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Why Do We Dream? Sleep, Memory, And The Science Of Dreaming

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All About Dreams

Dreams are an essential part of the human experience. They’re universal; as near as science can show (without literally reading people’s minds) every person dreams when they sleep.

So why do we dream?

It’s been a popular question for thousands of years—possibly since before the dawn of civilization. Some of our earliest recorded texts relate to the interpretation of dreams and visions; how what we see in our sleep might relate to the past, present, and what is yet to come.

Only recently, though, has scientific thought advanced to the point of in-depth analysis as to why we dream. It’s no easy question: evidence and answers come from a variety of disciplines across the sciences and humanities, including philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and biology. It’s become one of the most highly contested (and fascinating) debates in modern science.

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There are, broadly speaking, two major camps:

There are those who believe that dreaming is simply a side-effect of bodily processes unable to slow down. To proponents of this theory, dreams are a consequence of other, more essential nervous functions, which inadvertently lead to hallucinations when sleeping. This would mean that dreams have no deep meaning or purpose—just a consequence of our large and complex brains.

Others, however, propose that dreaming is itself an essential function. Researchers of this opinion tend to argue that dreams, as much as sleep itself, serve a role in maintaining our physical and mental health. These claimants believe that we could no more live without dreaming than we could live without food, water, or air.

It should be noted, as well, that the study of dreaming is undertaken differently depending on the discipline of those conducting the research. Neuroscientists, for example, seek to understand the underlying physical causes of dreaming, and how the experience of a dream might impact the brain and body of their subjects. Psychoanalysts, meanwhile, will usually concern themselves with the psychological importance of dreaming—how they reflect our conceptions of self, or how they help us to learn and adjust.

How Sleep Works

There are several different interpretations of the different phases of sleep. What is universally understood, however, is that sleep can be divided into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and Non-REM sleep. Chances are, REM is the one you’ve heard about. The REM cycles makes up about 25% of your night’s sleep—it usually occurs around 90 minutes after you first fall asleep, and occurs several more times throughout the night as you pass through other sleep stages.

What we know without a doubt is that the REM stage is when dreaming occurs. During REM, signals are sent by the body’s nervous system to your spine, causing a form of partial paralysis. Regions of the brain responsible for learning, emotion, and memory then experience a surge of activity. The exact process by which this causes us to experience vivid hallucinations while sleeping (which we call dreams) is still not known.

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Dreaming And Memory

While scientists have yet to identify the exact cause of our dreams, there is a growing consensus that the purpose our dreams serve has much to do with the way we process memories.

REM sleep (when dreaming occurs) triggers the parts of our brain responsible for learning and memory recall. Studies have repeatedly shown that those who go for a period of time without REM sleep struggle to accurately store new information in a way that allows for later recall.

As teams of investigators develop this theory, some have actually proposed that fragments of a person’s memories can be identified in the contents of a person’s dreams.

In this vein, Professor Sue Llewellyn at the University of Manchester in England has proposed that the act of dreaming serves as a type of memory boosting exercise. According to Llewellyn, dreams enhance memory recall through methods similar to those used by ancient peoples, before writing was commonplace.

The oral traditions of many ancient civilizations relied on a series of memorization techniques to pass down information between generations. These include visualization, narration, personal embodiment, and the making of strange associations between seemingly unrelated concepts. Professor Llewellyn proposes that these same techniques are used naturally during REM sleep to promote accurate information storage in the brain.

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Did Dreams Help Us Survive?

As it turns out, dreams might be a form of practice.

Fantastic scenarios that involve fighting, or being chased, are near-universal dream experiences. The explanation may lie in the amygdala—your brain’s emotional response command center. When a person enters REM sleep, their amygdala fires on all cylinders—as though the brain is responding to a serious threat. It is this hyperactivity in the amygdala which could hold the secret to our nightmares.

