Herman Westerink en Sarah Schoch in gesprek met Pam Tönissen
Herman Westerink en Sarah Schoch in gesprek met Pam Tönissen

What Dreams Are Made Of | Lecture and conversation by neuroscientist Sarah Schoch and philosopher Herman Westerink

Falling, flying, arriving at work with no pants on. Why do our brains treat us to all these bizarre adventures at night? Do dreams have a function or are they just by-products of our neurons? After decades of research, neuroscientists are now getting closer to an answer. What would it mean to find a neurological explanation for our dreams? Should we want science to answer this age-old mystery? Learn from neuroscientist Sarah Schoch and philosopher Herman Westerink, and find out what dreams are made of.

At the end of the program, campus Poet Thijs Kersten will recite a poem that he based on the weirdest dreams of the audience.

Video | Podcast  | VOX

Monday 26 February 2024 | 20.00 – 21.30 hrs | LUX, Nijmegen| Radboud Reflects and Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior. See announcement

Review

by Veronica Fantini, edited by Pam Tönissen

Sweet dreams are made of this, who am I to disagree?

Every time we sleep, we enter another world. Scary, beautiful, absurd or painful. Our dreams form an endless source of mystery. What are dreams made of? Why do we dream and what role have dreams played in cultures throughout history? To answer these questions, Radboud Reflects invited two speakers from the Radboud University to a fully booked room in LUX Nijmegen. Philosopher Herman Westerink gave a cultural history of dreaming, and neuroscientist Sarah Schoch highlighted how dreams are studied through experiments within her field of neuroscience. 

What is your weirdest dream? 

At the beginning of the event, moderator Pam Tönissen invited the audience to write down their weirdest dream in only one sentence. At the end of the discussion, campus poet Thijs Kersten would use all this dreamy input to compose a poem and recite it. 

A history of dreams

Herman Westerink started narrating the history of dreams by showing that dreams have some elements that can be found cross-culturally. In all human societies, they are meaningful, though their meaning is not immediately clear. Interpretation is needed. In the biblical tradition, dreams were interpreted as predictions of the future. “God sent dreams to warn an individual or a community,” Westerink stated. 

Herman Westerink at What Dreams Are Made Of
Herman Westerink at What Dreams Are Made Of - photo Ramon Tjan

In Western history of philosophy, it is also easy to find many philosophers with a negative perception of dreams. During the Age of Enlightenment, dreams were seen as unwelcome because they were irrational and uncontrollable. No reason or sense could or should be made of them, according to some Enlightenment thinkers. In particular Renè Descartes dismissed them because they do not relay reliable knowledge. Somewhat later, philosopher Immanuel Kant spoke more positively of dreams, although he only considered them for their biological function. Dreams, according to him, are the only activity our brain performs during sleep, meaning that it is the only thing that keeps us from dying when we go lay ourselves to rest. 

Philosophy started paying closer attention to dreams again only in the 19th century, with the birth of psychoanalysis. Freud delved into this topic in his clinical practice, resulting in one of his most famous contributions to psychology: “The Interpretation of Dreams”, published in 1900. For Freud, dreams show our unconscious needs and drives. “In our dreams, we get to realise what we do not have access to in our everyday lives,” Westerink stressed. “In Freud’s work, dreams are a way for us to engage with our subconscious and realise our most repressed pleasures.”

Things are drastically different in our current day and age. Psychoanalysis has moved on into current neurosciences, the research field of the next speaker.

The problems of experiments and brain reports

Sarah Schoch introduced the audience to the scientific inquiry into dreams. As a sleep-researcher, Schoch spends a lot of nights in a lab, where she wakes up participants and questions them about what they dreamed. Surprisingly, many of the topics we think we often dream about are not nearly as common as the seem. For example; we think that falling, sexual activities, flying or school scenarios are very common. However, neurosciences tell us that most frequently, we all dream of everyday activities like eating, walking around or riding an elevator. Additionally, we forget almost everything we dream each night. “Out of 4 hours and a half of dreams, we generally only remember a few minutes!” Schoch stated. These two things combined explain why we don’t think we dream of boring everyday stuff: we tend to remember some dreams way more frequently, simply because they are more memorable and cooler!

