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Quest to understand dreams

Antti Revonsuo, a Finnish psychologist, explains his obsession for studying dreams which he describes as biologically programmed virtual reality

“I woke up in my own bed and went to the kitchen like any normal morning. My parents were there. They were having their morning tea and reading the papers. They were reading some news and then some of it did not make sense…I commented on that and my parents looked at each other and said, “He has gone really crazy.”…and then I woke up in my bed… and since then I have been pondering on what was that place I was in…a dream or was that reality?" asks Antti Revonsuo, a Finnish psychologist. The above mentioned dream made him take up the study of dreams. And that is why he studied psychology but soon found dreams did not form a major part of his formal education. He then started pursuing the quest to understand dreams, almost independently.

Revonsuo says, "…I was trying to define what dreaming is and I ended up with the idea that dreaming simulates the world. It is like a virtual reality going on in the head. It is a biologically programmed virtual reality that gets activated in the head every night for us. I tried to find some universal themes for dreams and found dangers from nature as a dominant theme...the theme of being attacked, chased, by wild animals, by unknown bad guys…this I am inclined to believe has come down from our evolutionary history because it is not commonly encountered in our day to day life, definitely not wild animals." Revonsuo admits that as we grow up we replace the wild animal in our dreams with a picture of a wild boss.

Dreaming in earlier days

He says, “Some assumptions that form the backbone of the threat simulation theory are that firstly, the idea that we can define dreaming as an organised simulation. Dreams are far too well organised to be part of a random chaotic process. Secondly, dreams are specialised in simulating threatening events. Threat simulation is activated by encountering real life threats. Repetition of this dream goes on and on with a relevant trigger. The theory assumes that going through these kinds of threatening events in dreams prepare you better for response in real life. This is pretty difficult to test."

And Revonsuo gives an example, “Simulation is used to teach pilots to get through situations that happen very infrequently and so build a pattern of responses to risks when they have to face it in some eventuality. If dreaming is also a simulation maybe the brain is also using the same reasons… unlike the pilots in a flight simulator, when we dream we have no idea that it is a dream…we take everything very seriously. We never forget our identity.

Thirdly, during most of human evolutionary history we lived as hunter gatherers which was pretty full of dangers from nature and originally dreaming evolved to handle those type of threats. At least in that environment dreaming would have been useful and would have in the biological sense made you a better survivor in your living life."

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 6:30:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/quest-to-understand-dreams/article25789108.ece

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