Dreams and the future

Pubblished by Patrick McNamara on Dream Research Dreamboard Inc. Dreams
November 8, 2013

Hi Dreamboarders,

Here’s some very interesting news from our scientific team. Give it a close read and we think you’ll discover some incredible scientific facts about dreams.

Thousands of papers and books have been written about the role of sleep and dreams in processing of memories about the past but there have been few if any publications about the role of sleep and dreams in processing ideas or thoughts about the future. There have been, to be sure, sporadic publications about putative links between ‘precognition’ and dreams but these links are difficult to study and hard to substantiate scientifically.
We here at Dreamboard believe that dreams play a fundamental role in shaping personal visions for the future and that is one reason why they are important sources for wholeness and well-being. Dreams very likely play a leading role in what scientists have begun to term “episodic prospection” or “episodic future thought” *. “Episodic” is a technical term that refers to information processed by the brain in chunks or temporally-defined /delimited episodes. Examples of episodic future thought include key processes involved in planning, development of goals, generation of desires, mental simulations of possible worlds, conjectures, hypothesis generation, imagination of future scenarios and contingencies, delayed discounting of future rewards relative to present rewards, prospective memory or remembering to do x at time t, devising implementation intentions, and daydreaming to name a few.

What is the evidence that dreams participate in these varied forms of episodic future thinking? At present there is no empirical evidence to speak to the matter but that is because scientists have not yet systematically investigated the idea. But on the face of it dreams have to be involved in episodic future thought. In dreams the dreamer is virtually always desiring, planning, imaging, plotting, striving, simulating possible worlds, and in general aiming at some future outcome. Anyone who has content analyzed even a handful of dreams, (never mind the thousands that I have) soon realizes that most dreams contain the words “I was trying to do x when y prevented me or z interrupted me and the dream suddenly changed to p”. Dreams are goal driven and that is why they are sometimes spoken of as narratives, stories or episodes.

And here is a very interesting crucial fact: When brain correlates of episodic future thought processes are compared with episodic memory processes one difference stands out. In episodic future thought the anterior hippocampus is activated. During the night REM alternates with NREM forms of sleep and this alternation is known to subserve memory consolidation processes. In REM the primary output field of the hippocampus, the CA1 region, is disrupted (perhaps by rising cortisol level during REM) so information transmission from the hippocampus to the neocortex is halted or reduced during REM. But information processing in the anterior portion of the hippocampus is not halted. Indeed, it may be enhanced during REM sleep**  and this anatomical region, of course, is crucial for episodic future thought. It may be that the products of episodic future thought processes that take place during REM are transmitted to cortical regions during NREM and waking but their generation depends in part on REM activation of the anterior hippocampus.

In summary, dreams very likely play a far more substantial role in shaping our thoughts, goals and aspirations about the future than previously suspected. Dreams operate much more powerfully to shape future oriented strivings than they do past memories. It may not be unreasonable to suppose that sleep and dreams process information about the past (i.e. memories) only in so far as that information is used to simulate possible future states of affairs for the dreamer. This contention underlines the importance of working with dream images if one wishes to cultivate a rich set of goals and ‘visions’ for the future.

* Szpunar, K. (2010). Episodic Future Thought: An Emerging Concept. Perspectives on Psychological Science 5: 142, DOI: 10.1177/1745691610362350

** Dang-Vu TT, Schabus M, Desseilles M, Sterpenich V, Bonjean M, Maquet P; Functional neuroimaging insights into the physiology of human sleep. Sleep. 2010 Dec;33(12):1589-603

Patrick McNamara, PhD
Chief Scientific Advisor, Dreamboard Inc.

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