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Dreaming Is the Inverse of Anxious Mind-Wandering (psyarxiv.com)
140 points by FailMore 36 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments



Really interesting study. Matches well with my own experiences. I used to have recurring dreams (both specific instances recurring and themes recurring) which mostly revolved around being chased, being attacked, most often with knives (I grew up in Glasgow, and there's lots of them about). I realised at some point that as my self-confidence grew (due to various factors), instead of getting caught in the dreams I would manage to escape and run away. And then eventually (with greater amounts of confidence) I started fighting back and winning. These themes still recur when I'm in various states of high or low self-esteem/self-confidence. And there are separate themes related to separate fears which also follow this pattern.

It's a shame that so many people will blast studies like these for being too small, but it's the start that needs to happen before we get to the end, and I think it's fascinating work. I hope to see more detailed investigations like this in future, and a building body of literature on the subject.


Thank you very much for sharing your experience with dreams! I have made a website to gather scientific research on this interpretation https://docbt.org/ (Dream Orientated Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and we are on twitter too https://twitter.com/docbt1. I know that the gold standard of studies are random control trials, but to begin the argument I think that more qualitative studies can be useful to establish an idea. That was my intention with this paper.


Are you aware of "the functional approach to dreams": https://www.amazon.com/Dreaming-Waking-Functional-Approach-D...

Seems a bit similar and might be worth checking out. (One of the authors, Corriere, later lost his licenses to practice psychology -- but it doesn't necessarily invalidate their theory.)


Thanks, I will research it. Read a lot of papers so I can’t remeber if I’ve seen that theory or not!


I too have experienced this. These days my self confidence is much higher. But I think the mechanism is different. I would say I encounter similar situations, but it is my conscious mind which determines how I respond. The unconscious creates the scenario, and you react to it naturally.


I also have the chasing dreams when I'm feeling insecure, and when I'm feeling confident and satisfied with my life I can fly in all my dreams. It's a useful barometer for my general state of mind. :)


“Fourteen examples of dreams are presented, including seven examples of interpretation, three examples of successful dream content prediction (a first for an interpretive theory of dreams), and four examples of dreams which demonstrate how in-dream behaviour changes during successful therapy, three of which are my own”

The study includes a total of 14 dreams of which 3 are the author’s.

I’ll take it with a grain of salt.


Fair enough, as I write in the conclusion:

This paper should not be viewed as an attempt to prove beyond doubt that the function of dreams is to highlight anxieties, but to provide food for thought for future research. There is a neurological basis for the argument put forward and using dreams in this way has been beneficial in my own therapy and in directing my guidance of others. Please play with your own dreams and those of your friends using the methods of interpretation and prediction outlined above and, if you are in the position to do so, consider testing the ideas presented using established research methods. If we do have an inbuilt method of anxiety diagnosis, which means we are not forced into taking such drastic maladaptive actions while awake in order to communicate our anxieties to others, then a great deal of mental pain may be able to be avoided.


So would you say it is more fair to treat the paper as if it argues this hypothesis passes a basic smell-test and is worthy of deeper investigation?


My personal experience with the theory has been extensive and I am quite confident, but yes - from a broader point of view I think anyone with academic perspective should read it as food for thought for potential future investigations.


I remember more dreams of my own than there are dreams described on the paper.


I'd say meditation is the inverse of anxious mind wandering. I've tried a few techniques, and Vipassana is to me the most interesting. There's a _little_ bit of buddhist dogma which comes with most books / lessons, but that's easily ignored - otherwise it's zero woo: the 99% core of what is taught is psychology and practical techniques. The practice itself involves balancing concentration with active awareness / "mindfulness" - once you've got a handle on it, it's a robust technique for staying on top of stress, among other benefits.


It is the content of the dreams which is the inverse of the anxious mind-wandering.

During anxious mind-wandering situations which demand avoidant behaviour enter the mind. For example, an individual with obsessive compulsive disorder may visualise that they are contaminated (imagined experience) and therefore must wash their hands (the avoidant action; Mcguire et al., 1994). Alternatively, an individual with social anxiety disorder might im-agine being in a conversation and having nothing to talk about (imagined future scenario) and therefore will avoid entering a conversation (avoidant action; Richards, 2013).

However in dreams I am suggesting that the situations imagined call for un-avoidant behaviour. For example Tim's dream in the paper:

> Tim’s father gives him a large volume of prescription drugs which he knows could kill him if he takes them all. Tim’s father wants him to swallow all the pills at once. Tim does not want to! However, he swallows the pills without protest.