Now, that hyperactivity could simply be random. A quirk of human evolution, maybe. Like the appendix. But some experts speculate that dreams, specifically nightmares, serve a far more dramatic purpose.

In the early days of our evolution, threats to human life were far more abundant. Predators, specifically, posed a legitimate risk to most human populations. These were the days when a bear attack, or encounter with rival tribes, were common. The ability to process these risk was incredibly important. Responding to a threat with a cool, calm, collected head might be the difference between life-and-death.

Dreams (more specifically, nightmares) could serve for those situations. A person who dreamed more often, and more vividly, may be better equipped to deal with genuine terror. In this theory, nightmares serve the same person as a flight-simulator for a pilot. If a first-time pilot experiences a blown engine mid-flight, they might panic and lose control. Whereas a pilot who has trained thousands of times for that exact scenario, in the controlled environment of simulation, should react with a level-head.

The theory is unproven. For now, the implications remain fascinating.

Why do we Dream?

What Do Dreams Mean?

It could be the most asked question in human history: do my dreams mean something? If so, what?

How many hundreds of thousands have lain in bed, just recently asleep, and wondered? It’s an essential mystery of the human experience.

Today, the first name to come up when considering this question is Sigmund Freud. In his work, Freud argued that dreams are an essential channel into understanding one’s inner thoughts. When examining the emotional lives of his patients, Freud used dreams as a guide. To him, the symbols and themes of a person’s dreams reflected hidden thoughts and desires—hidden somewhere deep in the brain. As he said, “Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.”

This line of thought has since come to dominate the cultural interpretation of dreams (at least in the Western world). In one study conducted on college students in the United States, India, and South Korea, researchers found that almost no participants believed their dreams were merely random. Instead, many shared a Freudian-esque notion that what they experienced in dreams reflected their innermost thoughts and desires.

That doesn’t necessarily imply that a dream’s “meaning” is supernatural, or tied to something outside the bounds of human physiology. In the words of G. William Domhoff, Professor of Psychology at the University of California:

“’Meaning’ has to do with coherence and with systematic relations to other variables, and in that regard, dreams do have meaning. Furthermore, they are very ‘revealing’ of what is on our minds. We have shown that 75 to 100 dreams from a person give us a very good psychological portrait of that individual. Give us 1,000 dreams over a couple of decades and we can give you a profile of the person’s mind that is almost as individualized and accurate as her or his fingerprints.”

Why do we Dream?Wikimedia Commons
Sigmund Freud

What About Lucid Dreaming?

Chances are you’ve heard some pretty marvelous things about lucid dreams. A quick online search turns up any number of fantastic claims. Some say they’ve built a long-term “mind palace” they’re able to visit and revisit every night, while sleeping, in their dreams. Some say lucid dreaming has changed their lives.

Is it a real phenomenon?

At a basic level, it doesn’t take much for a dream to be lucid. If at any moment the dreamer is aware they are asleep and dreaming, the dream itself is lucid. Any moment of self-awareness is enough. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “often when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what presents itself is but a dream.”

Often, though, when a person discusses lucid dreaming, what they’re referring to is the ability to influence the environment and outcome of the dream itself.

I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?—Zhuangzi

Why do we Dream?Shutterstock

The Mysteries Of Our Brain

Our knowledge of the human brain is still very much a work in progress. Scientific understandings of consciousness, psychology, and neuroscience are in flux, as new discoveries and theories are released almost every day.

What this means for the study of dreaming is as of yet unclear.

Why do people dream? The question will undoubtedly continue to fascinate some of humanity’s greatest minds. Billions will wonder. Scientists will study. Researchers will collaborate. Doctors and psychologists and thousands of others will wait with bated breath.

For now, it would seem current research suggests that our dreams play a role in memory, in self-identity, and in the processing of our daily experiences. It’s a critical aspect of our sleep. Why exactly that is, and how exactly it occurs, will continue to be one of the most interesting questions in modern medicine. And then, of course, there’s lucid dreaming.

