A Series of (Mostly) Unfortunate Events
Dreams are hard to explain. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary says that a dream is ‘a series of thoughts, images, or emotions occurring during sleep.’ That’s the most basic rationalization of a dream, without any scientific or mystic explanations. Some dreamers prefer the mystical when it comes to dreaming, while others like a more practical account of what’s going on and why.
In 1977, John Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, psychiatrists from Harvard University, formed a theory about what dreams actually are. According to McCarley and Hobson, a dream is the result of random neurons firing throughout the brain while you’re sleeping. The firing of the neurons causes random signals and sensations to be sent out, and the only way a sleeper’s mind can explain these sensations and urges is to interpret them in the form of a dream.
How It Works
Here is a more in-depth explanation. Usually signals would be sent to affect our motor systems. For instance, if we reach out to a hot stove and touch it, the neurons in our brain send out signals to our nerve endings that what we’re touching is hot and that it hurts. However, when we dream, we’re locked in a state of paralysis once we enter REM sleep. That would be like neurons sending the signal to your arm to jerk back from a stove that was never touched. The signals that something is ‘hot’ or that it ‘hurts’ are going where they should, but can’t get a response because of the paralysis.
Because the body can’t express or explain the signals being sent out, the brain calls up memory to account for all the sensations that are being called forth. Imagine the same hot stove scenario as before. You’re getting signals for ‘hot’ and ‘pain’, and your body understand immediately that you need to move away from that sensation. However, there are two problems with that:
- The first problem is that there is no actual stove so there’s no heat or pain physically present.
- The second problem is that your body can’t move to express these reactions even if it wanted to. Therefore your brain forms a scenario (say a dream about cooking, a house fire, or touching a hot motor) to explain why there are sensations for ‘hot’ and ‘pain’. If a neuron fires and a signal is sent that usually affects the body’s balance, then a person may dream that they are falling, flying, or floating.
The Magic of the Mind
The memories that the brain uses to form dream sequences can be from personal experiences or even just something that you saw or read. That way, whenever a signal calls for a response that a dreamer has never experienced before, the brain is able to combine everything it’s seen and heard into a cohesive reality to work off the urges brought on.
Thanks to those, like Hobson and McCarley, who are studying neurobiological responses, we have a believable theory that supports the idea that, in the end, there is very little that we know for certain about the human brain. Regardless of whether the cause is scientific or mystical, our brains have proven through dreams that they can create whole worlds and realities. Our minds have proven that they can make us anyone, take us any place, and have control over every aspect of our very own personally-constructed alternate universe. Hobson and McCarley did well by taking the study of dreams into new territory. Usually new territory would define ideas that represent most of the theories surrounding dreams. The very fact that Hobson and McCarley were able to combine a seemingly supernatural phenomenon with science bodes well for just how far our understanding of dreaming will extend as the years go by.