Why some people never dream

Dreaming of love, work, animals, nature… some symbols of our dream world can be revealing. With Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, the interpretation of dreams has become a tool for theorizing and exploring our unconscious. During this nocturnal disposition of the mind, our brain constructs a virtual world of striking images and sensations which we do not immediately identify as hallucinations. But if some sleepers “live their dreams” in particular by talking, moving, shouting or even crying, others, on the contrary, pretend they never dream.

This phenomenon, which concerns about 3% of the population, would however only be a Received idea. Because everyone plunges into the land of dreams when they fall when the arms of Morpheus. To explain this received idea, Pr. Isabelle Arnulf, neurologist and director of sleep pathologies at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital has long studied sleep disorders. Near the Brain Institute (ICM)she demonstrates why this assertion is false, and details her assumptions that these “non-dreamers” describe themselves as such.

Memory problems?

The first hypothesis that would explain this phenomenon points memory problems. To verify this theory, researchers from the Paris Brain Institute subjected the patients concerned to a battery of cognitive tests involving an evaluation of memory. They eventually found that the participants “had the same level of memory and the same cognitive profile as people who remember their dreams”. This hypothesis was therefore discarded.

Are they really not dreaming?

After observing in the laboratory participants’ sleep activitythe researchers found a dreamlike behavior revealing that these so-called “non-dreamers” were well and truly dreaming. “Some people have a violent argument, others smoke a cigarette… These dreams are clearly materialized for an outside observer, and yet, none of the patients remembers it when they wake up even if this awakening takes place during the phase of REM sleep”.

Eventually their dreams are not engraved

The most probable cause of these amnesias on waking has finally been brought to light. In these populations, dreams are not etched in memory overnight. “The next step is to compare the brain activity of ‘non-dreamers’ to that of ‘dreamers’ using functional brain imaging. This study could help to understand what happens in the brain during dreams and how the latter is engraved in memory. Another study would consist in knowing if the dreams are indeed engraved (encoded) but not recalled: by giving to the “non-dreamers” clues about their dream thanks to video recordings (a word, a situation), in order to establish if it helps them to remember”.

In the end we are all equal in the face of dreams. The complexity lies in how dreams are collected and stored by their brain, without altering memory, concludes the ICM.

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Why some people never dream

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