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Why Do Dogs Howl? Inside Your Dog’s Mind

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Why do dogs howl? Many dog behaviors can be stressful, but the howl is unique. There’s a haunting quality to a dog’s howl that makes it impossible to ignore. All dog owners have felt a pang of regret after putting their pooch in their crate, but when they begin to howl that ear-splitting, mournful keen, it almost instantly becomes unbearable. So, why do dogs howl? Aren’t they supposed to be man’s best friend?

A howl might come out as a yip, or a bark-howl, or a prolonged baying. They all mean different things, but they all come from the same place. To answer the question “why do dogs howl?” we have to remember that inside every dog, from the smallest chihuahua on up, is a wolf. They may have changed a lot since their days in the wild, but their genes hold a memory of that time, and sometimes it has to come out.


The Howling Beast Inside

Wolves and dogs may look extremely different today—picture a wolf, now picture a dachshund—but scientifically, they’re still very similar creatures. The genes of dogs and wolves started to diverge between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago—a blink of an eye as far as evolution is concerned.

It’s almost impossible to say when the first dogs appeared; the path from wolf to dog was extremely gradual. First, relatively docile wolves likely began following around nomadic human hunter-gatherers, feasting off the remains of the large carcasses that humans left behind them. After what was likely millennia, this relationship grew even closer.

As the humans moved around, these wolves followed them. Eventually, their gene pool began to split off from the wolves who stayed in their territories. The human-friendly wolves, who already likely had lower stress-thresholds and flight responses, began to change physically. Their snouts got shorter. Their teeth got smaller. The differences between them and their wolf brethren became more and more distinct.

Man’s Best Friend

Looking at wolves today, they may seem like a far cry from man’s best friend, but they were actually the perfect candidates for domestication. Wolves were around the right size that they could still be controlled, but they were big enough that they could aid in the hunt—and perhaps most importantly, they were extremely social animals.

Even today, wolves live in complex social groups, and they communicate with a vast array of sounds. This trait made them particularly well-suited to understanding and following human commands—but it’s also why our beloved Fidos and Rexes howl, no matter how much we wish they’d stop.

What’s in a Howl?

Amongst their various types of yips and barks, wolves also use howls to communicate a wide variety of things. They howl to assemble their pack before or after a hunt; to raise the alarm if the den is threatened; and to locate each other while in strange territory. Each howl is different. Wolves will also sometimes howl together, harmonizing to make it seem like they’re more numerous than they appear.

This level of communication and cooperation is what makes wolves such effective hunters. It’s baked into their DNA, and while it’s been a while since dogs split off from their wolf ancestors, it hasn’t been long enough for these traits to disappear completely.

Wild and Howling at Heart

The first dog appeared about 14,000 years ago—though to be fair, if you saw that pup today, it would still look a lot like a wolf. It wasn’t until the Victorian Era, when selective breeding really took off, that we got the hundreds of distinct breeds we see today. For thousands of years, the line between dog and wolf was blurry. To a certain extent, it remains so today.

As Raymond Pierotti, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, put it, ” ‘wild’ and ‘domesticated’ exist as concepts along a continuum, and the boundary between them is often blurred—and, at least in the case of wolves, it was never clear to begin with.”

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The Howling Call of the Wild

Just like wolves, modern dogs have many different reasons for howling. If your dog is a howler, they might be trying to call you to come to them. Either that, or they might be signalling toward something they’ve found. They might also be trying to bond with a pack (even if that “pack” is just an ambulance or fire truck siren).

Dogs might howl if they’re hurt or sick, or if they’re feeling separation anxiety. And like so many dog behaviors, they might simply howl to get your attention. But it’s no coincidence that the dogs who share more DNA with wolves also happen to howl more often than other canines.

For all this, modern dogs do not need to howl. For wolves, a successful hunt might be the difference between life and death. For our comfy, cozy dogs…not so much. So while they may have many different reasons and instincts for howling, none of these reasons really answers the question, “Why do dogs howl?”

