...most people from across most cultures and all of history have treated dreams as direct evidence of a spirit realm. And that raises an obvious question: what is it about dreams that make them such potent vehicles for the supernatural?
We know that rapid eye movement sleep (REM), when eyes move rapidly back and forth under closed eyelids, is the phase when we have the most vivid dreams. REM is associated with heightened levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine (associated with reward and movement) and acetylcholine (associated with memory), as well as a surge of activity in the limbic system, the amygdala, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, all areas of the brain that handle emotion. Conversely, there is lowered activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that handles personal insight, rationality and judgement; likewise, the neurochemicals noradrenaline and serotonin, involved in vigilance and self-control, are regulated down. The very low levels of serotonin allow steady release of the excitatory transmitter glutamate, which overstimulates the brain activity thought to underlie the cognitive and perceptual effects of hallucinogens. In other words, in REM sleep, our emotional centres are overstimulated while our reflective rational centres are impeded or narrowly refocused on issues of emotional significance. We are left free to ponder the endless meanings of the emotions and interactions that we experience but we do so with wildly fluctuating levels of reflective insight.
It only makes sense that these REM-related brain changes are also associated with schizophrenia and the high of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD. REM, schizophrenia and hallucinogens are all associated with the neurologic conditions that produce altered states of consciousness. The neurochemistry of dreams produces an emotionally intense state of mind in the absence of an ability to critically reflect on the images produced by that state. When the hallucinatory REM dream or an acid trip ends, individuals can then reflect on and attempt to interpret the intense experiences they’ve just undergone…The greater the interpretive difficulty, the more significance we impute to the experience – up to a point. That might explain why schizophrenics with positive hallucinations – including visual hallucinations, hearing voices, and delusions – report such high levels of religiosity, attempting to interpret their aberrant experiences through religious symbols, language and tropes.
Where does all this leave us today? On one hand, the link between REM dreams and spiritual experience disturbs some religious people because they fear it suggests that religion is nothing but delusional dreaming and hallucinations. On the other hand, the connection upsets some die-hard atheists, who dislike the idea that spirituality is rooted in our biology – that it is functional and adaptive, and central to who we are.
What we do with the demonstration that spirituality is rooted in REM sleep and dreams is a personal – perhaps spiritual – choice. But science and society itself would benefit from taking the connection seriously. If our dreams generate spiritual ideas, they might also contribute to a generation of religious-based terrorism and fanaticism. After all, REM sleep has been studied as a model for psychosis. The same chemical brew that produces the dream state can, if tweaked, produce obsessional psychoses and related neuropsychiatric symptoms. Religious fanaticism has a kind of obsessional and paranoid feel to it that links it with REM intrusion into waking life and the subsequent delusional states that follow. The future neuroscience of the spiritual, rooted in the study of dreams, could help us to confront some of our era’s greatest challenges.