Undisciplined: Dreams Can Come True

Sep 23, 2021

A graphic of a sleeping person, dreaming of swinging from the moon.

We all dream, but why? And what do our dreams reveal about our waking lives? Since the beginning of human history, dreams have played a pivotal role in helping humans make sense of the world. What role do dreams play in our modern lives? This week, we'll be exploring the history of and science behind dreaming. 

Sidarta Ribeiro is the author of a new book called Oracle of Night - The History and Science of Dreams. He's also the founder and Vice Director of the Brain Institute at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil. 

The following is an unedited transcript.

Shoshannah Buxbaum 0:03 - This is Undisciplined. I'm Shoshannah Buxbaum. Dreams are one of the most universal human experiences. And if you look closely, dreams play a central role in early human history from the Bible and Quran to Ancient Greece and Rome. By the end of the 20th century, many Western researchers were less interested in the content of dreams, and more focused on their biochemical mechanisms. Recently, scientists have begun re examining their previous assumptions. So why do we dream our dreams capable of predicting future unlocking creativity? What your dreams tell us about the world around us? Sidarta Ribeiro sought to answer those questions and more his new book draws upon both scientific and historical research. It's called the oracle of night, the history and science of dreams. He's also the founder and vice director of the brain Institute at the Federal University of Rio Grande do North J. In Brazil. Sidarta Riberio, thank you so much for being here.

Sidarta Ribeiro 0:58 - Thank you Shoshannah for the opportunity to talk about dreams with such a large audience.

Shoshannah Buxbaum 1:04 - Okay, so to start off, when I was reading your book, that it sounds like the germ of this idea for the book started for you over two decades ago, what sparked your interest, and dreams.

Sidarta Ribeiro 1:19 - So dreams were important in my life early on, and I tell some of that in the book. But it was not until the beginning of my PhD that I decided to make them my main focus. This happened because I had this this strong in adaptation to a new environment. And sleeping dreams played a big role in my adaptation. So I arrived in New York to start my PhD in 95, on January 95. And I just couldn't stop sleeping, and I couldn't stop dreaming and I tell the story in the book, for a couple of months, I thought my, my body was just sabotaging me completely. And I was going to be sent back to Brazil. And you know, not doing anything that I plan to do. Because I just couldn't really understand what people said, I couldn't understand neither the content nor the language in I knew English, but it just suddenly I couldn't speak English. And then after two months, early spring, I suddenly adapted and suddenly, I had friends and I was doing my stuff at the lab and things were going quite well. And then I realized that the sleep and dreaming were not sabotaging me. They were preparing me for challenges. And then I decided to study that and I've been doing that since then. However, I only envisioned that this book was possible many years later, when I was actually starting my postdoc at University. And, and I had this feeling I had this like panoramic feeling that if only we could put in order, in chronological and logical order, all the pieces of information that we already had, it will be possible to make sense of the evolution of the human mind by by telling the story of the evolution of sleep and dreams.

Shoshannah Buxbaum 3:11 - And so the book is really a holistic look at dreams and dreaming, as you had said, its history, literature, psychology, neuroscience, and it's, it's beyond your, your training as a neuroscientist. So why did you decide that for dreams, we needed to take this expansive look beyond the sort of like narrow, scientific approach to dreaming?

Sidarta Ribeiro 3:37 - I think that it was because of my strong adherence to evolution, if we are to understand something at the present moment, like dreaming in contemporary societies is not possible to just look at inside the brain or look in the culture that we have now and try to figure it out. Because it was not engineered by by anybody, it was not a product of intelligent design. It's the product of evolution. So if if we want to really understand what dreams are, we need to understand how they came to be. And, therefore, we cannot be bound by specific disciplines, we have to really look into what matters at each moment. So if you're going to look at the origins of the circadian rhythm, you know, 500 million years ago, we're in probably before that in unicellular organisms, then you're in the realm of biochemistry of genetics, then if you want to talk about the notion of dreams as premonitions or pre cognitive images, then we need to focus on the evolution of long REM sleep early in the evolution of mammals. And 220 million years ago, therefore, I had to get out of biology and towards psychology and towards all these other disciplines if I wanted to tell a story that was actually plausible that a conjecture that would make sense to people.

Shoshannah Buxbaum 5:10 - You sort of start at the very beginning, and you know, in the earliest written records talk about dreams and their interpretations. And you point to evidence suggesting that cave drawings are illustrating dreams. So what role did sharing and analyzing dreams play in early human history?

