The Guardian reviews Brazilian neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro’s new book, The Oracle of Night, which looks at the history of dream research.
Ribeiro looks to bridge the gap between neuroscience and psychoanalysis by drawing attention to various studies that suggest a scientific basis for psychoanalytic dream theories. Electrophysiological experiments carried out on rats in 1989, for example, showed that neurons activated while awake were specifically reactivated during subsequent sleep, which supports the idea, advanced by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), that dreams constitute a “day residue” – a revisiting of memories and emotions experienced during waking life. Research by the South African neuropsychologist Mark Solms has demonstrated that the brain’s dopaminergic reward system is activated during REM sleep, leading Ribeiro to deduce that “the Freudian proposition that desire is the motor of dreams is much more factual than its critics would acknowledge … Dreaming ‘is’ desire because both ‘are’ dopamine.”
Ribeiro precedes his scientific disquisition with a lengthy survey of notable dreams in politics and culture from antiquity to the modern day. Many of these are premonitory, prophetic or revelatory in nature. We learn that both Xerxes and Alexander the Great were inspired in their expansionist adventures by megalomanic dreams; Julius Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, foresaw her husband’s demise in a nightmare on the eve of his assassination; when Prince Frederick III of Saxony was asked to extradite Martin Luther to the Holy Roman Emperor after he had torched a papal bull, he declined to do so after having a revelation in a dream, and thereby altered the course of European history. Artists and musicians as varied as Albrecht Dürer, Marc Chagall and Paul McCartney have produced major works inspired by dreams; Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem Kubla Khan was largely composed during a deep sleep following an opium binge; the chemist August Kekule discovered the hexagonal structure of benzene after dreaming about a snake eating its own tail.
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