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Why Do We Dream? A New Theory on How It Protects Our Brains

11 minute read
Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Stanford University. His latest book is Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain.
Vaughn PhD is a neuroscientist at UCLA.  

When he was two years old, Ben stopped seeing out of his left eye. His mother took him to the doctor and soon discovered he had retinal cancer in both eyes. After chemotherapy and radiation failed, surgeons removed both his eyes. For Ben, vision was gone forever.

But by the time he was seven years old, he had devised a technique for decoding the world around him: he clicked with his mouth and listened for the returning echoes. This method enabled Ben to determine the locations of open doorways, people, parked cars, garbage cans, and so on. He was echolocating: bouncing his sound waves off objects in the environment and catching the reflections to build a mental model of his surroundings.

Echolocation may sound like an improbable feat for a human, but thousands of blind people have perfected this skill, just like Ben did. The phenomenon has been written about since at least the 1940s, when the word “echolocation” was first coined in a Science article titled “Echolocation by Blind Men, Bats, and Radar.”

How could blindness give rise to the stunning ability to understand the surroundings with one’s ears? The answer lies in a gift bestowed on the brain by evolution: tremendous adaptability.

Whenever we learn something new, pick up a new skill, or modify our habits, the physical structure of our brain changes. Neurons, the cells responsible for rapidly processing information in the brain, are interconnected by the thousands—but like friendships in a community, the connections between them constantly change: strengthening, weakening, and finding new partners. The field of neuroscience calls this phenomenon “brain plasticity,” referring to the ability of the brain, like plastic, to assume new shapes and hold them. More recent discoveries in neuroscience suggest that the brain’s brand of flexibility is far more nuanced than holding onto a shape, though. To capture this, we refer to the brain’s plasticity as “livewiring” to spotlight how this vast system of 86 billion neurons and 0.2 quadrillion connections rewires itself every moment of your life.

Neuroscience used to think that different parts of the brain were predetermined to perform specific functions. But more recent discoveries have upended the old paradigm. One part of the brain may initially be assigned a specific task; for instance, the back of our brain is called the “visual cortex” because it usually handles sight. But that territory can be reassigned to a different task. There is nothing special about neurons in the visual cortex: they are simply neurons that happen to be involved in processing shapes or colors in people who have functioning eyes. But in the sightless, these same neurons can rewire themselves to process other types of information.

Mother Nature imbued our brains with flexibility to adapt to circumstances. Just as sharp teeth and fast legs are useful for survival, so is the brain’s ability to reconfigure. The brain’s livewiring allows for learning, memory, and the ability to develop new skills.

In Ben’s case, his brain’s flexible wiring repurposed his visual cortex for processing sound. As a result, Ben had more neurons available to deal with auditory information, and this increased processing power allowed Ben to interpret soundwaves in shocking detail. Ben’s super-hearing demonstrates a more general rule: the more brain territory a particular sense has, the better it performs.

Recent decades have yielded several revelations about livewiring, but perhaps the biggest surprise is its rapidity. Brain circuits reorganize not only in the newly blind, but also in the sighted who have temporary blindness. In one study, sighted participants intensively learned how to read Braille. Half the participants were blindfolded throughout the experience. At the end of the five days, the participants who wore blindfolds could distinguish subtle differences between Braille characters much better than the participants who didn’t wear blindfolds. Even more remarkably, the blindfolded participants showed activation in visual brain regions in response to touch and sound. When activity in the visual cortex was temporarily disrupted, the Braille-reading advantage of the blindfolded participants went away. In other words, the blindfolded participants performed better on the touch-related task because their visual cortex had been recruited to help. After the blindfold was removed, the visual cortex returned to normal within a day, no longer responding to touch and sound.

But such changes don’t have to take five days; that just happened to be when the measurement took place. When blindfolded participants are continuously measured, touch-related activity shows up in the visual cortex in about an hour.

What does brain flexibility and rapid cortical takeover have to do with dreaming? Perhaps more than previously thought. Ben clearly benefited from the redistribution of his visual cortex to other senses because he had permanently lost his eyes, but what about the participants in the blindfold experiments? If our loss of a sense is only temporary, then the rapid conquest of brain territory may not be so helpful.

And this, we propose, is why we dream.

In the ceaseless competition for brain territory, the visual system has a unique problem: due to the planet’s rotation, all animals are cast into darkness for an average of 12 out of every 24 hours. (Of course, this refers to the vast majority of evolutionary time, not to our present electrified world.) Our ancestors effectively were unwitting participants in the blindfold experiment, every night of their entire lives.

So how did the visual cortex of our ancestors’ brains defend its territory, in the absence of input from the eyes?

We suggest that the brain preserves the territory of the visual cortex by keeping it active at night. In our “defensive activation theory,” dream sleep exists to keep neurons in the visual cortex active, thereby combating a takeover by the neighboring senses. In this view, dreams are primarily visual precisely because this is the only sense that is disadvantaged by darkness. Thus, only the visual cortex is vulnerable in a way that warrants internally-generated activity to preserve its territory.

