Dreaming. There are so many types of dreams that we might have and on so many subjects but according to Dr. Robert Stickgold from Harvard, we dream about what the brain deems as most important. Sometimes we remember our dreams, sometimes we don’t, sometime we have lucid dreams, and sometimes our dreams are nightmares. Often, though not always, our dreams involve replaying parts of events that were part of our waking day and the parts that are most significant to us. There are various theories that try to explain why we dream. Some scientists think that they do not serve a purpose but most scientists do. Out of the scientists that do place importance on dreams, most focus on dreams’ role in consolidating memories. Another interesting perspective comes from scientists who are more focused on the emotional side of dreams. According to a Scientific American article I read, The Contemporary Theory of Dreaming “views dreaming as “a broad making of connections guided by emotion”. When we dream, the connections we make are very loose meaning that they are global and not very focused. According to this theory, the connections we make during dreams are tightly linked to our emotions. The sorts of dreams we have, and their complexity, relates to the emotional arousal of the dreamer. Researchers do not know if this is just something that occurs or if there is a function for the emotionality of dreams. They suggest a possible function might be that as the emotional material is relieved in our dreams, it becomes weaved in with other non-related material, which might diminish the emotional intensity initially associated with an event. This would be useful following an exceptionally traumatic event.
Now what about animals and their dreams? Do they dream and are these dreams similar to human dreams? Well first of all we know that animals do dream. Research from MIT from 2001 shows that their dreams are “complex” and that animals “are able to retain and recall long sequences of events while they are asleep”. The scientists involved in these studies claim to sometimes know what animals are dreaming about and to know that their dreams are connected to the experiences the animals have when they are awake. In one experiment the scientists made rats run on a circular track for a food reward and monitored brain activity both during the task and while the rats were asleep. They saw that the rats’ brain activity was incredibly similar during sleep as it was during the task. They were even able to reconstruct where the rat would be in the maze if it was awake…they could be that precise. I still wonder about emotions and animal dreams. If we know that they do dream in a similar manner as we do then maybe their dreams are also tied to emotions.
In the end I am left curious about this question of if there is an emotional side to animals’ dreams because this could mean a lot in terms of understanding animals’ consciousness and the kind of memories they retain. The article about the MIT research quotes an MIT scientist saying, “’this work demonstrates that animals are capable of re-evaluating their experiences when they are not in the midst of them’.” It seems that animals might be more reflective than we commonly think they are. Maybe animals don’t just ‘know’ things…maybe they actually ‘remember’ them. Could it be that dreams are a key part in figuring out the depth of animals’ notions of self-awareness?