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Joe Griffin explains why dreaming and forgetting our dreams, fulfils a vital human need.


THE human givens approach is a set of organising ideas that provides a holistic, scientific framework for understanding the way that individuals and society work. That framework has one central, highly empowering idea at its core — that human beings, like all organic beings, come into this world with a set of needs. If those needs are met appropriately, it is not possible to be mentally ill. I do not believe a more powerful statement than that could ever be made about the human condition. If human beings' needs are met, they won't get depressed; they cannot have psychosis; they cannot have manic depression; they cannot be in the grip of addictions. It is just not possible.

To get our needs met, nature has gifted us our very own internal guidance programme — this, together with our needs, makes up what we call the human givens. We come into the world with an instinctive knowledge of what we need and with a set of inner resources that can help us get our needs met, provided we use them properly and are living in a healthy environment.

In terms of the history of where our knowledge about human needs comes from, there has been a distinguished cast of contributors, going right back to ancient times. More recently William James, Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler explored human needs, and there was an outstanding contribution by Abraham Maslow, the pioneer of humanistic psychology, who first talked about a hierarchy of needs.[1] It was Abraham Maslow who introduced the idea that, until basic needs are met, people can't engage with questions of meaning and spirituality — what he calls selfactualisation.

Another contributor was William Glasser, who put forward the idea that fulfilment of people's needs for control, power, achievement and intimacy depends on their ability to behave responsibly and conscientiously; he argued vehemently that mental illness springs from these needs not being met.[2] So the human givens approach belongs to no specific people, certainly not exclusively to Ivan Tyrrell and me, although we may have named it; it belongs to the human species. We are just talking more precisely about what nature has gifted us, and there have been many great contributors down the millennia and the centuries, who have contributed to our understanding of the human givens.

What we have started to do, in what has come to be called the human givens approach, is look at human needs in the light of increasing knowledge and recent discoveries that flesh them out, so that we can define them and concretise them and make them more real. We now know that having meaning and purpose, a sense of volition and control, being needed by others, having intimate connections and wider social connections, status, appropriate giving and receiving of attention etc, are crucial for health and well-being. (Attention needs weren't understood in Western psychology at all, before the contribution of Idries Shah.) So, on one side of the equation, we now have a much fuller understanding of human needs.

And, on the other side, we have our human resources — the innate guidance system. We are learning much more about how that works and the more we understand, the more effective we will be, for sure.

The REM state is at the core of being human

At the heart of the internal guidance system lies the REM (rapid eye movement) state. The REM state is, of course, predominantly the state in which dreaming occurs. That is how it got discovered. Sleep researchers studying in the laboratory what happens in the brain during sleep discovered that the brain becomes activated periodically throughout the night, to the accompaniment of rapid eye movements (REM). When they woke people up from sleep at those times to find out what was going on, they learned that, 80 per cent of the time, people reported that they were dreaming. But they dreamed just seven per cent of the time during non-REM sleep.[3] So there is an irrefutable link between dreaming and the REM state.

If you pick up almost any major textbook on the neurology of the brain and look for the REM state in the index, in all probability, you won't find it. Nonetheless, within the human givens approach, we say that the REM state is at the core of being human. This is no idle claim. In the human givens theory, right from the beginning, we have advanced the evidence that instinctive templates are programmed in during the REM state in the fetus[4] and are pattern matched in the environment, after a baby comes into the world. Directly linked to this is the equally significant role of REM-state dreaming — explained in our expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming. I shall be showing how the latest scientific findings now validate these ideas. But first it is important to take a look at the main theories of dreaming, because a challenge to them needs to be able to stand up to the most rigorous scientific examination.

There are four major players in the field. The theory that has dominated for the last 30 years is one put forward by Professor Allan Hobson of Harvard University and his colleague Robert McCarley. They called it the activation synthesis theory. In the light of more recent evidence, this theory has fallen apart. As a result, there has been an effort to revive Freud's theory and I shall be giving the evidence for why that doesn't stand up either. The third theory in the field is one developed by Francis Crick, who died recently.
He was better known as the co-discoverer of DNA. And finally, there is the theory that dreaming facilitates memory consolidation. I am going to look at all these theories to see where they stand now.

Random barrage

I will start with Hobson and McCarley's activation synthesis theory.[5] Laboratory studies of brain waves show that, just before we go into REM sleep and during it, powerful electrical signals pass through the brain like a wave. On electroencephalogram recordings (EEGs), they appear as sudden spikes. The signals arise from the pons (P) in the brainstem, from the neurons that move the eyes, and then travel up via a part of the midbrain called the geniculate body (G) to the occipital (O) cortex in the higher brain — so are known as PGO spikes. (They also constitute what is termed our orientation response, which, when we are awake, is what directs our attention to any sudden change in the environment, such as a sound or movement.)

Hobson and McCarley's theory was that these PGO spikes were sending a random barrage of stimulation through the brain every so often, activating the whole cortex as a result; the higher brain had to try and make some sense of this random barrage, and dreams were the result. Dreams, therefore, were an epiphenomenon: they had no intrinsic meaning. They were just the brain's efforts to synthesise some sense from random signals.