No, the answer to that quandary lies thousands of years in the past, with their wolf ancestors and the unique process of domestication that led to the creation of man’s best friend. Dogs howl because they’re man-made, and, like so many man-made things, they can’t be divorced from their wilder origins. Selective breeding over thousands of years has made types of dogs that are suited for a wide variety of things—from hunting to herding and more—but they’re still too closely related to their ancestors for the heart of a wolf to have disappeared completely.

In that way, a dog’s howl really is exactly what it sounds like: The call of the wild.

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Real Or Fake? Found Footage Horror And The Staging of Controversy

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In a time before the internet, when entertainment options were limited to what could be found on the shelves of video rental stores, you might hear whispers among groups of friends about a film that couldn’t be found in your local Blockbuster, and could only be passed around among friends—because it was allegedly real footage of a team of filmmakers being stalked and massacred by a tribe of killers in the Amazon rainforest.

It Begins

That film was Cannibal Holocaust, and the morbid fascination it sparked has to do not only with the fact that it purports to be made of found footage, but also that it was banned in many countries after its release. The film, released in 1980, is about an anthropologist tasked with finding a missing American documentary film crew who had been working in the Amazon rainforest. The story of the anthropologist’s journey acts as something of a framing device for the “main attraction”—graphic, purported “found” footage that exposes the documentary crew’s practice of staging horrific scenes, and also depicts the crew attacking and murdering a girl from the local tribe, only to be massacred in retaliation. The misdeeds of the documentary crew, along with the commentary by the anthropologist character are used as a way of attempting to make the film a critique of exploitative journalism. The director, Ruggero Deodate, was said to be influenced by the infamous Italian Red Brigades—he believed that the media had staged some of the more dramatic incidents of terrorism that they’d shown.

For obvious reasons, Cannibal Holocaust garnered a lot of attention and controversy when it was released, due to its graphic nature and its purported use of found footage. After its massive success on the first weekend it was released, Italian authorities attempted to confiscate the film, but Deodato had arranged to have it covertly distributed to other countries. Deodato was arrested on obscenity charges, and later even was brought in on murder charges when persistent rumors that the film featured real live murders became too much for police to ignore. Although those charges were dropped, the graphic nature of the film led to it being banned in multiple countries.

Controversy Leads To Dollars

Of course, all of the abovementioned incidents only served to draw more attention to the film, and the filmmakers courted this controversy as a means of marketing the film. In order to make the “found footage” portion seem as real as possible, the actors portraying the documentary crew had a clause in their contracts which stipulated that they not appear in other movies for a year following the film’s release, leading to questions about their whereabouts and lending veracity to claims that they had, in fact, died on camera. In order to prove that he’d not harmed the cast members, Deodato ended up putting investigators in contact with the (very much alive) actors and having to testify as to how certain gruesome special effects were orchestrated. He also went on to challenge bans of the film for years after its release.

Despite the disproval of the film’s claim to having been composed of found footage, in a time before Wikipedia, salacious rumors about the content of the film spread like wildfire, giving it instant cult status and driving people to find and share bootleg copies of it, including alternate or edited versions. The mystique surrounding the film was undeniable—and it was only a matter of time until it was recreated.

Who Decides What’s Real?

Much as it did in Cannibal Holocaust, the idea of presenting “found footage” as real found its niche in the horror genre, where it was able to present the most shocking, salacious, and graphic content of all as real, increasing the effect of the onscreen violence on the credulous viewer. Of course, how well that effect actually worked depended on the film, and for many years, the found
footage trope was primarily used in little-seen B-horror films, including such creatively titled gems like Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County and Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood. In the early 90s, Charlie Sheen was given a copy of Guinea Pig 2, and reported it to the FBI, as he believed what he was watching on screen was real. Much as Deodato had once been forced to the do the same, producer Hideshi Hino was forced to prove that the killing featured onscreen was an act.