In this situation it is clear that avoiding the confrontation and swallowing the pills is not a sensible decision. The situation calls for un-avoidant behaviour (saying no to his father). It is in this way that I am arguing that dreaming is the inverse of anxious mind-wandering.

It is interesting that those who do a lot of mediation have been seen to be less reactive to norepinephrine (a neurotransmitter associated to stress).


> It is in this way that I am arguing that dreaming is the inverse of anxious mind-wandering.

I am still a bit uncertain what you mean with "this way". Are you saying that anxious mind-wandering typically results in a pro-active reaction, whereas in the dream one is passive? That is: an appropriate response and an inappropriate response to the imagined scenarios? (note: this is not the same as whether the imagined scenarios themselves are appropriate)

> It is interesting that those who do a lot of mediation have been seen to be less reactive to norepinephrine (a neurotransmitter associated to stress).

Mediation or meditation?


I hope this response is not too confusing, but for the moment let's remove behaviour and focus on the situation.

Some imagined situations create an urge to take avoidant action. For example, let's say you are in a queue of a rollercoaster, but you have a fear of them - you might imagine it getting stuck with you upside down, or you might imagine yourself falling out of the rollercoaster. These are bad futures, and they make you want to take behaviour to AVOID the rollercoaster (like don't get on it in the first place!). If you get out of the queue these scenarios will leave your mind.

In dreaming, the situations are ones where instead of making it obvious that you should avoid something, they make it obvious that you should confront something. Confront is a very delicate word to use, as obvious confrontation (e.g., arguing instead of being passive) is one form of it, but so is being boring if you fear that others will ignore you (by being boring you are confronting the fear that you will be ignored unless you perform).

For example, Curtly's dream from the paper:

> Curtly is in a shopping mall. A young child comes up to Curtly and demands his wallet and phone. Curtly does not want to hand over his possessions, but he does. The young child stands near Curtly with Curtly’s belongings in front of him (accessible to Curtly should he decide to try and take them back).

Having your possessions stolen warrants a confrontational response. This is especially so as the person doing the stealing is a child, as it will be safe to respond with confrontation (the child cannot beat you up!). You can see that, in the opposite way of anxious mind-wandering, this dream situation does not demand avoidant behaviour.

Does that make more sense?


I think I get it, but I'd suggest sticking with the same example when explaining the confrontational aspect of it. When you switch contexts it makes it hard to imagine the inverse. If you don't mind, can you explain the confrontation aspect in the context of getting onto the rollercoaster?


Yes, that helps.

What I'm missing is the discussion of a perhaps too-obvious explanation: coping with feelings of helplessness. While often happening simultaneously with anxiety (being in a helpless situation would make most of us anxious, right?) it is not quite the same, I would say.

I personally rarely remember my dreams, but when I do they tend to be very intense, and during periods of my life that are emotionally turbulent and, indeed, involve feeling helpless about something.

(also, you forgot to answer if you actually meant "mediation" or "meditation", because I'm curious what you mean in case of the former)


This makes a whole lot of sense. Thanks for writing this.


>There's a _little_ bit of buddhist dogma which comes with most books / lessons, but that's easily ignored - otherwise it's zero woo: the 99% core of what is taught is psychology and practical techniques.

For hackerish types exploring Buddhism, I think it's useful to be aware of the concept of upaya, which loosely translates as "skilful" or "expedient". Buddhist teachers consciously make use of metaphors, abstractions and practices that aren't necessarily true, but might aid a particular audience in understanding a difficult concept.

As a result, Buddhist teaching is incredibly diverse, because it's being continually adapted to suit a particular audience in a particular cultural context. One might make an analogy with different programming languages - they all represent the same CPU operations and they're all essentially equivalent via the Church-Turing thesis and the Curry-Howard correspondence, but they often use radically different abstractions.

Personally, I was repelled by what I perceived to be Buddhism on my first exposure to it; I only realised much later that what I understood to be Buddhism was simply an explanation of Buddhist thought tailored for a particular demographic of English-speakers, specifically Californian hippies and new-agers. There was simply a severe impedance mismatch between my mindset and the particular teaching approaches I had been exposed to.

If you think that the Dalai Lama dwells on vapid platitudes or that he's a bit of a smug prick, that's fine - so do a lot of practising Buddhists. He represents a small and rather eccentric school of Buddhism, not Buddhism as a whole. You might gel with the teaching of Ajahn Amaro or Thich Nhat Hanh or Sheng Yen or a multitude of others. You might find it useful to take an ecumenical approach, dipping in and out of various schools to see different perspectives on the same topic.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upaya


> Buddhist teachers consciously make use of metaphors, abstractions and practices that aren't necessarily true, but might aid a particular audience in understanding a difficult concept.

You're describing conceptual metaphors, which are actually extremely interesting when it comes to making sense of cognition.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conceptual_metaphor

http://nautil.us/issue/6/secret-codes/teaching-me-softly


From my experience vipassana meditation is outside, above, below, or maybe right in between (depending on your conceptual map) both anxious mind-wandering and dreaming.

The goal being to learn to observe all sensations and thoughts without reacting to them (which seems to require or result in a certain amount of detachment)

I remember more of my dreams when I'm meditating regularly, and I also notice more of my waking thought loops.


Were you able to stick with the daily meditation schedule?


Yeah, though I've tried and failed to keep a consistent practice multiple times over the years. My wife independently decided to try it also, so we've been able to motivate each other on off days. If you're just trying to practice daily by yourself it can be easy to make excuses on a day when you're tired or busy, and if you have too many of those then eventually it falls off.


Is the "zero woo" disclaimer really necessary?


Yes. There's a ton of new age / superstitious practices that use meditation of one sort or another. Vipassana is reasonably secular and to the point.


This paper focuses mostly on interpreting reactions to in-dream situations as a way to evaluate what things we are anxious or avoidant about. Eg. If someone makes a demand you don’t want to do in a dream, and you do it, you have anxiety about standing up for yourself.

This is highly generic and I am skeptical it’s applicable to anyone with off the Wall dreams or people who have specific illnesses that affect the way they dream (eg. Schizophrenics have anecdata about unusual dreams).

But I think in More neurotypical perspectives with certain kinds of dreams this could work as a way to frame interpretation.

What rubs me the wrong way, however, is that the paper also implies that the less anxious you are the more normal you are in your dreams. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

(Some disclaimer: I have a condition that gives me very vivid dreams that are not set in reality. I’ve yet to find a way to suitably interpret them in a way that meshes with academia.)


> What rubs me the wrong way, however, is that the paper also implies that the less anxious you are the more normal you are in your dreams.

Hi, thanks for your comment. To be clear, it is not a value judgement by any means. We do not have responsibility for the feelings that we have and how they are surfaced in dreams. I have found it is the case that as an anxiety is worked through (e.g., I was anxious about standing up for myself, and practiced this in real life and found that I did not need to be so scared of it) the behaviour in the dream shifts to suit the demands of the situation more. These changes could be in accordance with the reconsolidation of the fear memory in the retrosplenial cortex (an area of the brain thought to be responsible for storing episodic fear memories which is more active during REM sleep than during waking). However, this is not where the process ends. When an anxiety is dealt with, another one surfaces and the behaviour is again at odds with the demand of the situation. So the 'normality' is short lived (and is not useful).

It is the case that individuals who experience less fear have more positive dream content, such as those with non-functioning amygdalas (Domhoff, 2017), individuals with greater wellbeing (Sikka, Pesonen, & Revonsuo, 2018), and even the Dalai Lama (Mehrotra & Lama, 2005). Those who have greater wellbeing also have fewer recurring dreams (Gauchat, Zadra, Tremblay, Zelazo, & Séguin, 2009). These are not my views, and I do not have an opinion on what type of content is 'better', but they are the results from other studies.


Thanks for your response.

Yes, however, what none of these addresses is when the response is incongruous with reality but normalized in the dream- it establishes there is a specific demand of a situation in a dream that is congruous with how reality would respond as reasonable. My criticism is that this doesn't apply to dreams that explicitly have their own "reasonable" behavior rules as established in the dream- off the wall things.

In a dream where drinking unicorn blood is the norm, is the reasonable behavior to resist doing so or is the reasonable behavior to follow the norms of the dream, and what does it say about onesself to not want to or want to do this goresome act? Imagine that this act is viewed neutrally in the context of the dream.

In a dream where it is dangerous to make friends with pepole, what does it say if you resist and purposefully befriend someone even if you're scared of friendship? It's reasonable to befriend people in waking life, but it's unreasonable to befriend people in a context where friendship is explicitly dangerous. By the paper, it may mean one is anxious about conformity- but in this case conformity is nonsensical/unreasonable.