Evidence has accumulated over the last 30 years to disprove this theory. The first piece of evidence that disproved it emerged once PET scanning of the brain was developed. According to Hobson and McCarley's original theory, a barrage of random stimulation coming up periodically from the brainstem was synthesised by the prefrontal cortex into dreams. But scans of the brain in the REM state showed that the cortex was very selectively activated. The emotional brain (the limbic system) and the visual brain were highly activated but the prefrontal cortex was excluded from this stimulation (the very part supposed to be doing the synthesising).[6] Indeed, Hobson himself, over the last few years, has been so drastically redrafting the theory that it is just a pale shadow of its original presentation.[7] Even he now agrees with the evidence that, instead of global forebrain activation being responsible for dream synthesis, it is the emotional brain that is responsible for dream plot formation.[6]

This evidence on its own disproves the theory. However, there is more. Research accumulated over the last 40 years, and universally accepted by dream researchers, shows that dreams are coherent and that they relate to previous waking experiences. There also tends to be continuity in the type of dream content over time and this could not be so if there were a random stimulus.

Hobson and McCarley also theorised that REM sleep serves to 'rest' the cells in the brainstem which produce serotonin and noradrenalin, because in REM sleep these particular neurotransmitters are not used by the brain. Their idea was that these neuronal pathways were being rested so that we would wake up the next day, refreshed by REM sleep. Consequently, then, the more REM sleep people had, the more refreshed they should be. But researchers looking at the sleep patterns of depressed patients found that they had massive amounts of REM sleep in proportion to slow-wave sleep and yet, far from waking up refreshed, they were waking up exhausted![8] How did Hobson account for this? He just said, "It is a paradox."

Yet another problem with this theory, which Hobson admits in his latest book, is that it can't explain why certain dreams have positive emotions and some have negative emotions.[9] But the final nail in the activation synthesis theory's coffin is the finding that deep brainstem lesions do not generally stop dreaming, whereas certain lesions in the cortex do, despite the existence of brainstem-initiated REM sleep.[10]

Who wants nightmares?

I should now like to move on to Freud's theory. There has recently been strong evidence to show that REM involves the expectation dopamine pathway. Professor Mark Solms, who holds the chair in neuropsychology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, has been pre-eminent in synthesising this research, showing that when people go into the REM state, the motivation circuit in the brain — the expectation pathway — is activated.[10] As Freud talked about motivation and emotion, and, as Hobson was clearly wrong, perhaps, says Solms, Freud was right after all. And, in a very broad sense, this activation is support for Freud. But what it leaves out of the picture is that, when you activate the expectation pathway, you are activating consciousness. You are not activating some subconscious conflict. So there is no real evidence there in support of Freud.

Secondly, Freud's theory has real difficulties explaining why people so often have anxiety dreams.[11] Dreams also involve being angry a lot of the time. Freud said dreams were for fulfilling wishes. But who would want nightmares? Who would want to get beaten up or sexually assaulted in their dreams? So Freud's theory just didn't explain in any coherent fashion the fact that dreams involve far more than wishes and that only a minority of them can be characterised as wishes. And his claim that all dreams are sexually motivated is no longer given any credence.

Freud claimed that we dream to protect sleep, to prevent us being awakened by threatening, sub-conscious wishes.[11] However, the REM state, in which most dreams occur, is a regularly occurring biological programme in humans and other mammals, and not something which arises to protect sleep.[3]

To recap, expectation pathways activate conscious, not subconscious, experience. There is no evidence at all that dreams are sexually motivated and Freud can't plausibly explain why we would wish for anxiety dreams. The REM state occurs in all mammals, so it is not just a human activity, protecting sleep, as Freud suggested. A cat is unlikely to be dreaming about its Oedipus complex. So the attempt to revive Freud's theory seems to be based more on wishful thinking than on realistic considerations of its defects.

Strange parasitical connections

Francis Crick and Graeme Mitchison's theory suggested that we dream to forget.[12],[13] Their idea came from studying work done on computer
programs that simulated neural intelligence. An overload of incoming information could trigger "parasitical connections" between unrelated bits of information that interfered with memory, and an unlearning system had to be developed to knock these out of the computer systems. Crick and Mitchison postulated that a complex associational network, such as the cortex, might become overloaded in the same way, and that the PGO spikes were an unlearning mechanism, in the form of random 'bangs' coming up from the brainstem every so often, to knock out these fairly weak parasitical neural links. As, at that time, most dreams were thought to be bizarre in content, this was taken as evidence for the existence of these parasitical connections. Crick and Mitchison theorised that, if we didn't have dreaming, we would go on making more and more bizarre connections, which would imply that, if we

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References

© Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell 2006

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Issue 38 of the Human Givens journal

This article first appeared in Volume 12, No, 1 (2005) of the Human Givens journal.

JOE GRIFFIN is a psychologist and psychotherapist. he is
co-founder with Ivan Tyrrell of
the human givens approach.

 

 

 

 

> More information, including all references, can be found in the following book, by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell

Why we dream: the definitive answer

Why we dream: the definitive answer

 

 

> You can find out more about the importance of dreaming in this related article:

Sleep and dreaming

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return to top

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

> More information, including all references, can be found in the following book, by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell

Why we dream: the definitive answer

Why we dream: the definitive answer

 

 

> You can find out more about the importance of dreaming in this related article:

Sleep and dreaming

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return to top