By Bill Murphy © 2014
Before making an important decision, many people use the phrase ‘I‘ll sleep on it first.’ Imagine the implications of trying to understand how not just the brain, but how the entire human body communicates on an intercellular level. With so much at stake, this challenge wasn‘t fully tackled until the 20th century. Medical science depends on understanding how a complex organism like a human body actually functions and coordinates all the activities required to sustain life.
While it‘s still debated among the lucid dreaming community, mainstream science maintains that consciousness is a biological function of the brain. In the last issue of the Lucid Dreaming Experience magazine, we addressed out-of-body experiences that provide good examples of why many people are opposed to the notion that the mind is solely the result of brain function. There is agreement that the human brain is still a mysterious organ, but how it communicates within its various lobes and regions is understood now better than ever.
However, the timeless mysteries of where creativity, problem solving, and the origins of thought and dreams truly reside is a topic that will likely be debated for many years. But the shocking truth is that the breakthrough in understanding how the billions of cells in the brain communicate with each other, and with rest of the body, came in a series of dreams to neuroscience researchers.
In this article, the focus is on how important lessons were learned from the actual dreams of two scientists that disagreed on how cells communicate. Assuming that the brain plays a role in dreaming, the irony that dreams provided the inspiration for understanding something as complicated as the nervous system is somehow poetic. The answer to the question of how a signal traveling along a nerve jumps a gap (known as a synapse) was the subject of debate in the early 1900‘s.
With this issue‘s topic being about the lessons learned from lucid dreams, I was ecstatic to find such a rich resource on intercellular communication in an article published in the Internet Journal of Neurology Volume 9 Number 1. Author Don Todman, MA FRACP FRCP, School of Medicine, University of Queensland assembled a thoroughly researched article titled Inspiration from dreams in neuroscience research. The freely distributed publication contains a lot of information about the specific research, but for the lucid dreaming enthusiast, here are some interesting facts:
Starting in 1900 the consensus was that neurons were connected by synapses and most neurophysiologists at that time believed that signal transmission between cells was electrical. Although electrical synapses are found in specialized locations that must remain synchronized, like the heart, several pioneering scientist began to theorize that the transmission of a signal in the central nervous system was a chemical process. But without a repeatable experiment the electrical versus chemical debate raged on. It is here we enter the dream world of Otto Loewi (1873-1961).
Otto Loewi had a dream which he credits as the inspiration for his crucial experiment that earned him the Nobel Prize along with Henry Dale that finally established that synaptic transmission is a chemical process. The details were recorded in his autobiography and it resembles a lucid dream journal: ‘the night before Easter Sunday of that year (1920) I woke, turned on the light and jotted down a few notes on a tiny slip of thin paper. Then I fell asleep again. It occurred to me at six o’clock in the morning that during the night I had written down something most important, but I was unable to decipher the scrawl.‘ Later that week he woke up before sunrise and suddenly realized the meaning of his dream.
Other neuroscientists disputed the findings of Loewi, but there is another account of another scientist, John Eccles (1903–1997) using ideas gained in his own dream to challenge the basis for a chemical chain reaction being the underlying mechanism for the nervous system. From his memoirs: ‘Then in 1947 I developed an electrical theory of synaptic inhibitory action which conformed with all the available experimental evidence. Incidentally this theory came to me in a dream.
On awakening I remembered the near tragic loss of Loewi’s dream so I kept myself awake for an hour or so going over every aspect of the dream, and found it fitted all experimental evidence.‘
Ironically, the resulting experiment design confirmed the results that Loewi published and earned him the Nobel Prize. Mammals do create an electrical charge within a neuron, and a chemical process transmits the signal for one neuron to another.
If the brain is responsible for generating dreams, then it was a dream generated by the brain that explains how the brain itself functions.
LDE Science Correspondent