A few months ago, I asked Why Do We Sleep?
That post was about sleep researcher Jerry Siegel, who argues that sleep evolved as a state of "adaptive inactivity". According to this idea, animals sleep because otherwise we'd always be active, and constant activity is a waste of energy. Sleeping for a proportion of the time conserves calories, and also keeps us safe from nocturnal predators etc.
Siegel's theory in what we might call minimalist. That's in contrast to other hypotheses which claim that sleep serves some kind of vital restorative biological function, or that it's important for memory formation, or whatever. It's a hotly debated topic.
But Siegel wasn't the first sleep minimalist. J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley created a storm in 1977 with The Brain As A Dream State Generator; I read somewhere that it provoked more letters to the Editor in the American Journal of Psychiatry than any other paper in that journal.
Hobson and McCarley's article was so controversial because they argued that dreams are essentially side-effects of brain activation. This was a direct attack on the Freudian view that we dream as a result of our subconscious desires, and that dreams have hidden meanings. Freudian psychoanalysis was incredibly influential in American psychiatry in the 1970s.
Freud believed that dreams exist to fulfil our fantasies, often though not always sexual ones. We dream about what we'd like to do - except we don't dream about it directly, because we find much of our desires shameful, so our minds disguise the wishes behind layers of metaphor etc. "Steep inclines, ladders and stairs, and going up or down them, are symbolic representations of the sexual act..." Interpreting the symbolism of dreams can therefore shed light on the depths of the mind.
Hobson and McCarley argued that during REM sleep, our brains are active in a similar way to when we are awake; many of the systems responsible for alertness are switched on, unlike during deep, dreamless, non-REM sleep. But of course during REM there is no sensory input (our eyes are closed), and also, we are paralysed: an inhibitory pathway blocks the spinal cord, preventing us from moving, except for our eyes - hence why it's Rapid Eye Movement sleep.
Dreams are simply a result of the "awake-like" forebrain - the "higher" perceptual, cognitive and emotional areas - trying to make sense of the input that it's receiving as a result of waves of activation arising from the brainstem. A dream is the forebrain's "best guess" at making a meaningful story out of the assortment of sensations (mostly visual) and concepts activated by these periodic waves. There's no attempt to disguise the shameful parts; the bizarreness of dreams simply reflects the fact that the input is pretty much random.
Hobson and McCarley proposed a complex physiological model in which the activation is driven by the giant cells of the pontine tegmentum. These cells fire in bursts according to a genetically hard-wired rhythm of excitation and inhibition.
The details of this model are rather less important than the fact that it reduces dreaming to a neurological side effect. This doesn't mean that the REM state has no function; maybe it does, but whatever it is, the subjective experience of dreams serves no purpose.
A lot has changed since 1977, but Hobson seems to have stuck by the basic tenets of this theory. A good recent review came out in Nature Neuroscience last year, REM sleep and dreaming. In this paper Hobson proposes that the function of REM sleep is to act as a kind of training system for the developing brain.
The internally-generated signals that arise from the brainstem (now called PGO waves) during REM help the forebrain to learn how to process information. This explains why we spend more time in REM early in life; newborns have much more REM than adults; in the womb, we are in REM almost all the time. However, these are not dreams per se because children don't start reporting experiencing dreams until about the age of 5.
This is a fascinating hypothesis, although very difficult to test, and it begs the question of how useful "training" based on random, meaningless input is.
Protoconscious REM sleep could therefore provide a virtual world model, complete with an emergent imaginary agent (the protoself) that moves (via fixed action patterns) through a fictive space (the internally engendered environment) and experiences strong emotion as it does so.
While Hobson's theory is minimalist in that it reduces dreams, at any rate in adulthood, to the status of a by-product, it doesn't leave them uninteresting. Freudian dream re-interpretation is probably ruled out ("That train represents your penis and that cat was your mother", etc.), but if dreams are our brains processing random noise, then they still provide an insight into how our brains process information. Dreams are our brains working away on their own, with the real world temporarily removed.
Of course most dreams are not going to give up life-changing insights. A few months back I had a dream which was essentially a scene-for-scene replay of the horror movie Cloverfield. It was a good dream, scarier than the movie itself, because I didn't know it was a movie. But I think all it tells me is that I was paying attention when I watched Cloverfield.
On the other hand, I have had several dreams that have made me realize important things about myself and my situation at the time. By paying attention to your dreams, you can work out how you really think, and feel, about things, what your preconceptions and preoccupations are. Sometimes.
Hobson JA, & McCarley RW (1977). The brain as a dream state generator: an activation-synthesis hypothesis of the dream process. The American journal of psychiatry, 134 (12), 1335-48 PMID: 21570
Hobson, J. (2009). REM sleep and dreaming: towards a theory of protoconsciousness Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10 (11), 803-813 DOI: 10.1038/nrn2716