Freudian Slip: Do Dreams Still Have a Role in Psychiatry
"As a tool of the psychiatrist, dreams in fact probably do give you an insight into ... processes that are not readily accessible in waking," says Robert A. Stickgold, PhD, a neurophysiologist at Massachusetts Mental Health Center and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, both in Boston.
Dreams are a kind of natural inkblot test, Stickgold tells WebMD. "This is the brain putting things together without intent, without design, without purpose, without understanding," he says. "It just knows that these are things that might be worthwhile for the brain to consider together, because they might help to explain something."
He says that during rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, the phase of sleep where dreaming occurs, there is an interruption in the flow of information out of the hippocampus -- the brain's center for learning and memory. Instead, the brain seems to be processing sporadic, disjointed images from another part of the brain, the neocortex, where fragmented visual memories, sounds, and random ideas are stored.
Stickgold likens the process of dreaming to doing a search on the world wide web: "If you do a web search and go down the list of items, the first two or three are usually spot on, more or less what you were looking for," he says. "Then there are four or five where you say, 'That's not what I was looking for, but I know why those came up.' And if you keep going down there are about 50 where you want to say, 'I didn't ask for these at all; I don't know where they came from.' The brain is just sort of futzing and doing some [formula] to try to find things that fit together, and maybe it works and maybe it doesn't."
The computer analogy is imperfect, but handy: As WebMD reported last July, Pierre Macquet, PhD, and colleagues from the Université de Liège and the Université Libre de Bruxelles, in Belgium, and Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, say that REM sleep, hence dreams, may be a way for the brain to recall and chew over newly formed memories before filing them away in the darker recesses of the brain -- somewhat akin to programming the computer to do a file reorganization and hard-drive backup overnight.