Sarah Schoch at What Dreams Are Made Of
Sarah Schoch at What Dreams Are Made Of - photo Ramon Tjan

At the end of her talk, Schoch answered the most compelling question: why do we dream? “There are multiple possible answers, but still no concrete solutions.” She explained that there are a couple of plausible hypotheses that rivel each other. One states that dreams are important for memory consolidation; memory consolidation during sleep is of primary importance because it allows us not to start from zero again every day. Another hypothesis puts more emphasis on simulation; simulating a threatening event that might happen in the future has an important evolutionary adaptive role, which could explain why dreaming is adaptive. It helps us to elaborate strategies for dealing with the event itself. Schoch conceded that these hypotheses need not be at odds with one another. Memory consolidation and simulation are deeply connected with emotional processing. “Reliving a specific event while sleeping, helps to reduce its emotional tone. They thus allowed us to process memories without having to deal with their emotional load.” These are all possible reasons why we dream every night. 

At the end of the event, poet Thijs Kesten recited his poem which, to the visible delight of the audience, consisted of dozens of strange figments of dreams. A truly dreamy way to send the audience off to bed.

What Dreams Are Made Of
What Dreams Are Made Of - photo Ramon Tjan

Poem by campus poet Thijs Kersten

What Dreams Are Made Of_gedicht.pdf

Dit gedicht werd tijdens het programma geschreven door campusdichter Thijs Kersten en gebaseerd op ingestuurde dromen van het publiek.

Thijs Kersten at What Dreams Are Made Of
Thijs Kersten at What Dreams Are Made Of - photo Ramon Tjan

Announcement

Falling, flying, arriving at work with no pants on. Why do our brains treat us to all these bizarre adventures at night? Do dreams have a function or are they just by-products of our neurons? After decades of research, neuroscientists are now getting closer to an answer. What would it mean to find a neurological explanation for our dreams? Should we want science to answer this age-old mystery? Come and listen to neuroscientist Sarah Schoch and philosopher Herman Westerink, and find out what dreams are made of. 

At the end of the program, campus Poet Thijs Kersten will recite a poem that he based on the weirdest dreams of the audience.

Function of dreams 

Whether we remember them or not, we all have them every night: dreams. But why? Throughout history dreams have played an important cultural, spiritual and even religious role in almost all every human society. According to some scientists and scholars, dreams are functional: maybe they allow us to process the day’s events, or they are our brain’s way of practising for all kinds of situations. Others speculate that dreams could be the way our brain stocks and arranges our memories. Still others suppose that dreams have no function at all, but are only vivid by-products of our neurons firing at night. What would it mean if one of these theories were proved to be true? Would that mean dreams lose their meaning? Or would it only deepen our relationship with our nightly visions?

Freud and subconscious

Dreams have of course not only been of interest to scientists. In many religions and cultural traditions, dreams form an important source of meaning. They are often interpreted as divine messages, cosmic omens or spiritual guidance, and have thus helped to shape the societies we live in. But also individually, people ascribe great personal importance to their dreams. Sigmund Freud even based much of his revolutionary psychoanalysis on dreams, which he argued were ‘messages from the subconscious’ from which we could learn a great deal about our true nature and motives. 

Neuroscientist Sarah Schoch and philosopher Herman Westerink dive into the age-old mystery of dreams. What role do dreams play in the way we make sense of ourselves? What can neuroscience tell us about why we dream? And would a scientific answer to the dream-question change the meaningful part they play in our lives? Come and ask your questions.

This progamme is in English. 

About the speakers

Sarah Schoch is a neuroscientist at Radboud University, where she is a member of the Donders Sleep & Memory Lab. In her postdoctoral research, she investigates the association between dreaming and memory consolidation.

Herman Westerink is a philosophical anthropologist at Radboud University. In his research he mostly focusses on the relation between psychoanalysis and psychiatry. Particularly, he applies Freudian psychanalysis to mystical experiences in the past.

Thijs Kersten is the Radboud campus Poet of 2024, spoken word artist and author.

This is a programma of Radboud Reflects and Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior

 

 

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About person
Dr S.F.S. Schoch (Sarah) , Prof. H. Westerink (Herman)