Sidarta Ribeiro 5:32 - This is an important part of the book, which is to imagine the minds of our ancestral forefathers and mothers in how, how did they accumulate culture, and what role did dreaming play in that? We have to remember before the invention of writing, only 4500 years ago, all the knowledge was embodied, all the knowledge was in the bodies of other people. If you wanted to learn how to hunt, if you wanted to learn how to cook, if you wanted to learn how to care for babies, you needed to be together with your elders, and learn it from them. When people died, it was a disaster, it was much worse than today, because he was just it was not just that person that people loved, that would not be there, but also all that knowledge. The death of an elder was, was the destruction of an encyclopedia. So imagine the emotional impact for our ancestors, when they had dreams with people that had died, that they loved. It was tremendous. Imagine that we were trying to get together and hunt a mammoth. Right? This is something that happened so many times, across the millennia, we needed to communicate the vision, the vision of actually succeeding in the hand not getting killed. Right, and so the book makes this argument that the source of all these ideas of this inspiration was dreaming. And this is very well documented the antiquity. And it's very well documented by anthropology with, for example, South American indigenous populations, who still to these days go towards dreaming, not in a passive manner, but in an active manner. They go into dreaming, looking for something looking for a name looking for a new way of doing something looking for cultural value.

Shoshannah Buxbaum 7:33 - Yeah. And so how did we get from the central place that dreams held in cohesiveness and narrative and understanding the world? How did we get from that place to now where especially like in the US and in Europe, there's this, you know, dreams aren't viewed as a central part of human experience? How did we sort of get to the place where we're at now?

Sidarta Ribeiro 8:06 - I think it has to do with the the intertwined development of science and capitalism, about 500 years ago, the guidance that dreams had provided for all the previous time, seized to be accepted in Europe, and in the colonies that Europe built around the world. Basically, to say, No, we need to base our future on technique on mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, if you're to send a ship to India to purchase, nutmeg to sell in Europe, or if you want to sell a send a ship to Africa to buy Africans, enslaved and sell them in the Americas, then you need to do it, not because he had a dream, but because you have a business plan, and it has degrees of astronomy and with navigation. But then there's the dream loss, which is also tremendous and very, very damaging and very dangerous for society. Because it was during dreams that for many, many, many, many generations, our ancestors, were able to come up with novelty new ideas, but also with something that made sense collectively. For instance, I'll give an example, if we were in a culture that value dreams and value, not just in the individual dream, but the collective dream–and this is something that indigenous populations, Native Americans, are very good at–we probably wouldn't be in the situation we are now with COVID. Where we are deprived. It's because we are deprived of this very strong neurobiological mechanism to simulate possible futures and simulate the consequences of our actions. Basically, people are disconnected from the consequences of their actions, they disconnected from their past from the ancestors they also disconnected from from the future. They're not really, really paying attention to being responsible for the future. Of course, I'm generalizing here many people are, but we in that case, we are under a new selective pressure, we need to respond as a group cohesively. And I think what we what is happening now is that because of loss of sleep and dreaming, we're becoming cranky, intolerant, cognitively impaired, and unable to respond cohesively in an empathic manner. So it's just it's not a small crisis.

Shoshannah Buxbaum 10:37 - Yeah. So I want to focus now a little bit on REM sleep, which you talk about in the book, one of the big sort of scientific breakthroughs and understanding dreams. So what are the discovery of REM sleep help us understand about dreaming?

Sidarta Ribeiro 10:54 - Very good question because it, it helped a lot, but it also produced some confusion. REM sleep was discovered in 57. The link with dreaming was discovered and clearly established. In the beginning, people thought that we only dreamt during REM sleep. Now it's clear that we dream most of the time we're dreaming, we're dreaming when we are awake, it's always going on some level of of reverberation of neuronal activity at anytime. One problem that occurred in the 50s and 60s, and well until the 90s is that many people in the biomedical field saw the discovery of REM sleep as a reason to dismiss dreams. People would say, well, dreams are subjective, inherently fakeable. We don't really know whether people had this experience. And and we don't have methods to investigate in any way. And it's not really a good scientific object. We should study REM sleep, this is what solid, this is where it makes sense to work. And this view, I think dominated neuroscience and psychology for a long time. Then in the in the late 90s, because of the work of people like Bob sickled, in Harvard, Carlisle Smith, in Trent, Canada, people started to realize that dreaming is one thing in REM sleep is another thing. And then comes Mark Psalms, a very important neurologists, and psycho analysts from South Africa, who discovered in the late 90s, and early 2000s, that there are certain neurological lesions, which people will have REM sleep, but they do not have the ability to dream. And those lesions happen to involve the punishment and reward system, the reward system in the brain that the brain depends on dopamine. So if you cannot desire something, if you don't have the neurons that allow you to use dopamine to desire something that is good, or to avoid suffering, that is bad, you lose the ability to dream. So what this means that dreams are not just the reactivation of memories, but they are the reactivation of memories, with a purpose with, with a goal oriented towards a goal. Just like in waking life, during dreams, we're also always pursuing something, I want to go from here to there, I want to meet that person, and so on. So in the past 10 years, people really moved away from this notion of reducing, dreaming to REM sleep, and now we're starting to have a much better notion of what dreaming really is and how it evolved.

