A Million Things To Ask A Neuroscientist
by Michael Tranter PhD
A Million Things To Ask A Neuroscientist answers some of the most asked questions about the brain, making the science fun and accessible to everyone. Inside, you will journey through some of the most interesting and strange things that our brain does every single day.
Have you always wanted to know just what a memory
actually is, or why we dream? What is our consciousness? Why do some people
seem to ‘click’ with others? And can our brain really multi-task?
There is no such thing as a perfect memory, but as far as neuroscience teaches us, we never forget anything. Although in reality, most memories cannot be retrieved by us at a conscious level, and so you may think that they are lost forever. However, this forgetfulness is simply a mechanism that our brain does so that we can easily remember the important things and not get distracted by the countless other memories we store. Some people do not appear to have that ability and instead live with a nearly perfect memory recall of their entire lives.
This is called hyperthymesia, and it gives people the ability to have a near-perfect autobiographical memory about their lives. To accurately recall every major news event, day by day, from previous years, or recall what day of the week it was on a random date from the past, even describing the menu from a restaurant they visited on that date
Taking a closer look, brain scans have shown differences in the brain of people with hyperthymesia compared to those with standard memory, and it revealed the unexpected.
What are dreams and why do we have them? A neuroscientist explains!
In writing this blog post, I wanted to talk about a chapter in my new book. When writing the book, I was asked about dreams. What they are and why we have them, and I thought it was interesting to write about, so hopefully it is interesting to read about too.
Dreams are where we play out an imaginary life where we can fly and visit strange places, or sometimes, encounter creepy Victorian little girls who sing nursery rhymes and giggle in doorways for apparently no reason – our nightmares!
We have all experienced dreams – thoughts and sensations that occur while we sleep – but why we dream has never been fully answered. Throughout the years, there have been many suggestions as to why we dream.
The clearest idea is that the brain needs time to process the memories and emotions that we experienced during the day and place them into long-term storage. This makes a lot more sense when we look at the brains of people who are sleeping and see that the hippocampus, the part for memories, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in assigning emotional context, are particularly active. In fact, on days where we have lots of new experiences, the brain can still be processing this information up to seven nights later. This also partly explains why stressful and emotional events in our lives can significantly affect the quality of our sleep.
Furthermore, the dream’s events are believed to be a combination of the short-term memories we recently experienced and the long-term memories that our brain thinks are relevant and need to be connected with each other. Meaning that, broadly speaking, dreaming helps to transition our memories from being in short-term storage in the hippocampus to long-term storage all over the brain. This process happens mostly in NREM sleep, and the application of emotional context – how we feel about them – occurs in REM sleep, our deep sleep. Because some areas of the brain are sleeping, while others are not, we experience this as a strange reality and call it a dream. But are they really that simple?
Try thinking about dreams as if the brain is analysing our daily experiences without much logic. While you sleep, the visual cortex is very much awake. This part of our brain is busy processing the images from the day. Unrestrained, however, and the brain can now think more abstractly and creatively, using imagery and metaphors to express ideas. This is perhaps why scenes and events are often exaggerated during our dreams, yet we don’t notice the dream’s strangeness (as the prefrontal cortex is sleeping). It is at the point of waking when we recognise how unusual things actually were.
Want to hear something mind-blowing? There may be potential to harness dreams for our benefit. Lucid dreaming is a fascinating phenomenon, where you are aware of being inside a dream as you are actually dreaming.
Think of it a little like the movie Inception, with Leonardo DiCaprio, whereby if you know you are dreaming, you have the potential to make the dream as you want it to be. Estimates suggest that approximately 50% of people will experience lucid dreams at some point in their lives, 20% of us have them monthly and a small number of people experience them almost every night.
Training a group of people to experience lucid dreaming in their sleep labs, a research team in the US were able to have two-way communication with the dreamers. They asked the dreamers to answer simple arithmetic, such as 8 − 6, and the dreamer was able to respond back with eye movements (each movement represented a number). They remained dreaming but were able to hear the question as part of their dream. Some heard it as a voice‐over, others through their dream-like radio playing in the background.
Although it was difficult for the team to get reproducible results, some were able to recall the question upon waking. This study gives more credit to the idea that we could someday interact with our subconscious dreaming mind gain an insight from our dreams.
I hope so!
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
Dr Mike Tranter is from the North of England and studied how drugs work in our body, but it wasn't long before he found his true calling as a neuroscientist. After a PhD in neuroscience, he spent years in research labs all over the world, studying how the brain works. Although, it is his prominent rise as a science communicator, opening up the world of neuroscience to everybody, that he enjoys the most.
Buy Link: www.aNeuroRevolution.com
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