Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Don't dream anymore? Yes you do!

You often hear someone say "Oh, I never dream" but as we shall see, it's simply not possible that you don't! If you don't think you dream, it's really only that you don't remember, because we evolved to forget our dreams.

Why we don't remember dreams

We can all remember significant and memorable dreams we've had in the past but sometimes, it feels like you haven't had a dream for weeks. The simple reason for this is that we have evolved to forget our dreams.

Brains originally evolved to help animals make more accurate predictions about what behaviours would help them survive. But the type of expectations we have as humans, or that other animals have, for that matter, are infinitely more complex than those of a bee. When mammals evolved, they developed warm-bloodedness, which meant that they were no longer dependent on the sun's heat for mobility. But maintaining a constant warm body temperature required a greatly increased energy intake (estimated at up to a 500 per cent increase in calories needed). So, to meet this need, mammals had to become much better at locating food supplies while also avoiding becoming food themselves for other warm-blooded predatory mammals — all of which required a much more sophisticated prediction system, to reduce the risks.

The cortex provided the answer. The evolution of the cortex, with its much increased processing capacity, enabled mammals not just to act purely on instinct — see a food source and go for it — but to weigh up the risks and benefits of an action — do I have time to make the kill and hide it or will I get eaten by another animal while I'm doing it? In more technical terms, it enabled the ancient dopamine prediction circuits of the limbic system to be subjected to a higher-order risk analysis, based on the additional computing power provided by the cortex.

 However, that left another problem to be solved. The limbic system communicates with the cortex via behavioural impulses (emotions). If these are not acted upon (for instance, because the strategy is deemed too risky or because the cortex has set other priorities — such as deciding, in certain circumstances, that it is more important to protect young than to chase a possible food source) they don't go away. In the case of humans, this state of unfulfilled expectation can also occur when we think about something in the future or the past that causes emotional arousal in the present but which can't, by its very nature, be acted upon. These uncompleted emotional impulses — expectations — stay switched on, taking up processing capacity in the expectation system.


How to deal with these uncompleted emotional impulses floating around?

So far, two strategies have evolved for dealing with this. The first, in the spiny anteater, is the development of a much bigger cortex to store all these expectations whilst retaining sufficient spare computing power for making new, ongoing risk assessments. This may also be the strategy evolved by dolphins, which have an exceptionally large cortex. The muscle paralysis that accompanies REM sleep places dolphins at risk of drowning, so they can have hardly any REM sleep.

The second and much more efficient method is dreaming. In dreaming, we act out the unrealised expectations from waking by pattern matching them to analogous sensory patterns — images and events stored in memory — as it is through pattern matching that the REM system works. I am often asked why the pattern match has to be analogical or metaphorical. Apart from the evidence I have published explaining this point, there is a sound physiological reason for why it must be so. An expectation is an imagined scenario, using images from memory.

In dreaming, we are asking memory to provide a scenario that matches a scenario that is already a part of memory — the event that aroused the expectation. So the matching scenario has to be the best fit that memory can provide. Think of it this way — if I hold up my left hand and ask my brain for a best-fit pattern match, it can't use my left hand because that is the one I want a match for — so it must use my right hand, as the best-fit pattern match for my left. (This does not happen in waking because we pattern match our expectations to whatever stimulates them in the environment, not to a memory. If we want an ice cream, the expectation is fulfilled when we are actually eating it.)

The dream, then, by fulfilling the expectation, completes the circuit and switches off the arousal. But that is not the end of the matter, for we have now converted an unrealised expectation into a factual memory of completing it. Ordinarily, the hippocampus, the conscious memory store, holds our memories of recent events and quickly deconstructs those memories and sends them to various parts of the cortex — the parts concerned with vision, hearing, touch, etc — for storage. It does that to facilitate efficient pattern matching. But, if the dream is allowed to be stored as a real memory, it will corrupt the memory store and greatly diminish our ability reliably to predict the outcome of similar experiences in the future. This is avoided by preventing the hippocampus from sending the dream information to the cortex for long-term storage. As explained earlier, PET scans and other types of research have shown that, in dreaming, the prefrontal cortex is closed down.

So it is no accident that the prefrontal cortex is switched off during dreaming. It is no accident that the hippocampus doesn't de-construct information and send it all around the brain because what the hippocampus is doing in dreaming is getting rid of expectations that didn't pan out while we were awake. It is getting them out of the way, making them inaccessible, in effect, so as to allow us to build up a proper, intelligence prediction and expectation system, an accurate storage of knowledge. (This also explains the evidence for memory consolidation — if you take away all the false expectations, the memories that are consolidated are more accurate.)

