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The world’s great religions and spiritual journeys emerged from dreams and visions. Neurochemistry tells us how
Patrick MacNamara is associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine and a professor at Northcentral University. He has published numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals and several books on the science of sleep and dreams, and on the psychology and neurology of religion. He is also a founding director of the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion.
We know that rapid eye movement sleep (REM), when eyes move rapidly back and forth under closed eyelids, is the phase when we have the most vivid dreams. REM is associated with heightened levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine (associated with reward and movement) and acetylcholine (associated with memory), as well as a surge of activity in the limbic system, the amygdala, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, all areas of the brain that handle emotion. Conversely, there is lowered activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that handles personal insight, rationality and judgement; likewise, the neurochemicals noradrenaline and serotonin, involved in vigilance and self-control, are regulated down. The very low levels of serotonin allow steady release of the excitatory transmitter glutamate, which overstimulates the brain activity thought to underlie the cognitive and perceptual effects of hallucinogens. In other words, in REM sleep, our emotional centres are overstimulated while our reflective rational centres are impeded or narrowly refocused on issues of emotional significance. We are left free to ponder the endless meanings of the emotions and interactions that we experience but we do so with wildly fluctuating levels of reflective insight.
It only makes sense that these REM-related brain changes are also associated with schizophrenia and the high of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD. REM, schizophrenia and hallucinogens are all associated with the neurologic conditions that produce altered states of consciousness. The neurochemistry of dreams produces an emotionally intense state of mind in the absence of an ability to critically reflect on the images produced by that state. When the hallucinatory REM dream or an acid trip ends, individuals can then reflect on and attempt to interpret the intense experiences they’ve just undergone.
Interpretative insight is more difficult (though not impossible) for the individual suffering from chronic schizophrenia./.../
Nobody had noticed that before, said de Lecea. “This is the first finding of a sleep-preparation starter site in the brain. It’s likely we humans have one, too. If we’re disrupting this preparation by, say, reading email or playing videogames, which not only give off light but charge up our emotions and get our VTA dopaminergic circuitry going, it’s easy to see why we’re likely to have trouble falling asleep.”
Mice in an unfamiliar cage ordinarily explore their new surroundings energetically. And indeed, VTA-suppressed mice stayed awake for the first 45 minutes of the hour they spent in a new cage. But Eban-Rothschild noticed something: They spent that waking time building nests. Image shows the location of the VTA in the human brain. NeuroscienceNews.com image is for illustrative purposes only.
Noting that this anticipatory phase is often at the root of many people’s sleeping problems, de Lecea suggested that the newly identified circuit could be a target for pharmacological intervention to help people ease into sleep./.../