Sense of Meaning in Dreams: NOT too Hard for Science

What questions seem implausible for scientists to answer? Are they really out of reach? In an intriguing new feature at Scientific American, Charles Q. Choi solicited questions that science would have trouble investigating. It’s called ‘Too Hard for Science?‘ It’s a great concept:

The idea here is to interview scientists about pet ideas they would love to explore that seem impossible to investigate in real life. Perhaps they involve machines beyond the realm of possibility, such as particle accelerators as big as the sun; perhaps they would be completely unethical, such as lethal experiments involving people; perhaps they would be too expensive, or require centuries to run, or could never find volunteers to participate, or are in some way unprovable.

This feature aims to look at the seemingly impossible dreams, the most intractable problems in science. However, the question mark at the end of “Too Hard For Science?” suggests that nothing might be impossible. Perhaps these very interviews could spur brainstorms that actually make these ideas a reality.

I’m looking forward to reading these. Foucault’s Pendulum would have been a good one back in the day, but the 1850’s came and went. What other challenges can we overcome with a new perspective?

One example is “In dreams, could we discover where the mysterious feeling of revelation comes from?” That’s the question which led Choi to start the feature in the first place.

At first blush, it might seem outside the realm of science to ask what gives us meaning. But that’s not the question. We’re asking what gives the feeling of meaning while we dream. What if we’re not reacting to a metaphysical “meaningful” property but can find a physical cause for the sensation? Can it be plausibly tested?

That’s what Robert Stickgold, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Harvard Medical School brainstormed about. He notes that during REM sleep the brain shuts down the release of serotonin – something that only happens during sleep and while using LSD, “when people seem to have these totally uninteresting experiences they describe as profoundly meaningful called ‘acid insights.'”

This sense of meaning may be a physical phenomenon “just like hunger or thirst, save that it’s the excitement we feel upon a great insight, that ‘Aha!’ feeling,” Stickgold says. “Who knows why, for instance, fireworks often seem to trigger it — maybe there’s something about the geometric patterns that evokes this sense of awesomeness, the feeling that we can almost understand something amazing but not quite that drives us to seek a better understanding of things. It’s like what you feel during a religious experience — you sense the oneness of mankind.”

During dreams, the brain might be associating disjointed experiences together to create potentially valuable combinations of thoughts. “It could be the brain is making you focus your attention on material that was only weakly associated before and investing this association with this feeling of profundity to help it mine these connections for something not immediately obvious but potentially important,” Stickgold says. “It makes sense that the sensation would be a positive and reinforcing one.”

Sure there are some obstacles, but now there’s something we can test! Let’s separate people into three groups: one that gets serotonin-boosting drugs, one that gets serotonin-blocking drugs, and a third that gets placebos. Show them each the same poem, piece of music, painting or somesuch and see how ‘meaningful’ they rate it.

It’s important distinguish between what scientists can do and what science can do. Science is the most powerful tool we have to learn about the world, but sometimes we mere mortals have limitations. The more ways we figure out to use science while accommodating those limitations, the more we can learn.

3 Responses to Sense of Meaning in Dreams: NOT too Hard for Science

  1. Julia Galef says:

    Jesse, excellent points about (1) distinguishing what science can do from what (currently existing) scientists can do; and (2) the possibility that our sense of meaning might be separable from its referent (i.e., the thing we think is meaningful).

    Regarding (2), it reminds me of the revelation that our sense of certainty is also separable from its referent — in other words, that our sense of certainty about X can be triggered by things that are unrelated to the evidence for X. (I think you might’ve been the one who recommended this book to me, but if not, check out On Being Certain.)

  2. Jesse Galef says:

    I think I did recommend that – and tried working it into the post a couple ways before leaving it for later. Once again, we’re on the same page. (more when I’m not on my phone on the road)

  3. Regarding questions that are too hard (or in this case, unethical) for science, I’ve always sort of thought more direct human experimentation could propel advances in medicine faster than any other advancement. I’ve heard this was the case with Nazi doctors in concentration camps, but I don’t know of any specific examples that resulted, though. I guess we’ll just have to wait until we can model the human body down to the molecular level.

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