes to explore.

Another piece in this series will run later this week, featuring the first scientist to respond to my open request for ideas that might be too hard for science. If you have a scientist you would like to recommend I question, or you are a scientist with an idea you think might be too hard for science, email me at

Follow Too Hard for Science? on Twitter by keeping track of the #2hard4sci hashtag.

About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow him on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 13 Comments

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  1. 1. ndelisle 4:01 pm 04/11/2011

    I suspect that if we understood the neurological basis of meaning, it would be close to clear why particular circumstances like dreaming produce altered meaning.

    Also, I suspect the lack of much meaning in ordinary experience has to do with habituation. Just look at an infant for wide eyed wonder in the face of the ordinary.

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  2. 2. toohardforscience 6:10 pm 04/11/2011

    Pretty much. After one pins down what the circuits might, one can then see if these are on or off during REM sleep, non-REM sleep, and a variety of tasks while awake, and whether there are different meaningfulness circuits for each of these. The difficulty lies in understanding what the neurological basis of meaning is, since it is such a subjective feeling.

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  3. 3. EyesWideOpen 6:29 pm 04/11/2011

    The author is going in one of several directions:

    * Is it like wondering why we feel awe at looking at a beautiful sunset or magestic mountain range, why we get emotional with a well cooked meal by a loved one, or why two people fall in love.

    * Is it trying to make a subtle point there is no God, by trivializing religious experiences (with the "hook" of the article the comment on religious experience)?

    * Is it like asking why someone, theoretically speaking (of course!) would go into shock if they were actually visited by an extra-terrestrial entity, a ghost, or any other paranormal visitation?

    * Is it like asking why we feel a surreal sensation when in a virtual reality that seems so real, it defies our belief this is actually real (as dreams always feel like, once we realize we are dreaming)?

    What is the author really asking? All of the above? One of the above? Although it wouldn’t surpise me if the "hook" is really the religious angle (atheism inspired), I won’t insult the author in case he really did have a specific objective for writing this article. From my point of view it’s too open-ended, but maybe that’s the author’s point, "is all of the bulleted points above worth considering"?

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  4. 4. Archimedes 6:34 pm 04/11/2011

    Sigmund Freud, considered one of the founders of modern psychiatry, stated words to the affect in his work, "Interpretation of Dreams", that dreams are usually a form of "wish fulfillment", provide a an essential function of "self psychoanalysis" requisite for mental health, and sometimes are useful at problem solving as the though processes in the same are not bound by the logical-rational constraints of conscious thought. This book, although extremely long, is extremely interesting and insightful.
    Many individuals with mental illness have difficulty in sleeping and with dreaming. They are, essentially deprived of that self "psychoanalysis" requisite for mental health that normal dreaming and sleep provide.

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  5. 5. toohardforscience 6:51 pm 04/11/2011

    As the author, I can respond that you seem to come closest to describing the sense of awe, revelation, profundity, meaning, what have you that is discussed in this article with your first bullet point. Now, is this the same feeling that one gets upon making an important scientific finding, or solving a murder mystery, or knowing exactly what a sculpture should look like before you carve it, or realizing you are in love, or making a spiritual discovery, for instance? Do all of these inspire the same feeling in the brain? Are they subtly different? Do scientific revelations differ in feeling from aesthetic or religious ones, and if so, how? If you feel this is open-ended and subjective, well, that’s the entire point of the article — there seems to be a need for more rigorous scientific research into the nuances of this phenomenon. I also think that you’re seeing a trivialization of religious experience where none is implied, at least no more than understanding the fact that looking at a religious scene or hearing a prayer triggers circuits in your visual or auditory cortex.

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  6. 6. Marc Barre Levesque 6:55 pm 04/11/2011

    If sleep is an organization process of daily and past experiences, then it may be normal to feel a sudden high level of meaning as experiences get related, edited, or untangled. Furthermore, what we experience, or the narrative, of the dream may be only tentatively related to the brain’s organization processes and hence it may be futile to attempt to relate what is going on in the dream at a cognitive level and a co-experienced feeling of meaning that is emerging from processes going on at another level in the brain.

