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kottke.org posts about dreams

What does sleep do?

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 20, 2018

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Sleep may be the most important everyday phenomenon that we understand the least well. It’s like the oceans; it’s everywhere, but we’ve only explored the surfaces. But scientists are still working to establish better knowledge of what sleep does, how it works, and why every animal does it (and needs to do it). National Geographic has a very pretty and pretty thorough summary of the latest theories of sleep scientists on what we do when we fall asleep.

The waking brain is optimized for collecting external stimuli, the sleeping brain for consolidating the information that’s been collected. At night, that is, we switch from recording to editing, a change that can be measured on the molecular scale. We’re not just rotely filing our thoughts—the sleeping brain actively curates which memories to keep and which to toss.

It doesn’t necessarily choose wisely. Sleep reinforces our memory so powerfully—not just in stage 2, where we spend about half our sleeping time, but throughout the looping voyage of the night—that it might be best, for example, if exhausted soldiers returning from harrowing missions did not go directly to bed. To forestall post-traumatic stress disorder, the soldiers should remain awake for six to eight hours, according to neuroscientist Gina Poe at the University of California, Los Angeles. Research by her and others suggests that sleeping soon after a major event, before some of the ordeal is mentally resolved, is more likely to turn the experience into long-term memories.

It’s basically a maintenance cycle. At deeper levels of sleep, we’re literally cleaning away waste products of waking life in the brain.

Good sleep likely also reduces one’s risk of developing dementia. A study done in mice by Maiken Nedergaard at the University of Rochester, in New York, suggests that while we’re awake, our neurons are packed tightly together, but when we’re asleep, some brain cells deflate by 60 percent, widening the spaces between them. These intercellular spaces are dumping grounds for the cells’ metabolic waste—notably a substance called beta-amyloid, which disrupts communication between neurons and is closely linked to Alzheimer’s. Only during sleep can spinal fluid slosh like detergent through these broader hallways of our brain, washing beta-amyloid away.

Dreams, too, reflect this heightened activity of the brain, but it’s unclear whether dreams themselves are a kind of harmless aftereffect or whether they perform a key function at reinforcing memory.

Lately, I’ve been fascinated by my own dreams, not least because reality has so often been disappointing. One recurring theme has been universities: libraries, offices, classrooms, campuses, over and over again. This isn’t terribly surprising: I spent a shade less than half my life, and most of my adult life, either going to school or working at one. But it’s difficult to make sense of. Do I miss the security/adventure of those times? Am I consolidating those memories to make room for new ones? Is an oracular entity trying to convince me to go back to school? I’m not sure. But understanding that SOMEthing is going on is a kind of balm that’s useful to me in ways I can’t totally articulate.

Parasomnias: life-threatening nightmares

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 05, 2012

Great personal storytelling/reportage by Doree Shafrir about her night terrors.

I am now completely panicked, and I jump back onto my bed and lean over the half-wall that my bed is up against, overlooking the hallway. There, I see what’s causing all the problems, and I push it downward and off the wall with all my might. It shatters loudly, glass flying everywhere.

Then, finally, I wake up. My two dogs are cowering in the corner, and I put on shoes to sweep up the glass. I am confused and embarrassed, though there is no one besides the dogs there to see that I just pushed a framed poster off a wall and broke it. I clean up the glass and go back to sleep, and it is not until the morning, when I see my shoes scattered everywhere, that I look into the closet and realize that I have also ripped the TV cable completely out of the back wall of my closet.

I hadn’t heard that Tobias Wong’s suicide might have been carried out while Wong was asleep:

The prevailing theory about Tobias Wong’s death was that he hanged himself while experiencing a night terror. I imagine that something in his mind told him that hanging himself was the only way to escape whoever, or whatever, was chasing him, in the same way that I have thought that the only way to save myself was to jump out of a window or smash a pane of glass.

Spoilers

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 09, 2009

In the opening scene of the season finale of Mad Men last night, Betty Draper goes to visit Roger Sterling in a freshly mowed hay field wearing a huge white wedding dress and gets shot in the head with a rifle by an off-screen Jane. She was aiming for Roger, but the first bullet missed and he hit the deck like a good soldier. As the second bullet entered the back of Betty’s head, the camera swung around 180-degrees in a Matrix-like way and we see the bullet exit her neck about two inches below the ear. A ray of light shines through the hole as the bullet exits, as if Betty is made of pure light.

And then I woke up. I haven’t seen the actual episode yet. (Friends, don’t let friends eat late Vietnamese dinners.)

Dream discoveries

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 12, 2009

Five discoveries made while dreaming. A Hindu goddess delivered formulas to mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan while Jack Nicklaus practiced some dreamful attraction.

Wednesday night I had a dream and it was about my golf swing. I was hitting them pretty good in the dream and all at once I realized I wasn’t holding the club the way I’ve actually been holding it lately. […] So when I came to the course yesterday morning I tried it the way I did in my dream and it worked. I shot a 68 yesterday and a 65 today.

I have discovered the Fountain of Youth

posted by Jason Kottke   May 04, 2009

I had this dream last night that someone had developed a way to put people back into the womb. An artificial womb, but which was made with real human tissue and functioned like an actual womb. Women were attached to these artificial wombs with external umbilical cords to provide nutrients to the “fetuses”. Full-grown people were inserted into these wombs for terms of three, six, or nine months for the purpose of rejuvenation. To be born again. Natal nutrients somehow turned back the clock. People emerged looking younger, feeling younger, with the agile brains and limber muscles of someone twenty years younger.

Right. No more cheese before bed.

Dreaming of Honest Abe

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 04, 2008

Someone keeps having dreams about Abraham Lincoln.

And then he hugs me and I think, ‘Abe Lincoln hugged me. He smells like Old Spice.’ I ask him who he supports in the election, and he smiles and says, “Believe it or not you’re the first person who’s asked me that this year; of course I support Barack. These so called Republicans remind me of Copperheads.” And then he laughed sort of sad a deep ha ha ha laugh and I woke up.

The Copperheads were a group of Union Democrats who opposed the Civil War engineered by Lincoln’s Republican administration. An anti-Lincoln pamphlet produced by the Copperheads — titled Abraham Africanus I. His Secret Life as Revealed Under the Mesmeric Influence. Mysteries of the White House. — brings to mind the ham-fisted attempt to characterize Barack Obama as a Muslim and terrorist.

The television of your dreams

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2008

The picture color on your television as a kid may influence the color of you dreams.

Do you dream in black and white? If so, the chances are you are over 55 and were brought up watching a monochrome television set.

Interestingly, studies indicate that dreams were in color before black and white TV came along.

American scientists have harnessed MRI technology to

posted by Deron Bauman   Mar 06, 2008

American scientists have harnessed MRI technology to accurately predict what image a person is seeing. The implications in the long term are that we may one day be able to record visual evidence of our dreams or “reconstruct a picture of a person’s visual experience at any moment in time.”

(via marginal revolution)

Undiscovered bedrooms, the typical dream of the

posted by Jason Kottke   May 18, 2007

Undiscovered bedrooms, the typical dream of the New Yorker. I always thought the undiscovered room dream story was apocryphal until Meg, unaware of the story at the time, dreamt of finding another room in our apartment a few months ago.