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The New Science of DreamingReview - The New Science of Dreaming
by Deirdre Barrett and Patrick McNamara (Editors)
Praeger, 2007
Review by Jesse Butler, Ph.D.
Dec 25th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 52)

The New Science of Dreaming is a fascinating three volume anthology of recent work on dreams. It offers a variety of perspectives on many different topics surrounding the phenomenal experiences we have while sleeping: correlations between dreaming and neurophysiology, differentiation between types of dreams and their causes, patterns and variances in dream content, cognitive functions of dreams, relations between dreams and both normal and abnormal psychological processes, possible evolutionary origins of dreams, therapeutic uses of dreams, relationships between dreams, culture, and spirituality, and other related topics. The majority of authors have backgrounds in psychology, psychiatry, and / or neuroscience, but a number of other disciplines are represented as well, including anthropology, biology, literature, religious studies, and philosophy.  The contributions consist of academic articles written in styles appropriate for professional journals in the authors' respective disciplines. There are some variations in quality, as is to be expected with any large anthology, but in general the articles are well-written and offer interesting perspectives on the issues they address. The articles, especially those that deal directly with neurophysiology, are sometimes technical and presuppose some background information, so interested readers who are looking for an introductory overview may want to begin elsewhere with one of the many single-authored books on dreams, such as J. Allan Hobson's Dreaming, Andrea Rock's The Mind at Night, or, for the philosophically-oriented, Owen Flanagan's Dreaming Souls. But if you are interested in serious up-to-date research on dreams, and / or willing to do a bit of legwork in navigating through the terminology of multiple academic disciplines, The New Science of Dreaming is a worthwhile resource.

Considering the plurality of viewpoints and disciplines that appear in this collection, the title The New Science of Dreaming is perhaps a bit of a misnomer.  Based upon that title alone, one might expect to find the explicit development of a unified scientific framework for understanding dreams. Instead, however, we find the phenomena of dreams subjected to empirical investigations and theoretical analyses that utilize a variety of different methodologies drawn from a broad range of disciplines and perspectives, some of which are arguably unscientific. To be fair, there are some convergences and interdisciplinary developments that can be discerned from some of the articles, such that, as the editors say in the introduction, "the subjective and physiologic data on dreaming are finally beginning to inform each other," but to call this a new science is somewhat of a stretch as things currently stand. More accurately described, what we have here are multiple sciences (and other disciplines) coming together to investigate a plurality of phenomena regarding dreams, as is the case with the various cognitive sciences and their investigation of the mind more generally. Quibbles about the title aside, however, this collection of articles does a good job of bringing together current perspectives on dreams, allowing readers to delve into what is known, as well as what is not known and what is currently under investigation, about the mysterious netherworld behind the wall of sleep.

The New Science of Dreaming is divided into three volumes, each with a specific thematic focus (although there is a good bit of overlap between them). However, all three volumes contain the same six-page introduction, which I found slightly disappointing. This introduction does offer a clear and succinct overview of the main themes and ideas contained in the collection, but I would have preferred to see more developed overviews of each volume's focal points, especially considering the fact that the diverse perspectives they contain are ripe for interesting comparative analyses. Thoughtful introductory essays on each of the three volumes could have helped to tie together the many views and approaches they contain into a big picture perspective of where the investigation of dreaming stands and what directions it might take in the future, but on the positive side there is plenty of material for readers to do this themselves as they work through the collection. 

The first volume of The New Science of Dreaming is subtitled Biological Aspects. This volume contains multiple articles concerning the underlying neurophysiology behind dreaming, as well as some related work on the cognitive aspects of dreaming. Some interesting topics that come up in this volume are physiological and experiential differences between REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and Non-REM dreams, phylogeny of dream-related physiology across different biological species, decreased frontal lobe activity during REM dreams, and relationships between dreams and other cognitive phenomena, such as confabulation, "theory of mind" attributions, and metacognition. The second volume, Content, Recall, and Personality Correlates, turns towards specific kinds of dream contents and patterns, with some attention given to qualitatively different types of dreams. Some highlights include questioning the purported bizarreness of dreams in favor of the view that dreams are somewhat realistic simulations of waking life, measurement of differences in dream recall and content between men and women, application of dream work to psychotherapy, analysis of nightmares as emotional regulators, and empirical investigation of lucid dreams (dreams in which the subject becomes aware that she is dreaming). The final volume, Cultural and Theoretical Perspectives, is the most diverse of the three and includes a variety of viewpoints on how to understand dreams, their functions, and their ability to reveal insights into various related topics. A prominent theme in this volume is looking at dreams through the lens of evolutionary psychology, attempting to discern what function or functions dreams may have served within the context of human evolution. Several different theories are offered here, but with none taking obvious priority over the others. As I see it, this points towards an interesting area for further reflection and research, with significant potential for increased understanding of not only dreaming but of the nature of the mind itself. In fact, this final volume identifies several different avenues of investigation that may facilitate both the study of dreaming and the use of dreams to understand other phenomena, such as culture, religion, philosophical theories of the self, knowledge, and even social networks. All together, these three volumes cover a vast amount of territory, illustrating how the study of dreams is a fascinating, diverse, and growing area of academic activity. Anyone interested in a thorough understanding of this territory will likely find The New Science of Dreaming to be an informative and useful body of work.

© 2007 Jesse Butler

Dr. Jesse Butler is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Central Arkansas, specializing in the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and epistemology.

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