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Why We Dream: Biological Theory Roundup

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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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Big Questions
How Long Could a Person Survive With an Unlimited Supply of Water, But No Food at All?
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How long could a person survive if he had unlimited supply of water, but no food at all?

Richard Lee Fulgham:

I happen to know the answer because I have studied starvation, its course, and its utility in committing a painless suicide. (No, I’m not suicidal.)

A healthy human being can live approximately 45 to 65 days without food of any kind, so long as he or she keeps hydrated.

You could survive without any severe symptoms [for] about 30 to 35 days, but after that you would probably experience skin rashes, diarrhea, and of course substantial weight loss.

The body—as you must know—begins eating itself, beginning with adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and next the muscle tissue.

Google Mahatma Gandhi, who starved himself almost to death during 14 voluntary hunger strikes to bring attention to India’s independence movement.

Strangely, there is much evidence that starvation is a painless way to die. In fact, you experience a wonderful euphoria when the body realizes it is about to die. Whether this is a divine gift or merely secretions of the brain is not known.

Of course, the picture is not so pretty for all reports. Some victims of starvation have experienced extreme irritability, unbearably itchy skin rashes, unceasing diarrhea, painful swallowing, and edema.

In most cases, death comes when the organs begin to shut down after six to nine weeks. Usually the heart simply stops.

(Here is a detailed medical report of the longest known fast: 382 days.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Medicine
Why Haven't We Cured Cancer Yet?
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Walkathons, fundraisers, and ribbon-shaped bumper stickers raise research dollars and boost spirits, but cancer—the dreaded disease that affects more than 14 million people and their families at any given time—still remains bereft of a cure.

Why? For starters, cancer isn't just one disease—it's more than 100 of them, with different causes. This makes it impossible to treat each one using a one-size-fits-all method. Secondly, scientists use lab-grown cell lines cultivated from human tumors to develop cancer therapies. Living masses are far more complex, so potential treatments that show promise in lab experiments often don't work on cancer patients. As for the tumors themselves, they're prone to tiny genetic mutations, so just one growth might contain multiple types of cancer cells, and even unique sub-clones of tumors. These distinct entities might not respond the same way, or at all, to the same drug.

These are just a few of the challenges that cancer researchers face—but the good news is that they're working to beat all of them, as this TED-Ed video explains below.

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