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Technologies that reveal the inner workings of the brain are beginning to tell the sleeping mind’s secrets

Strange images appear from long-forgotten memories. Or out of nowhere: You’re roller-skating on water; your mother flashes by on a trapeze; your father is in labor; a friend dead for years sits down at the dinner table.

Here are moments of unspeakable terror; there, moments of euphoria or serenity. Shakespeare wrote, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” and 300 years later, Sigmund Freud gave the poetry a neat psychoanalytic spin when he called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious.”

The development of brain imaging is the equivalent of Galileo’s invention of the telescope, only we are now exploring inner space instead of outer space.”

Mind-brain dance. The dream researchers’ new tools, functional magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography (PET) scanning, have been used for some time to capture the waking brain at work–making decisions, feeling frightened or joyous, coping with uncertainty. And those efforts have shown clearly that psychology and physiology are intimately related: In someone suffering from an anxiety disorder, for example, the fear center of the brain–the amygdala–“lights up” as neurons fire in response to images that trigger anxiety; it flickers in a minuet with the center of memory, the hippocampus.

Scanning people who are sleeping, too, suggests that the same sort of mind-brain dance continues 24 hours a day.

“Psychology has built its model of the mind strictly out of waking behavior,” says Rosalind Cartwright, chair of the department of behavioral science at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who has studied dreams for most of her 83 years.

“We know that the mind does not turn off during sleep; it goes into a different stage.” Brain cells fire, and the mind spins. Problems find solutions; emotional angst seems to be soothed; out-of-the-box ideas germinate and take root.

Start in 1953 with the discovery of rapid eye movement sleep. Using primitive electroencephalograms, researchers watched as every 90 minutes, sleepers’ eyes darted back and forth and brain waves surged.

Then, in 1977, Harvard psychiatrists Hobson and Robert McCarley reported that during sleep, electrical activity picked up dramatically in the most primitive area of the brain–the pons–which, by simply stimulating other parts of the brain, produced weird and disconnected narratives.

Much like people looking for meaning in an inkblot, they concluded, dreams are the brain’s vain attempt to impose coherence where there is none.

Crazy smart. Brain scans performed on people in REM sleep, for example, have shown that even as certain brain centers turn on–the emotional seat of the brain and the part that processes all visual inputs are wide awake–one vital area goes absolutely dormant: the systematic and clear-thinking prefrontal cortex, where caution and organization reside.

“This can explain the bizarreness you see in dreams, the crazy kind of sense that your brain is ignoring the usual ways that you put things together,” says Robert Stickgold, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard and director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“This is what you want in a state in which creativity is enhanced. Creativity is nothing more and nothing less than putting memories together in a way that they never have been before.

Putting memories together is also an essential part of learning; people integrate the memory of new information, be it how to tie shoelaces or conjugate French verbs, with existing knowledge.

Does dreaming help people learn? No one knows–but some sort of boost seems to happen during sleep.

Many studies by sleep researchers have shown that people taught a new task performed it better after a night of sleep.

A study of how quickly dreamers solve problems supports Stickgold’s theory that the sleeping mind can be quite nimble and inventive.

Participants were asked to solve scrambled word puzzles after being awakened during both the REM phase of sleep and the less active non-REM phase.

Their performance improved by 32 percent when they worked on the puzzles coming out of REM sleep, which told researchers that that phase is more conducive to fluid reasoning.

During non-REM sleep, it appears, our more cautious selves kick into gear.Healing power. Is it possible that dreaming can actually heal?

“We know that 60 to 70 percent of people who go through a depression will recover without treatment,” says Cartwright, who recently tested her theory that maybe they are working through their troubles while asleep.

Many clinicians working with traumatized patients have found that their nightmares follow a common trajectory. First, the dreams re-create the horrors; later, as the person begins to recover, the stories involve better outcomes.

One way to help victims of trauma move on is to encourage them to wake themselves up in the midst of a horrifying dream and consciously take control of the narrative, to take action, much as O’Brien appears to have done in her dream.

This can break the cycle of nightmares by offering a sense of mastery. “A window? A royal road? A way for the brain to integrate today with yesterday? While definitive answers remain elusive, the experience of dreaming is clearly as universal as a heartbeat and as individual as a fingerprint–and rich with possibilities for both scientist and poet.

* It was summarized of Magazine U.S. News (May 2006)