The expectation fulfilment theory can therefore explain why dreams are about emotionally arousing events, particularly about emotionally arousing expectations. It explains why dreams are consistent over time. It explains the developmental aspects of dreaming. It can explain the other tests put down by Domhoff (see 'We need a new theory' at the end of this page). But, more than that, it explains the cutting-edge evidence that the brain is ever malleable, by explaining how it can be so malleable.

The purpose of the brain is to predict, so that we can get our needs met. We need to have a system that can continually adapt itself, and the expectation fulfilment theory shows how the brain does that by cancelling out the expectations that didn't work. It enables us to have a bang-up-to-date register of what really does get needs met in our lives, so that we can more accurately predict what we need to do in the future. (But we can only work with the experiences we have had. If, as a child, a young woman experienced both abuse and love from her father, she may continually seek a relationship with abusive men, until eventually she can learn that love exists separately from abuse.)

But what about remembered dreams? 

You might then wonder if recalling our dreams, as sometimes happens, is undoing the dreamwork. The answer is no, because the arousal is switched off once the expectation is acted out. When we are awake, the cortex is switched on, enabling us to compare dream content to what is really happening around us and, thus, to distinguish between dream and reality. Occasionally the cortex is alerted by some incongruity in the dream experience, such as flying, and we become aware that we are dreaming. (this is known as lucid dreaming) But this risks undoing the dream work of deactivating the experiences — because we now know we are experiencing a fantasy. (In more primitive mammals, if an altering of the cortex were to happen, it is less likely their brains could make the distinction between dream and reality; the fantasy would be treated as real and would therefore corrupt the memory stores.)

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This article was adapted from part of the article Dreaming to forget: the real reason by Joe Griffin (Human Givens Journal 2005).

For more information and references please read the original article.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

A 'woo-free' guide to interpreting your dreams

The strangeness of dreaming, despite it being a regular biological function, encourages myths and fantastic explanation. Our bizarre night-time visitations seem so intensely real and full of meaning when we are having them but remain mostly unfathomable to our conscious mind and are usually quickly forgotten.

Through all historical periods humanity has puzzled over the meaning of remembered dreams and dream interpretation industries have flourished with promises that they can satisfy our natural longing to understand the mysterious 'messages' that dreams seem to carry. The 21st century is no exception, bookshop shelves groan under the weight of dream ‘dictionaries’ and dream interpretation material. And type ‘dream interpretation’ into Google and more than two million results come up.

Much of the fanciful dream interpretation industry, including the ever-popular content of dream dictionaries, is harmless fun, not unlike astrology, but not always. The influence of the idiosyncratic confabulations and fantasies of Freud and Jung for example permeate our culture and have, in some cases produced virulent results, as when therapists interpret dreams as revealing repressed memories of abuse, without any corroborating evidence, and highly suggestible patients, misguided by ignorant ‘therapists’, begin to think that perhaps they were abused. This is called false memory syndrome.

A real guide to interpreting your own dreams 

The ultimate test of the expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming is if you are able to use it in your life and, like any truly curious person, we would expect you to test the theory for themselves. What follows are a few pointers as to how to do this.

The first requirement of course is to remember a dream. Dreaming is predominantly a right-brain, metaphorical activity and so the first step is to give voice to it straight away. Write it down, record it on tape or tell somebody about it quickly. By doing this you activate the parts of your brain that create narrative and memories, predominantly this is a left-brain activity. Otherwise the dream will quickly fade away.

Let’s assume you have remembered a dream. It is rare that a dreamer can see immediately what the dream was about and often, if you tell it to someone who knows you and who is aware of what was going on the previous day, that person will see the metaphorical connection quicker than you will.

There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, on awaking one is still close to our metaphorical mind and that cannot easily ‘read’ itself. Secondly, the arousal in you that produced the dream imagery is now dearoused so it is harder for you to remember what you were worked up about the day before. And, thirdly, we evolved to forget our dreams because we need to be able to distinguish between the metaphorical world of the REM dream state and the ordered reality we see when we are awake. So nature is working to draw a veil over them. (If we didn’t do this we would all suffer from permanent psychosis.)

Once you have the story of a dream secure you can begin to self-reflect in order to grasp its meaning. To create the dream your brain is able to draw on memories and information from any part of your life: childhood events, people you’ve interacted with, or imagined interacting with, characters from books, films and TV programmes, news stories etc. The dream might include puns and wordplay.

The key to identifying what the dream was about is its emotion. The emotion in the dream story is always connected to what you felt but did not act upon the previous day. So you have to make a self-reflective journey back over the story of what happened to you the previous day to discover that connection. Not everyone finds this easy, particularly left-brained people, but those who succeed are able to internalise the truth of this theory and gain a precious element towards self-understanding. Once you discover the connection to the aroused expectations all the characters and elements of the dream will reveal themselves.