The genre didn’t get much further attention until the dawn of the age of the internet—the era of HTML 2.0, when usage was expanding rapidly among family households, but before the web was dominated by Google, Amazon, and assorted social media networks. It wasn’t uncommon for film distributors to set up websites for upcoming releases—hello, famously still existent Space Jam site—but one film set itself apart from the rest in that period, using the mystique of the found footage genre and the power of the internet to become a marketing juggernaut: 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.

A Global Phenomenon

The conceit of The Blair Witch Project is well-known—a team of documentary filmmakers goes missing while investigating a figure of local renown called the Blair Witch, and the footage they left behind is later found and cobbled together by investigators searching for clues about their fate. The filmmakers emphasized the supposed veracity of the found footage during every party of the filmmaking process, from casting unknown actors to the marketing touch of the official website featuring fake police reports that “documented” the disappearances. When the film screened at Sundance, missing persons posters were produced with the casts’ faces. The Blair Witch filmmakers also produced a short “documentary” about the legend that the crew in the film investigates which aired before The Blair Witch Project was released.

The overall effect was that the film became a huge success—the website and the questions over the reality of it all made it a viral success before the word “viral” was ever used in that context. Its legacy is as impressive as its financial and critical success, as it inspired numerous other films in the horror genre, including Paranormal Activity, REC, and V/H/S. Of course, there’s also the scores of less successful B-level “found footage” horror films that it spawned in its wake, as well as its two underwhelming sequels.

While the “hype” around the idea of these purported found footage films has died down in the 20 years since the release of The Blair Witch Project, the interest in films like this speaks to the audience’s desire for something real and authentic in their scares—something new, that they’ve never seen before, something more life-changing than your regular haunted house, creepy doll, or simply jump scare. These found footage films represented a new possibility—but whether it’s one that ultimately failed or succeeded will be decided by whether the conceit continues to be used or is replaced in the future of horror films.

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How To Tell If Someone Is Lying: Tips From The Experts

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How To Tell If Someone Is Lying

Catching a liar is an age-old problem. We’re limited by the complex mysteries of the human brain. As a result, our inner thoughts are often inscrutable to others, and vice versa.

So, can we really tell if someone is lying, even if the fibber is someone we love and have known for years? There’s good news and bad news. We can all learn how to read the signs for when even the best liar is telling a huge whopper—but beware; lie detection takes a lot of practice, and it’s not always reliable.

There are, however, things you can learn to improve your lie-detecting abilities. Without further ado (and with no word of a lie) here are the ways some truth experts employ to tell if someone is lying.

No Means Yes When You’re a Liar

How can you catch a liar? Sometimes our body language gives us away when we’re telling a white lie, a small fib, or a big whopper of untruth. One frequent way this happens is when someone accidentally nods their head “Yes” even when they’re saying “No.”

Granted, considering many cultures have opposite head movements for “Yes” and “No,” you’re going to want to make sure you know who you’re talking to with this tip before you accuse them of lying.

How To Tell If Someone Is Lying

Hiding and Lying

Another way to tell if someone is lying is to see if they cover their mouth and their eyes while they’re telling the fib. This may be an unconscious reaction to “cover” the lie up, and to keep any potential listeners from “unearthing” the truth.

Sometimes, liars might even close their eyes while telling a lie, or else look away—after all, the eyes are the windows to the (liar’s) soul.

I’ve Got a Lie in My Throat

Liars get choked up too—and that’s actually another way to tell if someone is lying. We all get a tickle in our throats from time to time, but when a liar is in the middle of telling a fib, they will sometimes loudly clear their throats, or even swallow hard. That’s a sign that a lie is in the making.

This might be yet another subconscious tick, or perhaps lying just gives some guilty parties a dry throat.

