Check out the English translation of this mainstream piece on sleep and dream research just out of Korea. This article about the benefits of sleep is more holistic than the usual reductionist perspective that comes out of New York. Which is to say, the Korean piece succeeded in mentioning dreaming at all. I bring this up to highlight the gulf between dream studies and sleep research. Due to the fracturing of our Western knowledge bases, dreams and sleep scientists never meet in the night.
I always enjoy reading science journalism because it can be so revealing about cultural assumptions and biases. After discussing how tortured mice make a good case for a good night’s rest (Allan Rechtschaffen’s sleep deprivation study), the Korean writer naturally began reviewing the history of dream interpretation in the Western scientific sphere. The discussion slipped from sleep to dream seamlessly and I temporarily forgot my cultural zietgiest that dreams would, of course, be of no importance to a discussion on the benefits of sleep.
In particular, I am constantly surprised that sleep scientists are interested in the physical benefits of REM sleep – memory consolidation, enhanced learning, brain development in newborns – but unwilling to discuss the interiority of this brain state except to suggest it is – as Kelly Bulkeley likes to say – “random neural nonsense.” That is the fracture, and it’s not the scientists fault. After all, scientific materialism is just an unfortunate epiphenomena of Descartes” calculation to not meddle in religious matters. He kept his experiences with lucid dreaming secreted away in his personal dream journal, far from the Church’s raised eyebrows. (Bulkeley rightfully calls Rene “the shaman of rationalism”).
There are some exceptions in the contemporary sleep/dreams divide – Mark Solms and Bill Domhoff for example – but more often than not dreams and sleep run in separate scientific circles. And American science journalists, trafficking deeply in a very American blend of scientific puritanism, are generally fine with dreams keeping their naughty bits out of the path of progress.
Recommended reading about Descartes” dreams: The Wondering Brain: Thinking about Religion With and Beyond Cognitive Neuroscience, Bulkeley, 2005, Routledge.