Exploring the science and mystery of dreams

While there is a vigorous debate over whether the actual conscious experiencing of dreams while they occur serves a function, we believe that it does, and that it is similar to that proposed for waking consciousness. Antonio Damasio, in this 2000 book The Feeling of What Happens, argues that consciousness provides two critical functions to the human brain: to construct narratives and to feel one’s emotional response to them. Together, they give humans (and presumably other conscious animals) the ability to imagine possibilities, evaluate them, and thereby plan future actions. Our NEXTUP model of dreaming (Network Exploration to Understand Possibilities) proposes that dreaming serves a similar function.

Specifically, we argue that dreaming allows the sleeping brain to enter an altered state of consciousness in which it can construct imagined narratives and respond emotionally to them.

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[U]nlike problem solving during wakefulness that relies on imagining and planning, dreaming stops short of offering definitive solutions to our current concerns. Instead, our dreams serve to explore the solution space, helping us to discover new possibilities. It is up to other processes, both in wakefulness and sleep, to draw conclusions and delineate our plans. Dreaming takes what has been and shows us what might be.

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