Here’s why you can’t dial a phone, read a book or escape a monster in your dreams
Erin Wamsley doesn’t want to hear about you dreams. As a sleep researcher and principal investigator at the Furman University Sleep Lab, she gets enough of that at work — not to mention from strangers at parties.
Dr. Wamsley, who got her Ph.D at CUNY and completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard, studies how the brain generates dream experiences and processes memories during sleep (hint: dreams!). She has authored or co-authored dozens of articles and book chapters, including this 2010 study into the ways daytime naps reinforce newly-learned skills. And as it does for many sleep scientists, her love of sleep has carried over into her personal life: Dr. Wamsley lives with her husband, toddler, and two cats named Ripple and Spindle, named after features of a sleep EEG readout.
We spoke to Dr. Wamsley about her research, the flawed premise of dream interpretation and why we just can’t seem to dial phones in our dreams.
Tell us a bit about the nature of your research.
Well, our research with dreams assumes that dreaming is really just another way to measure what’s happening in the mind, and what’s happening in the brain, during sleep. We’re interested in asking whether there’s a function for dreams, but our data really address the hypothesis that dreams might at least be a reflection of memory processing in the sleeping brain.
There’s a lot of evidence that one function of sleep is to consolidate, or process, recently learned information. And what we’ve seen is that on the one hand, people dream about what they have learned recently. And on the other hand, when they dream about what they’ve learned recently, that’s associated with improved memory later on. So that’s the main hypothesis that we’re working on in terms of what dreaming is — that the content of a dream is strongly influenced by the fact that the brain is, at that moment, reactivating and processing new memories that were just formed in the previous day or days.
How did you get into this line of study?
I’ve been interested in sleep and dreaming for as long as I can remember. I think when I was young, like many people, I found it interesting because dreams seemed mysterious. And why did dreams seem mysterious? Well, I don’t usually use that word about dreaming now, but I think with sleep and dreaming overall, the reason that people have that feeling is because it’s something that everyone does. We spend a third of our lives sleeping and perhaps all of that time dreaming, and the function is really unknown. And that’s unlike any other basic human activity — we all eat, and we really know a lot about why it is people have to eat. But we don’t know a lot about why it is people have to sleep and why it is really everyone dreams every night.
How have you seen the field, or the body of knowledge, change during your career?
Unfortunately, I think dream research has not moved forward a lot in my lifetime. And I think sometimes it’s thought that the reason for that is it’s somehow difficult to study dreaming scientifically. I don’t think that. It’s just not a big field. There are very few serious scientists with any kind of funding or resources even working on the question of, “let’s actually study not just sleep in general, but dreams specifically.” So there’s just very little research effort that’s being put into rigorous, scientifically minded research on dreams. And for any research topic, if that’s the case, progress is gonna be slow.
So this is not a big research field — if you’re doing a story on the cognitive neuroscience of vision, there’s going to be a thousand researchers you might call up. Who are you going call whose main research area has to do with the science of dreaming? That’s a really small list.
And we don’t know a lot about dreaming that’s really new. Given the hypothesis that we’re working on, it’s new in that it’s informed by major advances in the neuroscience of memory research. And so that brings a new angle to how we think about dreams and memory. But the idea that we dream about what we’ve learned recently is an old idea. So our laboratory is working on this hypothesis from somewhat of a new angle, but the newness of it is maybe more informed by major advances in neuroscience in general than it is by some huge set of advances in understanding dreaming specifically.
Are there other major hypotheses counter to yours, or is that sort of the dominant thought right now?
I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of hypotheses counter to ours, because I wouldn’t say memory processing is the function of dreaming. I wouldn’t make it exclusionary, saying that dreaming is about processing memory and only that. We have evidence that definitely the processing of memory shows up in dreams — does that mean this is the function of dreaming? I don’t know. So in that sense, our hypothesis could be compatible with other hypotheses about dreaming that are different. It could be an “all of the above.”
There are other theories about dreaming that are currently being investigating. One that pops to my mind is Revonsuo’s hypothesis that dreams simulate threatening situations that one might encounter in the future, which tends to explain a number of features of dreaming, including that dreams are often biased to be negatively emotional — containing traumatic, frightening, emotional scenarios. There’s some evidence for that hypothesis, but again, hardly anyone is working on this. And the amount of evidence in support of that idea is limited. But, I don’t think it contradicts the hypothesis we’re working with. There could be multiple right answers when you ask the questions, “What is a dream? Why do we dream?” I wouldn’t say that our notion is the notion to the exclusion of what anyone else has ever said.
So when people find out you research dreams, do they immediately jump to “hey, I’ve got this dream, what’s it about?”
Oh, it’s a terrible problem in my life. So you go to a party and someone says, “What do you do?” If you say the word “dream,” the next words out of their mouth are definitely going to be, “Oh my god! I had the weirdest dream last night!” And the thing is… it’s an interesting phenomenon, where our own dreams are really interesting to us — your dreams are very interesting to you, my dreams are very interesting to me — but hearing you talk about your dreams is not very interesting to me. Because it’s hard to communicate to other people what it is about this experience that does seem so fascinating.