Recurring dreams 

If you find yourself having a recurring dream it is because you keep finding yourself in a similar situation, perhaps being bullied or tested in some way, and the brain is using the same or similar metaphor to dearouse you. Nature is very economical like that and wouldn't keep inventing new metaphors to dearouse the same pattern of behaviour.


Here is a video of Human Givens College tutor Joe Griffin explaining more about the expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming and how it supersedes other dream theories.

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This post was taken from Why-we-dream.com - a website dedicated to explaining the expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming.

If you liked this you might like these posts:

Dreaming to forget: The real reason why

Great Expectations: Joe Griffin goes back to basics for powerful insights into human nature

Why do I wake up tired?

Saturday, 9 November 2013

3 ways to relax immediately

Do you feel overwhelmed with life? Like you are paddling hard just to stay afloat?

Stress is a big part of every day life, and with almost half of Briton's considering themselves 'stressed' it's never been more important to build relaxation into your daily life.

To reduce your anxiety levels practice one of the following relaxation methods for 10 minutes at least twice a day:

1) 7/11 breathing - this incredibly simple (and incredibly effective) breathing technique that relaxes your body and mind is explained here.

2) The clenched fist method - this simple technique is derived from yoga and can be done anywhere:
  • Settle yourself comfortably and make your hands into the tightest fists possible.
  • Look at your fists carefully as you scrunch them harder and harder, being aware of the whiteness of the knuckles, the feeling of your nails against your palms, the pressure of your thumbs against your forefingers and the rigidity of your wrists. Notice too, the tension moving up your arms to the elbows and shoulders.
  • Close your eyes and keep squeezing your fists, concentrating on the tight physical sensation. 
  • Then with your attention focused on how the tension feels, allow your fingers to slowly unwind, and concentrate instead on the spreading sensation of growing relaxation.
  • Now feel the enjoyable sensation of relaxation spreading naturally through your fingers and up your arms as the tension drains away, concentrating on what form it takes, maybe a tingling feeling or a sensation of warmth.
  • Whatever form it takes, let the relaxation spread through your body, relaxing your brow, cheek muscles, your jaw, your shoulders, chest and so on, down to your toes.
  • Keep your focus on the stress falling away and the calming differences you feel in your body.
  • Repeat for as long as you like and enjoying the calming changes that occur throughout your body. As your body relaxes, so does your mind.
3) The whole body method
  • Work gradually through the main muscles of your body, tensing each in turn for a count of 10 and then relaxing them. As in the precious technique, this works on the simple mechanical principle that, if you tense muscles and then relax them, your muscles are always more relaxed afterwards than before you tensed them.
  • Try starting with your feet, move up to your calf muscles, then your knees, your thighs, your stomach muscles and so on..

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Try this helpful relaxation CD for more on the benefits of relaxation, as well as a guided relaxation session that makes it even easier for you to relax quickly whenever you feel stressed.

More self help tips:

How does deep breathing make you feel relaxed? 
Think differently in 4 steps
How to beat emotional stress
How to stop worrying

How to beat emotional stress

With the news that 44% of people in the UK describe themselves as 'stressed' with 27% of those admitting they are regularly 'close to breaking point', it has become even more crucial to spread effective information about how to manage stress.

1) Do an emotional needs audit

We have a number of innate emotional needs (or 'human givens') that, when they are not met, lead to stress. We also have the innate resources needed to meet these needs in our environment.

If you are not aware of these needs and resources then it's important to find out about them. Once you can see which needs are not being met and are causing you stress, it's easier to devise a plan of action to meet them. A good therapist will help you do this.

If you fancy doing an emotional needs audit of your life, use our online tool to help.


2) Learn to stop worrying


3) Challenge the negative thoughts that lead from stress to anxiety and depression


4) Look after yourself physically

Stress raises your cortisol levels which have a big impact on your physical wellbeing as well as your emotional state. It's important to remember to look after yourself in all the usual ways, getting enough sleep, eating well and taking regular exercise.

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Find out more - the more you know about how to create and maintain good mental health the better chance you have to dealing with stressful situations we all come across in life:

How does deep breathing make you feel relaxed?
Think differently in 4 steps
How to stop worrying
Why do I wake up tired?

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Buy a self help book
Attend a training course to find out more


Thursday, 7 November 2013

Human Givens and PTSD Resolution on BBC News

Towards the end of October, the charity PTSD Resolution that uses Human Givens therapy to treat traumatised military veterans and currently has an incredible 8 out of 10 success rate, was featured on BBC News: