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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018 12:10 am

Haunting accident

PHOTO COURTESY AMY ALKON
Amy Alkon
What do dreams mean? I was dumped 10 months ago. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Now I barely do, but last night I dreamed I broke in to his apartment, found him in bed with this gorgeous girl, and punched her in the face. Does this mean I’m not over him? – Wanna Start Dating

Psychologist G. William Domhoff has done decades of rigorous research on dreaming. He finds there’s really no good scientific evidence that dreams have any importance for guiding our lives.

Domhoff explains dreaming as “intensified mind-wandering” that leads to “imaginative but largely realistic simulations of waking life.” Brain imaging of people in REM sleep suggests our capacity to dream ias “an accidental byproduct of our waking cognitive abilities” and may be a “subsystem” of the “default mode network” of the brain.

This is simply the network of neurons the brain “defaults” to when you aren’t doing targeted thinking, like trying to solve some complicated equation or remember some word in French. Your brain doesn’t just shut down between these targeted thinking jags. It does what I think of as “background processing,” gnawing at problems you were previously focused on – but it does it beneath your conscious awareness.

So, in a way, dream time seems to be a kind of cognitive autopilot. In brain scans of people in REM sleep, neurobiologist Yuval Nir sees decreased self-awareness, attention and memory. There’s also reduced “voluntary control” of action and thought – which is why, when dreaming, we cannot control “the content of the dream.” Nir also finds that there’s often – surprise, surprise – greater emotionality when dreaming.

However, Domhoff says that in many instances, dreams “dramatize ongoing emotional preoccupations.” Unfortunately, research by the late social psychologist Daniel Wegner suggests otherwise.

Wegner famously instructed research participants, “Try not to think of a white bear.” This is a failed proposition from the start, because your mind sweeps around to check whether you’re avoiding bear-pondering – thus leading you to think about the bear. In short, Wegner found that trying to suppress thoughts made them come back with a vengeance.

But – good news – there is a way to outsmart your brain’s yanking you back into the same old abyss. Psychologists Jens Forster and Nira Liberman found that you can probably keep yourself from endlessly revisiting a thought if you simply admit that not thinking of it is hard.

In general, you should try to avoid ruminating – pointlessly rechewing the past, like your mind’s a sadistic TV station always showing the same disturbing rerun. So when you find yourself reflecting on this relationship, remind yourself to put the right spin on it: looking at it from the standpoint of what you’ve learned.

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