In humans, sleep is punctuated by rapid eye movement (REM) sleep every 90 minutes. This is when most dreaming occurs. (Although some forms of dreaming can occur during non-REM sleep, such dreams are abstract and lack the visual vividness of REM dreams.)

REM sleep is triggered by a specialized set of neurons that pump activity straight into the brain’s visual cortex, causing us to experience vision even though our eyes are closed. This activity in the visual cortex is presumably why dreams are pictorial and filmic. (The dream-stoking circuitry also paralyzes your muscles during REM sleep so that your brain can simulate a visual experience without moving the body at the same time.) The anatomical precision of these circuits suggests that dream sleep is biologically important—such precise and universal circuitry rarely evolves without an important function behind it.

The defensive activation theory makes some clear predictions about dreaming. For example, because brain flexibility diminishes with age, the fraction of sleep spent in REM should also decrease across the lifespan. And that’s exactly what happens: in humans, REM accounts for half of an infant’s sleep time, but the percentage decreases steadily to about 18% in the elderly. REM sleep appears to become less necessary as the brain becomes less flexible.

Of course, this relationship is not sufficient to prove the defensive activation theory. To test it on a deeper level, we broadened our investigation to animals other than humans. The defensive activation theory makes a specific prediction: the more flexible an animal’s brain, the more REM sleep it should have to defend its visual system during sleep. To this end, we examined the extent to which the brains of 25 species of primates are “pre-programmed” versus flexible at birth. How might we measure this? We looked at the time it takes animals of each species to develop. How long do they take to wean from their mothers? How quickly do they learn to walk? How many years until they reach adolescence? The more rapid an animal’s development, the more pre-programmed (that is, less flexible) the brain.

As predicted, we found that species with more flexible brains spend more time in REM sleep each night. Although these two measures—brain flexibility and REM sleep—would seem at first to be unrelated, they are in fact linked.

As a side note, two of the primate species we looked at were nocturnal. But this does not change the hypothesis: whenever an animal sleeps, whether at night or during the day, the visual cortex is at risk of takeover by the other senses. Nocturnal primates, equipped with strong night vision, employ their vision throughout the night as they seek food and avoid predation. When they subsequently sleep during the day, their closed eyes allow no visual input, and thus, their visual cortex requires defense.

Dream circuitry is so fundamentally important that it is found even in people who are born blind. However, those who are born blind (or who become blind early in life) don’t experience visual imagery in their dreams; instead, they have other sensory experiences, such as feeling their way around a rearranged living room or hearing strange dogs barking. This is because other senses have taken over their visual cortex. In other words, blind and sighted people alike experience activity in the same region of their brain during dreams; they differ only in the senses that are processed there. Interestingly, people who become blind after the age of seven have more visual content in their dreams than those who become blind at younger ages. This, too, is consistent with the defensive activation theory: brains become less flexible as we age, so if one loses sight at an older age, the non-visual senses cannot fully conquer the visual cortex.

If dreams are visual hallucinations triggered by a lack of visual input, we might expect to find similar visual hallucinations in people who are slowly deprived of visual input while awake. In fact, this is precisely what happens in people with eye degeneration, patients confined to a tank-respirator, and prisoners in solitary confinement. In all of these cases, people see things that are not there.

We developed our defensive activation theory to explain visual hallucinations during extended periods of darkness, but it may represent a more general principle: the brain has evolved specific circuitry to generate activity that compensates for periods of deprivation. This might occur in several scenarios: when deprivation is regular and predictable (e.g., dreams during sleep), when there is damage to the sensory input pathway (e.g., tinnitus or phantom limb syndrome), and when deprivation is unpredictable (e.g., hallucinations induced by sensory deprivation). In this sense, hallucinations during deprivation may in fact be a feature of the system rather than a bug.

We’re now pursuing a systematic comparison between a variety of species across the animal kingdom. So far, the evidence has been encouraging. Some mammals are born immature, unable to regulate their own temperature, acquire food, or defend themselves (think kittens, puppies, and ferrets). Others are born mature, emerging from the womb with teeth, fur, open eyes, and the abilities to regulate their temperature, walk within an hour of birth, and eat solid food (think guinea pigs, sheep, and giraffes). The immature animals have up to 8 times more REM sleep than those born mature. Why? Because when a newborn brain is highly flexible, the system requires more effort to defend the visual system during sleep.

Since the dawn of communication, dreams have perplexed philosophers, priests, and poets. What do dreams mean? Do they portend the future? In recent decades, dreams have come under the gaze of neuroscientists as one of the field’s central unsolved mysteries. Do they serve a more practical, functional purpose? We suggest that dream sleep exists, at least in part, to prevent the other senses from taking over the brain’s visual cortex when it goes unused. Dreams are the counterbalance against too much flexibility. Thus, although dreams have long been the subject of song and story, they may be better understood as the strange lovechild of brain plasticity and the rotation of the planet.

For more information:

  • Eagleman DM (2020). Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain. New York: Pantheon.
  • Eagleman DM, Vaughn DA (2020). The defensive activation theory: dreaming as a mechanism to prevent takeover of the visual cortex.
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