The Fibber Caught Red-Handed

A further way to tell if someone is lying is to watch if they consistently put their hand to their face. Just as liars will sometimes cover up their mouth or eyes, they might also use their hands to touch their face excessively, like pulling at their ears or touching their lips. Sometimes, liars might also bite or lick their lips, or otherwise perform anxious lying gestures.

This excessive fidgeting happens because lying creates a spike in our anxiety, even if we happen to be a seasoned liar. This rise in anxiety often drains the blood from our extremities, causing itching or a need to fidget. The liar might even start fidgeting with their hands, which is yet another sign of a lie.

How To Tell If Someone Is Lying

A Well-Groomed Deception

One more for the lie detection bank: This anxiety might also cause the liar to perform grooming gestures on themselves, whether it be to sort out their clothes, wipe the (lying) sweat off of their foreheads, or re-straighten some of their surroundings, like an errant pencil lying on a table.

Lying experts consider all of this a potential indication of a lie, and you should be on the lookout for it when you confront your own liar.

Has This All Been a Lie?

So, now you’ve got a great body language toolkit to expose the liars in your life—but it’s time for a bit of a reality check. Although expert researchers can use these signs to sniff out a liar and their lies, a lot of these body languages are notoriously difficult to notice and then diagnose—and a lot of times, even the experts are wrong.

One alternative—but still unpredictable—way to tell if someone is lying has less to do with the liar’s body language and more to do with the form and content of their lie, since body cues can be weak, or so fleeting as to be unnoticeable.

The Deceiver’s Pause

One other good way to tell if someone is lying, for example, is to wait and see if they pause before answering your question. While you might think that pausing means someone is lying, it’s actually the opposite: a pause might mean they’re telling the truth, and a fluid response indicates they could be lying.

Think about it: how well do you remember every detail of what you did yesterday? If someone asked you to tell the truth about it, you’d probably have to take a moment to collect your thoughts.

Liars, on the other hand, often don’t need pauses in their speech when answering questions because they’ve already got their fib locked and loaded. So if your loved one doesn’t pause when you ask, “Where were you last night?” they might very well be lying.

If their nose grows as they speak, that’s probably a sign as well.

The Contempt Is a Lie

There are also clues in what the liar is saying. If the person is vague about the details of their story or speaks only in incoherent fragments, you may have a lie on your hands. Other content clues that a lie is afoot: The liar uses “qualifying language” like “I swear to God,” or “in all honesty” to try to get you to believe the lie by overemphasizing “truth.” In the same vein, liars also like to use superlatives such as “totally” and “absolutely” when telling their lies.

The liar might also refuse to give you any material to work with, shutting down the conversation and keeping himself or herself from being caught in a lie. Otherwise, even if they do keep talking, they might do so with disdain, making you feel as if you are the one in the wrong for thinking they are lying.

But don’t lose hope if the liar gets upset, there is also one last, great trick most experts use to tell if someone is lying…

Tell That Lie to Me Again

To tell if someone is lying, many researchers ask them to tell their lie backward. This forces the liar to work harder to remember their narrative. If someone is telling the truth, they will have very little difficulty doing this. After all, it actually happened, so the memory is cemented in our brains.

But if it’s all a lie and it didn’t actually take place, it’s also more difficult to “remember”—and this extra degree of difficulty can open up the liar to making mistakes or even confessing their lies.

So with this last genius trick, now you know what to do the next time you meet a really good liar.

Caught In The Act

In the end, catching a liar red-handed in their lie is difficult to do. Even when examining both body language and content recall, we can still fail to really nail the liar. In fact, sometimes the sign of a skilled liar is their lack of tells. They may act super disinterested and still, offer up no body language cues, or else they may have rehearsed their story so that they know it backwards and forwards, with very little pauses or confused chronology.

In cases like these, you have one final weapon in your arsenal: your gut. In fact, studies have shown that our gut feelings about lying and liars are actually often right. So take a good, long look at that (possibly) lying loved one and ask yourself: do you believe them?

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