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Why We Dream: Biological Theory Roundup

We've all had strange dreams: as a kid I was not in the least frightened by the Count Chocula character while awake, but I suffered through many a nightmare about him, his fangs dripping chocolate blood as he stalked me, Bela Lugosi-style, through the eerily empty halls of my school. God knows why. Other dreams make even less sense: I'm packing for a trip when there's a knock at the door. It's Fedex. For some reason, supreme court nominee Sandra Sotomayor has overnighted me a kitten.

So why does the brain produce this narrative junk? We still don't know why for certain, but the last few decades have produced a number of interesting evolutionary theories that move beyond old-hat Jungian archetypes or Freudian "wish fulfillment," and Scientific American's Jesse Bering recently laid out the Darwinian contenders.

Brain conditioning

If your brain went completely dark all night, the theory goes, it would begin to lose function just as rarely-used muscles will atrophy.

Several researchers, including the psychophysiologist Fred Snyder, argued that the adaptive purpose of dreaming may therefore be primarily to stimulate the brain or to keep it "in shape" during prolonged periods of inactivity. Later research offered support for this general idea. For example, specific categories of neurotransmitters were shown to be highly active during this period, while others seemingly "rested."

In other words, as psychologist Steven Pinker puts it, "Dreaming might be a kind of screen saver in which it doesn't really matter what the content is as long as certain parts of the brain are active."

External vigilance

Most dreams are notably lacking in olfactory and auditory content, and one theory holds that that's because if they were, the dreamer would be particularly susceptible to real-world threats like fire or noisy predators.

Being a "light sleeper" in relation to these other sensory domains had adaptive benefits, and since we're in the dark anyway and our eyes are closed, there's less of a risk in hallucinating in our secret visual worlds while our brains are being recharged.

Threat Simulation

This theory holds that dreams function as practice run-throughs for dangerous situations that may occur in the real world; they're drills. (Of course, this theory doesn't explain my kitten-in-the-mail dream; what was that preparing me for?)

"By giving rise to a full-scale hallucinatory world of subjective experience during sleep, the dream production mechanism provides an ideal and safe environment for such sustained practice by selecting threatening waking events and simulating them repeatedly in various combinations." What we should see in contemporary dreams, argues Revonsuo, are "threat scripts" depicting primitive themes of danger that would likely have been relevant in the ancestral environment, such as being chased, falling and so on.

Dreaming as problem solving

According to Harvard University psychologist Deirdre Barrett, "sleeping on it" really works in terms of real-world problem solving, and may actually be the evolutionary purpose of dreaming (even if those dreams don't always make sense to us.) In other words --

-- dreamscapes provided our ancestors (and therefore us) with a sort of creative canvas for solving real-world problems. In support of this, Barrett describes the work of Stanford University psychologist William Dement, who in the early 1970s instructed hundreds of undergraduate students to work on a set of challenging brainteasers before bedtime, so that they'd fall asleep with the problems still on their mind.

What do you think?

Painting by Jamal Vrno.

You can follow my weird dreamlife via Twitter.

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science
New Patient Test Could Suggest Whether Therapy or Meds Will Work Better for Anxiety
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Like many psychological disorders, there's no one-size-fits-all treatment for patients with anxiety. Some might benefit from taking antidepressants, which boost mood-affecting brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Others might respond better to therapy, and particularly a form called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.

Figuring out which form of treatment works best often requires months of trial and error. But experts may have developed a quick clinical test to expedite this process, suggests a new study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have noted that patients with higher levels of anxiety exhibit more electrical activity in their brains when they make a mistake. They call this phenomenon error-related negativity, or ERN, and measure it using electroencephalography (EEG), a test that records the brain's electric signals.

“People with anxiety disorders tend to show an exaggerated neural response to their own mistakes,” the paper’s lead author, UIC psychiatrist Stephanie Gorka, said in a news release. “This is a biological internal alarm that tells you that you've made a mistake and that you should modify your behavior to prevent making the same mistake again. It is useful in helping people adapt, but for those with anxiety, this alarm is much, much louder.”

Gorka and her colleagues wanted to know whether individual differences in ERN could predict treatment outcomes, so they recruited 60 adult volunteers with various types of anxiety disorders. Also involved was a control group of 26 participants with no history of psychological disorders.

Psychiatrists gauged subjects’ baseline ERN levels by having them wear an EEG cap while performing tricky computer tasks. Ultimately, they all made mistakes thanks to the game's challenging nature. Then, randomized subjects with anxiety disorders were instructed to take an SSRI antidepressant every day for three months, or receive weekly cognitive behavioral therapy for the same duration. (Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of evidence-based talk therapy that forces patients to challenge maladaptive thoughts and develop coping mechanisms to modify their emotions and behavior.)

After three months, the study's patients took the same computer test while wearing EEG caps. Researchers found that those who'd exhibited higher ERN levels at the study's beginning had reduced anxiety levels if they'd been treated with CBT compared to those treated with medication. This might be because the structured form of therapy is all about changing behavior: Those with enhanced ERN might be more receptive to CBT than other patients, as they're already preoccupied with the way they act.

EEG equipment sounds high-tech, but it's relatively cheap and easy to access. Thanks to its availability, UIC psychiatrists think their anxiety test could easily be used in doctors’ offices to measure ERN before determining a course of treatment.

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Food
A Pitless Avocado Wants to Keep You Safe From the Dreaded 'Avocado Hand'
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The humble avocado is a deceptively dangerous fruit. Some emergency room doctors have recently reported an uptick in a certain kind of injury—“avocado hand,” a knife injury caused by clumsily trying to get the pit out of an avocado with a knife. There are ways to safely pit an avocado (including the ones likely taught in your local knife skills class, or simply using a spoon), but there’s also another option. You could just buy one that doesn’t have a pit at all, as The Telegraph reports.

British retailer Marks & Spencer has started selling cocktail avocados, a skinny, almost zucchini-like type of avocado that doesn’t have a seed inside. Grown in Spain, they’re hard to find in stores (Marks & Spencer seems to be the only place in the UK to have them), and are only available during the month of December.

The avocados aren’t genetically modified, according to The Independent. They grow naturally from an unpollinated avocado blossom, and their growth is stunted by the lack of seed. Though you may not be able to find them in your local grocery, these “avocaditos” can grow wherever regular-sized Fuerte avocados grow, including Mexico and California, and some specialty producers already sell them in the U.S. Despite the elongated shape, they taste pretty much like any other avocado. But you don’t really need a knife to eat them, since the skin is edible, too.

If you insist on taking your life in your hand and pitting your own full-sized avocado, click here to let us guide you through the process. No one wants to go to the ER over a salad topping, no matter how delicious. Safety first!

[h/t The Telegraph]

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