    Of course, all of these processes may converge more or less, and at time produce more or less insightful experiences.

    On the question of why it happens that someone is sure they had a meaningful dream but is unable to relate it ? Well it is easy for me to assume that most of the time, for most people, for most dreams, when high levels of meaning are experienced, they will simply be unable to communicate all the experiences, the sensations, and especially the contextual relations that were experienced during the dream and that led to their experience of meaning, and hence their communication of the dream will be uninteresting.

    "Researchers could ask people if dreams during non-REM sleep, when serotonin levels aren’t suppressed, "feel as intense and bizarre and emotional as ones during REM sleep," Stickgold says"

    Hasn’t this already been done and the answer is they are indeed less bizarre and less emotional.

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  7. 7. EyesWideOpen 7:47 pm 04/11/2011

    Thank you for clarifying your open-ended objective in your article, and ruling out any religious agenda. As an agnostic who finds an open mind as often burdensome (in the sense that my mind gets overloaded with equally compelling arguments from those who argue some form of higher "intelligence" for lack of a better word, versus those who argue against "spirituality" on any level beyond our biological senses), I get frustrated when many authors use blogs like Scientific American to promote their own worldviews.

    That is why, although I sensed your intentions for this article were exactly as you clarified in your reply, I nonetheless had my suspicions. I’ve been burned so many times by those claiming open mindedness to an obvious dead-end (instead of taking any path that may lead to the truth as its destination).

    My background includes a mother who emigrated from the Soviet Union under communism in the 1940′s, where science was used to "prove" an atheist agenda. Any deviance from that agenda could result in a permanent vacation in Siberia. Ironically, the hypocrites in the Kremlin used state funds to fund secret black op projects studying everything from ESP to remote viewing to extra-terrestrial studies (including alleged studies of crash site debris). Spielberg’s final Indiana Jones sequel, ironically, was a comic post-mortem "up yours" to those he called "ruskies" who made the dark humored characters Mulder and Scully (X-Files) look like scientists by comparison. The Russians controlled the masses by eviscerating any vestiges of spirituality and belief in the supernatural.

    I hope you can appreciate, therefore, my cynicism when any mention of religion gets mentioned in the context of your article. Your explanation provides the depth of understanding about the valid points you made, deliberately leaving the direction open for investigation instead of prematurely drawing conclusions. I suspect nothing is as it appears. The God whom Christians think they know, that whole religious worldview that fundamentalists try desperately to prove using reverse chaining of logic (if that’s the correct way of describing it; assuming a conclusion based on an interpretation must be true, and building up supporting "evidence" to prove it’s true) will prove elusive. If God exists, wouldn’t it make the most advanced extra-terrestrial civilization look no more intelligent than we view single cell life? The Bible understates comparing us to mere "children"; we’re like developing fetuses in the womb. We have no idea, nada.

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  8. 8. EyesWideOpen 7:48 pm 04/11/2011

    I meant to add one more thought. That is why I find your article so fascinating; in that respect, dreams are perhaps our most important senses. Dreams allow us to imagine what may be outside the “womb” if biological frailty in which we live brief lives. That is why the greatest scientists through history including Einstein and later have the most vivid dream lives, I think, because the suspect this biological component is an intelligent vessel containing a “spiritual” component driving it.

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  9. 9. jtdwyer 3:24 am 04/12/2011

    You stated:
    "That is why the greatest scientists through history including Einstein and later have the most vivid dream lives…"

    What evidence supports this statement and who could possibly have made that assessment?

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  10. 10. jtdwyer 3:52 am 04/12/2011

    I agree that, regardless of any other aspects of dreaming that may or may not exist, there must be a critical memory reorganization process that occurs during sleep.

    As I understand, there are separate short term and long term memory processes and functional areas that can be separately disabled by brain injury.

