Why We Dream – The Secret of A Beautiful Mind

Ep 82: Surreal Dreams – The Secret to A Beautiful Mind
ever wonder why we dream?

The hippocampus plays a crucial role in memories, imagination as well as the process of dreaming. Ever wonder why we dream? Are human minds designed to replicate reality in the imaginary world of dreams? What scientists now consider essential to healthy brain functioning- dreams offer creative solutions to problems, help consolidate memories and overall healthy brain circuitry. Dream states can be vivid, contrasting with hallucinations which associates with diseased brain pathways. This week’s podcast explores the haphazard way a healthy mind consolidates our experiences and memories while dreaming, which may offer insights into novel mechanisms for imagination therapy.

Ever Wonder Why We Dream?

The hippocampus is a part of the brain that plays a dominant role in memories, imagination and… the process of dreaming. Have you ever wondered why we dream? Do you remember your dreams? What is termed a vivid dream reflects the ability of human minds to replicate reality in an entirely imaginary state. And that is all regarded as an essential part of brain physiology – clearing out clutter, consolidating memories and maintaining healthy brain circuitry.

Paradoxically, the diseased brain can also hallucinate. This is another type of vivid experience, albeit an unhealthy one, that suggests something in the brain circuitry has gone wrong. Hallucinations are distinct from imaginations. The key to deciphering these differences may give us new insight into mental disorders. Especially those that we are concerned with on this podcast, such as body dysmorphophobia and eating disorders.

Experts think why we dream has to do with our brain clearing out clutter and consolidating memories.

I’m not a psychiatrist nor a psychologist. However, I am a dermatologist who has worked with psychiatrists managing patients with body dysmorphobia. Additionally, what we term psychodermatological conditions such as acne excoriee, delusional parasitosis (DOP). These are essential skin conditions driven by neurosis whereby sufferers dig and pick at their skin until an actual physical skin condition emerges.

Notably, these patients are well in terms of other aspects of their mental health. Meaning, they do not have other symptoms that suggest they have a psychotic disorder. All the more, usually without co-existing depression or anxiety either. In delusional parasitosis for example, sufferers specifically hallucinate about insects hiding in or crawling on skin. They stereotypically collect “insect parts” which they deem as evidence of the infestation to present to their dermatologist. Except these aren’t ever insect parts, they are simply bits of dead skin, dust or debris.

To them, the crawling sensation and the infestation is more than real, it is surreal. In my early years of training as a dermatologist, I used to run a clinic together with a psychiatrist seeing such patients exclusively. It was remarkable that all of these patients seemed truly “normal”. Other than the fact that they were convinced of the infestation. They also mutilated their skin as a result. This is the reason why I was seeing them.

The mutilation methods were also surprisingly typical. Harsh disinfectants, kerosene, burning with joss sticks, digging with knives and sharp objects. Shocking? Yes. However, with each new patient I saw, over the course of several days, which turned into several months and years, it became normal and typical.

Why we dream - our brains allow dreaming as a healthy process

Why we dream: our brains allow dreaming as a healthy physiologic process

Dreams can be surreal, an extremely vivid experience known as lucid dreaming. In contrast to hallucinations which are a symptom of brain disorder, lucid dreams are experienced by the individual exclusively during the sleeping state and are clearly distinguished from reality.

The initial sense of shock, wonder and curiosity I had as a dermatologist used to seeing patients who had true skin pathology and was a helpless victim of itch or pain – was replaced by a sense of futility.

Very much like what I suppose the psychiatrist felt. Since he was much more used to seeing patients who had true mental disorders. Except one thing really stood out to me. These patients were diagnosed with DOP based on the one criteria that distinguished it from other mental disorders out of the scope of a dermatologist – they were monosymptomatic. That means beyond this specific hallucination, they did not exhibit criteria of other psychiatric disorders of schizophrenia, psychosis or other mental health disorders.

Why we dream may have to do with our brain’s coping mechanisms

Be it in relation to our daily experiences or past, even suppressed memories hidden away in the dark corners of our minds. Dreaming is a healthy expression of the brain’s self-regulation mechanisms.

That being said, I always believed in science and medicine that there must be a true reason. Or at least, a mechanism that we could explore. With all advances in our modern world and humanity’s self proclaimed great exploitations in science, it is quite a shame that we don’t have a good answer for what exactly is happening in DOP. At the end of the day, doctors usually attribute to genetics what they can’t explain. Except I have not seen many DOP patients with a family history, nor to my knowledege has that been reported. This is different from a condition known as folie a deux. Referring to a collective state of delusions experienced by individuals living closely together, usually isolated from others. Anyway, I hope that at least caught your interest.

Scientific research points out that how and why we dream is not limited to the anatomical integrity of the hippocampus – noting that even those who had traumatic brain injury affecting that area continue to dream.

Back to the subject for today. So we are rightly fascinated with how the brain can directly influence the skin. In this case via true sensory manifestions, by way of actual physical sensations felt on skin. One useful thing I have learnt over the years as a practising doctor is the skill of empathy. I don’t think it is popular to talk about empathy as a skill. People like think it as a virtue or a quality. I’d like to be honest and share that most physicians do experience empathy burn-out once they start working.

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The pressures are too great and the healthcare environment has never been a leisurely walk for junior practitioners. It’s nice to think of empathy as a trait, a mark of good character. However, in medicine, it is a necessity. I don’t wish to patronise. But one lacking in empathy naturally can learn to become more empathetic in various stressful situations. This can be done by envisioning how it would be like in the other person’s shoes. So when our emotions of burn out overcome us, we can still use a formula or a method to start guiding our mind. Conjuring up scenarios that can help evoke the right emotional responses.

Drawing from my own experiences

For my experience with DOP, I did find myself imagining how they must have felt. Their obsessions and mental disturbances – I could sort of understand how they were so distressed that they had no choice but to attempt to excoriate their skin. I think patients do feel genuine empathy coming from their physician. One way physicians can consistently portray that is not by pretending or play acting with body language and all that. But actually to try to imagine, to feel how their patient must feel. The same with what I have been emphasising in my podcast about beauty. If your mind directs your emotions which we learn directly affects your facial expressions and consequently how others perceive you, if you want to be beautiful. Start with the mind.

Much more remains unknown about why we dream

As Opposed To What We Actually Know, Or Think We Know.

Today’s episode is but a teaser for what’s to come. My research focus now is on how dreams are constructed by the brain, in the fragmented, haphazard way that can fascinate and entertain us while we sleep and when we wake. The role of memories in dreaming, remote and semantic especially. How specific experiences during wakefulness contribute to our mind’s conjuring of dreams.

If we become better dreamers, will we be able to harness the realm of imagination to transform ourselves literally inside out? If good imaginations can replace bad hallucinations, we may have discovered one way to help those struggling with body image issues. Understanding the pathways involved can also open up new revelations about how the mind attributes beauty to memories. These memories we all associate with the most beautiful person we know, the ideal that we strive to be and are not.

Sleeping Beauty- Dream for Beauty Sleep exploring why we dream

I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s episode. I’ll like to take this opportunity to share about a brand new podcast show I’ve created for you all on the very topic of dreams and beauty: Sleeping Beauty – Dream for Beauty Sleep, a guided meditative experience of bedtime story telling. Evoking my own memories of the most surreal dreams I have ever had and taking you through the fantastical world of beauty, in my imagination.

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