April 25, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

To Sleep, To Dream: To Dream, Perchance, to Learn

When you have learned a complex task, take a nap and dream about it.  A new study shows that dreaming helps consolidate the memory in your mind and helps you perform the task better next time around.
    Science Daily reported on research by scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.  They tested 99 subjects by having them learn a 3D maze.  Some subjects reviewed the task while awake; others were given a 90 minute nap.  A few hours later, the subjects were retested on their ability to work the maze.  Only the subjects who napped and dreamed about the maze performed better – up to 10 times better.
    Dr. Robert Strickgold, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and senior author of the study, was surprised and excited about these results.  “What’s got us really excited, is that after nearly 100 years of debate about the function of dreams, this study tells us that dreams are the brain’s way of processing, integrating and really understanding new information,” he said.  “Dreams are a clear indication that the sleeping brain is working on memories at multiple levels, including ways that will directly improve performance.”
    Even though subjects reported diverse dreams about the maze, like being lost in a bat cave, or just hearing the background music from the maze, dreaming appeared to be associated with success in the second trial.  Just thinking about the maze while awake did not have the same beneficial effect.  One researcher thought “that the dreams were an outward reflection that the brain had been busy at work on this very task.”  In other words, the dreams don’t cause you to remember the task – they are just indications that the brain is at work consolidating and integrating the information for the next run.  The hippocampus may be solving the details of the maze, while the higher cortical areas may be thinking of how that task applies to other similar complex tasks.  Co-author Dr. Erin Wamsley offered this explanation:

Our [nonconscious] brain works on the things that it deems are most important,” adds Wamsley.  “Every day, we are gathering and encountering tremendous amounts of information and new experiences,”she adds.  “It would seem that our dreams are asking the question, ‘How do I use this information to inform my life?’”

Strickgold offered an evolutionary speculation for the apparent unique aspect of brain physiology that allows this integration and consolidation during sleep:

“In fact,” says Strickgold, “this may be one of the main goals that led to the evolution of sleep.  If you remain awake [following the test] you perform worse on the subsequent task.  Your memory actually decays, no matter how much you might think about the maze.
    “We’re not saying that when you learn something it is dreaming that causes you to remember it,” he adds.  “Rather, it appears that when you have a new experience it sets in motion a series of parallel events that allow the brain to consolidate and process memories.

It appears that just like Phillip Benfey in the 04/23/2010 entry, Dr. Strickgold has just offered a requirement for evolution without a specification for how it could have been fulfilled.  He also begged the question why sleep would evolve as a solution.  In addition, in speaking of “the evolution of” any complex phenomenon, any mention of “one of the main goals” is grounds for disqualification from Darwinism.

Sorry to have to keep excusing these Darwinist indiscretions; hope you can pardon the transgressor and move along to the soul of this story, if you will pardon the suggestive term.
    Notice Wamsley’s line, “Our [nonconscious] brain works on the things that it deems are most important.”  What is the subject of that sentence?  Is it a piece of meat?  Is it a person?  If it is a person, how can it be you, if you are asleep?  We don’t seem to have much control over our dreams.  Who is doing the deeming during the dreaming of what is most important?  Was Wamsley referring to some ghost in the machine that goes to work when you go to sleep?  These are intriguing questions we may not be equipped to answer.  Similar questions come begging from her line, “It would seem that our dreams are asking the question, ‘How do I use this information to inform my life?’”  Normally we think of sentient beings asking questions, not dreams.
    One explanation is to say the brain is like a sophisticated computer.  That way, the brain is not a person, but a physical object, a processing machine.  (How it got programmed, by a designer or by evolution, is another question.)  But that’s a misdirection pretending to be a solution.  Of the many fascinating essays in David Berlinski’s latest book, The Deniable Darwin (see Resource of the Week for 03/13/2010) is his 2004 essay, “On the Origins of the Mind” (pp. 421-441).  He doesn’t provide an answer – he claims all we know so far is “darkness, mystery and magic” about this fundamental question – but his essay is valuable for unmasking the pretensions of evolutionary psychology.
    Evolutionists commonly use three similes to naturalize the mind.  They say the brain is like a computer, or a like a secretory organ, or like any other product of natural selection.  Of the first, that the brain is like a computer, Berlinski argued that it suffers from a displacement problem.  “A machine is a material object, a thing, and as such, its capacity to do work is determined by the forces governing its behavior and by its initial conditions,” he said.  “Those initial conditions must themselves be explained, and in the nature of things they cannot be explained by the very device that they serve to explain.”  Trying to simplify the simile by replacing the computer with an abacus, he explained, would do nothing to eliminate the infinite regress.  One still have to explain the human hand, arm, and brain that manipulates the balls of the abacus down the wires with fine muscle control, purpose and intent.  “No chain of causes known to date accommodates the inconvenient fact that, by setting the initial conditions of a simple machine, a human agent brings about a novel, an unexpected, an entirely idiosyncratic distribution of matter.”  The causal chain simply gets pushed back, or displaced, to a point where it can be conveniently ignored.  That’s why the computer analogy is a distraction, not an explanation: “A simile that for its persuasiveness depends on the very process it is intended to explain,” Berlinski chuckled, “cannot be counted a great success.”  Ditto for the other two similes.*
    Which leads to the “ordinary, very rich, infinitely moving account of mental life that without hesitation we apply to ourselves.”  Modern secular science disallows mentalistic explanations, even though we use them and take them for granted in everyday “folk psychology” (attributing intentions, reasonings and emotions to one another by visual and auditory cues).  The language of action and intention sounds very soulish.  It is, indeed, the explanation that has endured for thousands of years.  It is intuitive, predictive, and coherent.  When the Darwinian naturalistic detour has remained at square one for 150 years, it seems non-naturalists are being overly magnanimous.  This is especially so when an appeal to an infinite regress is arguably a kind of appeal to supernaturalism.

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