    This separation is also employed by computer hardware systems at various levels, from on-board high speed processor cache memories to cascading hierarchies of slower speed but persistent memories and in database management software in the form of quick storage of high volume data that can later be associated with other data by off-line processes to produce a logical network of linked information.

    In all these cases, any use of a temporary storage or short term memory of fixed capacity requires that some (off-line) process be used to migrate information from short term to long term memory, thus freeing short-term memory capacity for subsequent reuse.

    In the case of database systems and perhaps our brains, the migration process can also employ more sophisticated methods of relating new information with existing information and potentially even encoding the resulting information to minimize its storage occupancy requirement and/or optimize its retrieval.

    In the optimization case, common snippets of information could be compressed and linked to numerous references: for example, a common image of a hammer might be linked by many threads. Over time, new link to the hammer image might modify the target image from a carpenter’s hammer to a sledge hammer. In this way the re-encoding of of our memories over time to accommodate new memory requirements may alter ‘permanent’ memories as has been observed.

    These logical processing requirements could explain much of the perceived dream state perception of experiences and lead to a wide variety of interpretations. However, there may be many other aspects of dream state experiences that are not related to functional information processing.

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  11. 11. judilewis 7:43 pm 04/13/2011

    Seems to me there’s a bit of a mismash here that needs to be broken up.

    There are several components when you’re talking about the "meaning of dreams." There’s the "what happened" in the dream–then there’s your interpretation of a "meaning" and then there’s some emotion attached–in your case that sense of awe or sense of knowing something.

    But in dreams we also experience strong emotions that we don’t or aren’t able to create at will. For example, I had a recent dream which recreated a feeling I hadn’t had for decades, the fears and frustrations of being in an abusive relationship which feels quite alien to me now. Why I had the dream I have no idea. Nor can I now remember the "what happened" in the dream.

    One of the reasons dreams may seem "dull" when retold is that they’re not told with the strong emotions of the dream recreated for the listener.

    To analyze dreams scientifically, I would think you’d have to find a way to examine all three processes–the pictures, the added meaning or interpretation and the emotions as they occur in the brain.

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  12. 12. JDahiya 2:06 am 04/14/2011

    Fascinating question! If we can understand this, scientists may be able to devise experiments to determine *why* we experience different emotions; what triggers them, what mediates them. Understanding why someone has intense experiences (religious or other) would be of immense value. Offhand, I can think of psychiatric mediation, separating data from emotions in decision making, or, conversely, adding back appropriate emotion to decision making. People who feel that this kind of experimentation would minimise the actual experience or (horrors!) threaten their religious feelings, need to examine why they feel that prolonging ignorance is good.

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  13. 13. aluminiumfish 5:39 pm 04/20/2011

    At every level of our existence , from unborn to twenty-something , the networks in our mind change and mould/imprint the memories like cookie cutters.
    Old memories just don’t play well outside of the environment from which they came.
    A binary machine coded program will not run on a Command line of MS-DOS and an MS-DOS command won’t work on a Windows paint program.
    But that does’nt mean that because if you tried , and the results were meaningless….that the initial commands are false or unknowable .
    Dreams are memories without the tethering of a daytime mind.They find their own valency and space in the absence of the Newtonian world we navigate during the day.
    Floating tank experiments in the dark prove as much.
    Certain memories prove powerful precursors for latter experiences that further create memories that are then anchored across disparate layers of mind….
    as if a powerful earlier binary code bug caused a later Windows program to crash.
    In our dreams..these two related events would collide in the same dream …as one led to the other in real life…they would both attract one another in the dream.
    One could be a child like memory , the other an adult one.
    Only one is within the grasp of an adult dreaming mind…the other would appear contorted …as if otherworldly.
    This collision of real life memories created by differing mind networks ( i.e ..laid down at differing ages) is the stuff of dreams.
    The 3 dimensional Newtonian world is the structure upon which all our adult senses and life is strung along.
    Remove that and memories move to their own valencies and properties .
    Dreams are the theatre for that re-alignment.

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