Shoshannah Buxbaum 13:46 - Yeah, I remember when I was a kid, when I was growing up, there was this dominant narrative of your dreams being totally random, and that if you looked into them in any way, it was sort of like akin to believing in magic. In a way, you know, if you woke up in the morning, and you had a dream, and you were trying to think about what that meant, it was sort of anti science, you know? REM sleep proved in a way that it was just random, your brain was just firing off random things and that in your waking life, analyzing it was meaningless in a way.

Sidarta Ribeiro 14:22 - Yeah, this is actually what happened in the 80s. This notion that dreaming was randomly that it served the purpose of erasing memories. And this was very influential very, very famous people like, like Francis Crick, you know, Nobel Prize winner published the paper in nature, proposing something like this. So, it was a very... it was a moment dominated by by anti freudianism. So people did not want to accept it, the dreaming had any meaning. And because people really hated psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, in the biomedical environment in the 80s and 90s, but this has changed a lot. In my book, I go into detail about how several predictions or postulates of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung came to be corroborated, came to be verified by scientific research.

Shoshannah Buxbaum 15:16 - One of the other things that you write about is about dreaming and childhood. And I found that really compelling. I just spent some time with my 14 month year old nephew, and he's not, you know, speaking in full sentences or anything, but, you know, watching him sleep, it's like, he's definitely dreaming. So, how does this sort of development... how does brain development in waking life mirror that in dreaming life? How does that you know, childhood development? How are our dreams also progressing?

Sidarta Ribeiro 15:52 - Freud was actually one of the verses to say that there's a strong continuity between waking life and dream life. And this has been studied over many years by researchers like David folks starting in the 60s, that showed that there is a there is a gradual development of the waking life that is parallel by what happens in the dream life. And he studied the same individuals from childhood to adolescence, and was they would come to the lab every year and he would wake them up at specific moments during specific sleep states, and collect dream reports, and really give a very interesting view of how this mental software is a matures, slowly involving various aspects of social life. Recently, researchers have performed experiments, not in the lab, but in the homes of people. And they found that children are even more prone to complex dreams than in the lab. When they're in the lab, they tend to be more afraid and dreams tend to be simpler. But when they're home, they feel safe. They can produce amazing, complex narratives even at an early age.

Shoshannah Buxbaum 17:12 - It's so fascinating that our, our dream life is mirroring our waking life in so many different ways. But I want to move on to something that I think a lot of people are very curious about is creativity and problem solving in dreams. You talk about some really famous examples. One that people talk about a lot is that Paul McCartney came up with the melody for the song yesterday in his sleep, and you talk about a lot of other historical, you know, mathematical and creative breakthroughs, what's going on in our dreams that allows us to figure out creative or mathematical problems when we're not even conscious that we're doing it.

Sidarta Ribeiro 18:03 - Yeah, so the the neurochemical environment of REM sleep facilitates the spreading of electrical activity beyond the most probable pathways. The in particular, the lack of noradrenaline or norepinephrine, during REM sleep, allows this electrical activity to be more noisy, it doesn't adhere strictly to the pathways that are most probable during the waking life. So So this, this gives the possibility for gyms to be highly associative. So you go from one thing to the next, I was dreaming with my mother, then it was my grandmother, I was in in Brazil, then I was in the United States. So it's very fluid. The Dream experience is very fluid, in part because of this neurochemical environment. And also because of the functional neuroanatomy of REM sleep. That means which areas of the brain are functionally engaged in, in talking to each other during REM sleep, and what you will see is that there's a lot of activity in the back of the brain, in visual areas, a lot of activity in the this default mode network, but there's little activity in most frontal regions, the prefrontal cortex is mostly inhibited. And because of that, the prefrontal cortex is important for us to have executive functions for us to have decision making for us to have the inhibition–to have inhibitory control of certain actions, so that one action can prevail. And when we have this circuit g activated, what emerges is an experience that is marked by a lack of criticism, anything goes nothing really shocks you during dreaming. There is no you don't really have the the ability to be very in control of your decisions. Things happen to you more than you make them happen. Right. This is difference when people transit into lucid dreaming when they have more frontal activity, and then they become able to really control to guide, not only what they do as a dream character, but also what happens in the dream scenario in the plot. Right? So they go from being an actress or an actor of an unknown movie towards being the director, the producer, and the actor, actress of the dream.