And then the other thing is, I think, the popular conception of what a scientist might do that has to do with dreaming is still stuck in the decades before I was born — with ideas about Freud and the symbolic interpretation of dreams. So I think there’s a misconception that, oh, if I’m a psychologist, and I do something with dreams, it must be that my job’s to interpret dreams. To look at a dream and say, “What does this dream really mean?” And I think that question is based on a completely false premise: The idea that dreams somehow communicate a hidden meaning that needs to be decoded is completely without any empirical support. And it always has been.
So I’m quick to tell people, “Well, you know, I do work on dreaming, but my work doesn’t have anything to do with interpreting dreams, saying what dreams mean, or trying to decode dreams, because I don’t think your dream is trying to decode a hidden secret message to you that needs to be decoded by a highly paid expert.”
Everybody’s interested in dreams, and everybody thinks, “Oh, you’re gonna be the person who wants to hear me talk about my dreams.” Well… no, I don’t really care that much.
Because you don’t know their lives nearly as well as they know their lives.
That’s right. It doesn’t help me too much to hear the story of someone’s specific dream, and certainly, at the end of that, I’m not going to be able to tell someone what their dream means. If somebody asks me what it means, I’m gonna tell them, “I don’t know — but if anybody can answer that question, it’s you. Not some expert who doesn’t even know you.”
Now that we’ve established it’s terrible to talk about other people’s dreams: Do you have any recurring ones of your own?
Yeah, I definitely have recurring themes in my dreams, which is very common. It’s not clear that it’s common to have exactly the same dream, really, over and over again. But it’s very common for people to report the same themes. I have, for example, where I’m trying to climb a flight of stairs, but there’s some problem — there’s a hole in the stairs, it’s dangerous, there are animals there, this kind of thing.
Ah, I have something like that, but with trying to dial a phone.
Dial a phone?
Yeah, I’m dialing and I can’t remember what the right numbers are, or the keys keep moving, stuff like that.
I have that too. And with that specific example, there might be a really concrete reason. Anytime in a dream, when someone is trying to read or look at numbers, or there’s a very complicated visual representation — for example, a number pad or a page of a text— this is usually reported to be very difficult and to not really work correctly. It’s not typical for people to say that they dream about, like, reading, and they’re actually reading full sentences. And I think the reason for that is a very “duh!” obvious answer, which is that you can’t dial the telephone because there’s not actually a phone there.
It’s just in your head. And to keep that complicated representation of where the numbers are — and what they look like — stable, without changing, is not what dreams are like. When people look at complex imagery in dreams, it’s always changing. So you look at a line of text, and then you look back at the beginning of the sentence and it’s different than it was before. And it’s moving, the words are different, there’s just constant change in the imagery. Because it’s not real. It’s a mental representation, and mental imagery is not the same thing as interacting with a solid real object where the sentences are what the sentences are, where you can look back and it’ll be the same.
That’s fascinating! Are there any other common dream images or themes that have a basis like that?
Wellll… what I told you, I just made up, right? That’s my hypothesis, that’s what I think makes sense. There’s no evidence that that’s why, but it makes sense with what we know about waking imagery and dream imagery. Other hypotheses about recurring themes are similar, in that there are hypotheses that make sense with what we know, but there’s no actual direct evidence. And one of those would be — it’s like the stairs dream — you’re trying to run but you can’t get anywhere, you’re trying to move but you’re frozen.
A number of researchers have hypothesized that the reason for that could be because when we’re in rapid eye movement sleep, our muscles are completely paralyzed. So motor output to the motor control system of the body is blocked. Our muscles are completely disconnected from the central nervous system in a way that they are not when we’re awake. And somehow we sense this lack of feedback from the body, and lack of affective signals being sent out to the muscles, which makes it common to dream of being stuck, or being unable to move. There’s some kind of sensation of the paralysis itself that’s working its way into the dream.
So what excites you about the next five years, the next ten years of sleep and dream research?
I’m hopeful that there’s gonna be a greater amount of serious research attention into trying to understand what dreaming actually is. Since the 1970s we’ve seen more and more topics that have to do with subjective experience of humans enter the realm of serious scientific inquiry. Thirty years ago people would laugh at you if you said you’re studying emotion; now we’ve made real progress in understanding the neural circuits precisely that control certain emotions, like fear. Ten years ago, if you studied consciousness, people would laugh at you; now there’s real work being done in that area. And there’s exciting stuff now happening with the study of waking mental imagery from a neuro-scientific perspective, and looking at how memory relates to imagination in wakefulness — the brain basis of that. I think some of this progress in understanding waking imagery, what creates it and how it works, might bleed into breakthroughs in studying dreaming.
What exactly does waking imagery entail?
You know, for example, daydreams, or imagined scenes during wakefulness. All the types of subjective mental experiences that we have when we’re awake, because of course dreams are the subjective mental experiences that we have while we’re asleep. But you really can’t understand dreams unless you also understand the kind of experiences people have when they’re just sitting there doing nothing, zoning out while they’re awake.
Who else is doing research that excites you now?
Following off my last comment, I’m really excited by what Dan Schacter’s group is doing at Harvard. I think what they’re onto is how experiences are constructed in sleep, and what experiences in sleep are for.
Is there anything else you’d want to tell someone who maybe doesn’t quite understand your contemporary dream research?
I would say that if you came to our lab and saw what we’re doing, you would see that we’re applying the principles of the scientific medicine and cognitive neuroscience to this question just like any other question in cognitive neuroscience. And there’s really nothing especially impossible or difficult about rigorously studying dreams. We just need to do it.