The norms of the dreams should be accepted. If it is the case that drinking unicorn blood is normal in the dream, then it should be viewed as normal in the interpretation. The theory does not seek to normalise the dreaming situation, the norms of the situation are normally extremely useful in the interpretation.


Hm. I’d like to try applying this theory to my dreams, but I’m having some difficulty in a few edge cases (that have proven to be sticking points in the past). Would you mind if I reached out to you on your opinion on how they should be interpreted according to this proposed paradigm? And what channels are mode convenient for you? Thanks again for your responses.


Yes, please reach out to me. My email is visible on the paper.


Tried the email on the paper but I got in response an address not found return. Is the email correct? I double-checked it and I did send it to the email on the paper as it was typed.


For some reason I can't reply to your other comment, but yes, please reach out to me.


I haven't read the paper yet, but I plan on reading it tonight. It's so great that this came at a time where I've been researching Neurofeedback treatment, how Meditation effects certain brain activities, stoicism, and other mindfulness practices.

When I was younger I would have a lot of night terrors, sleep walking, you name it because of a stressful family situation. So I'm really interested to read about the studies, because I never thought about using my dreams to understand how my brain/thoughts are while awake.

I'm totally open to discussing this more with anyone that is interested!


I'm sure this is nuanced in the paper, but what about when someone dreams that their partner does something bad to them, then when awake is upset with said partner for this imagined event? I speak from experience with being the partner in this scenario.

I mean, yes, in some sense the dream encourages someone to confront the anxiety rather than avoid it, but here it feels more like jumping past the real source of anxiety and lashing out against the imagined one.


I think this could be a good example of the theory. I'm afraid that your partner believing you have done something is a bit unlucky! But you should ask her what she is doing in the dream when you are doing something bad to them. If she is repressing her response to you in the dream, I am suggesting it is likely that she is repressing this emotion in waking life too.


>"Though the situations in dreams call for un-avoidant behaviour, dreamers act with avoidance."

this is the biggest issue I have with this paper. This assumption is simply false


But dreaming is related to the gut not the brain. What we eat before we go to sleep decides what we dream about. Dream is related to the microbiome. We are conscious of only the dreams just before we wake up. That is, before the conscious mind awakens.


Can you elaborate? Does that mean that if you something that your "good bacteria" likes, then you'll have nice dreams, and if you eat something your "bad bacteria" likes you'll have nightmares? Or how exactly would that work? Or are you just referring to being able to dream at all being linked to having enough good bacteria?


I just think it has something to do with the bacteria but I don't know how it works. I think that by personal experience certain kind of food causes nightmares. I associate nightmares with food that cause bloating like starch. And also cheese and dairy and fermented food. But I did not try a scientific study by eating for instance dairy and note if I had nightmares. As you say it is most probably related to good and bad bacteria. Also, let's not forget that during sleep consciousness is asleep and if there is a danger the microbes may need to wake up the consciousness and one way of doing this is serve nightmares to the consciousness. I believe that there is a complex relationship with the gut microbes and the consciousness and we don't know how this works.


Source? I was always under the impression that what you eat affects your dreams is an old wives tale.


Not necessarily a food, but nicotine can create insane dreams. People who are in the process of quitting cigarettes can have really disturbing dreams if they fall asleep with the patch.


So true. I had some wild, wild rides at night while wearing the patch (which I wore 23hrs and removed before exercise)


Source is my personal experience. I'm positive that if I go to bed with full stomach the probability of nightmare increases. Also some food like dairy triggers nightmares I think. Of course, all circumstantial, I didn't try a scientific study.


If there's any relation between dreaming and the gut, it is certainly because something happening in the gut is affecting the brain.


We seem to be saying the same thing but instead of "brain" I say "consciousness." Appearances we call dreams originate in the guts and are serviced to the consciousness. How or why I don't know. It may be through the Vagus nerve.


This claim needs some strong studies, there may be a link but not a direct cause, like I don't eat well I have no dreams at all.


It's true that some nights we sleep deeply and we are not aware of any dreams. I think this happens when the digestive system is not doing any work, that is, if we go to sleep with empty stomach.


For me it depends of tired I am, if I do too much physical work then when I wake up it feels I just slept 5 minutes. If i don't sleep enough then I don't remember any dreams , if I sleep enough hours i will remember my morning dreams. For my case part of my dreams are related with my anxieties or things I want hard to do.


Not reading an article with a silly title is the inverse of reading it.




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