Shoshannah Buxbaum 20:30 - My dad often tells this story that it's become a family story. But he had to solve this really complicated mathematical problem, he studied economics, and he couldn't figure it out when he was awake. And then he went to sleep and when he woke up, he had figured it out. Like he was totally at a mental block, tried everything he could think of it was this a complex equation, woke up and it came to him, he figured out how to solve it, he could never replicate that ever again.

Sidarta Ribeiro 20:59 - So dreams are sources of potential solutions, right? You always have to go and test it against reality and see if it sticks if it works. But the dreams will provide potential solutions and this can be propitiated, that you can use your intention to make it more likely to happen. Again, in cultures that value the art of dreaming, intention is always important. People don't go to dreams, to see what happens, they go to dreams with an idea on their minds, they have they want something from the dreaming. And if you put yourself in that context, you can enhance your chances of actually having a dream that comes up with a solution. But this is the catch, you cannot expect the dream to offer you a direct solution. Sometimes dreams can be a direct solution, right? There are plenty of examples in the integrity, there was a term for that the theoramatic dreams were those that were exactly the same as will happen in the future, let's say, right, so they can you can dream of a solution that you can go ahead and implement right away. But most of the times, and also because of the associative pneus of dreaming, the solution will be a metaphor, it will be in the library, it will be something that needs interpretation. And this is why we need to talk about dreams with our significant others in the family environments, work in schools, we need to bring dreaming back as a topic of conversation and of concern, and not just of individual concern of collective concern.

Shoshannah Buxbaum 22:31 - So to wrap up here, what do you think, is the future of dream research?

Sidarta Ribeiro 22:41 - I think that we are starting to understand the complexity of our minds for about 100 years in the West, we behaved as if we should not even talk about consciousness or mind. Or that we should only talk about the ego, this the consciousness of that that identifies with the whole body and has a name and pays taxes every year. The mind is occupied by many, many creatures, many, many representations, that are the entities that we meet when we dream. And if we want to have a good future, in relationship with these creatures, we should understand better what they are, how they are represented in the brain, how we can interact with them, this is how our mind was structured, if we just deny it, and if we just forget about it, we may continue to produce a lot of unintended consequences without much reflection for past and future. In terms of the research, I think we have a lot to learn about lucid dreaming, to understand better, how to achieve it, how to use it in our favor, what are its potential risks, especially for specific risk groups. And basically, I think we need to, to produce an advancement of how we can use sleep dreaming not just to enhance our ideas or to produce more but to enhance our society to live better with each other. To use these very old techniques to live better as a group as a planetary in single group of humans. If we, if the science does not go in that direction, if we just go into let me be more productive, let me just acquire more stuff. If we continue using dreams just for that if we if we add dreams to our, to our list of techniques to just become better at acquiring things, I don't think we'll we'll honor our ancestors. And certainly we want on our descendants.

Shoshannah Buxbaum 24:46 - I think that's a great place to end and a lot of interesting and important things to ponder, especially in the time that we're in right now. So I've just been talking with Sidarta Ribeiro. He's the author of the new book, The Oracle All of night-the history and science of dreams. It's published by Pantheon. Sidarta, thank you so much for taking the time. It was a true pleasure talking to you more about your research and your book.

Sidarta Ribeiro 25:13 - You're very welcome, Shoshannah, very glad to be here having this conversation with you.

Shoshannah Buxbaum 25:19 - Undisciplined to say a production of Utah Public Radio, with support from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University. And if you happen to live in Utah, you can listen to us every Thursday at 10:30am on UPR. If you miss this, then you can listen to every episode of undisciplined wherever you get your podcast. Our producer is Clayre Scott. And our theme music is Little Idea by Benjamin Tisso. And I'm Shoshanna Buxbaum, thanks for listening now go have big ideas.