Psychology Articles

Scientists Learn How To Program Human Dreams

Oct. 15, 2000 - AP

A team of Harvard Medical School scientists has achieved what researchers since Freud's day have sought: a way to control -- at least in part -- the content of a person's dreams.

They are using their dream-provoking method to explore age-old questions such as: Where do dreams come from? What do they mean? What is their role in memory, learning, and creativity? What is their link to the unconscious?

For years, scientists have been stymied in their quest to understand these associations because dreams are unique events that cannot be replicated. Until now. Robert Stickgold, HMS assistant professor of psychiatry, and his colleagues report in today's Science that they were able to get 17 different people to see the same dream images as they drifted off to sleep.

Stickgold and his colleages elicited the carbon-copy images using the computer game Tetris, training 27 subjects -- 12 novices, 10 experts and 5 amnesiacs -- to play the game over the course of three days.

They held a two-hour morning and one-hour evening session the first day and an hour-long morning and evening session each of the following two days. They then monitored the subjects' dreams as they were drifting to sleep on the first two evenings.

Seventeen of the subjects, over 60 percent of the total, reported dreaming at least once in the hour after they fell asleep, and all reported the exact same dream images -- falling Tetris pieces. And intriguingly, the majority of dream reports occurred on the second rather than the first night of training.

This lag between first training and most intensive dreaming is interesting for the light it may shed on the link between learning and dreams. It appears that the need to learn may actually prod the brain to dream.

"It's as if the brain needs more time or more play before it decides, 'Okay, this is something that I really need to deal with at sleep onset," Stickgold said.

Perhaps the most surprising findings of all came from the amnesiacs in the study. Co-author David Roddenberry found that when the five amnesiacs -- who had no short-term memory due to hippocampal damage -- were exposed to the computer game protocol, three of them experienced the same hypnagogic dreams as the normal subjects.

"I was just stunned when David called me and said they're getting them," Stickgold said. Though amnesiacs were known to dream, their dreams were thought to have little to do with the day's events, since those events are not remembered.

Stickgold had assumed that this would be especially true of the early, or "hypnagogic," stages of dreaming explored in their studies. Compared to later stages of dreaming, such as those occurring during deep sleep or REM sleep, hypnagogic dreams were thought to be more tightly linked to conscious, or episodic, memory.

"We thought if there's one part of sleep that depends on episodic memories, which amnesiacs lack, its sleep onset," he said.

The fact that some of the amnesiacs saw the falling Tetris pieces points to the powerful role played by the unconscious in dreams. In fact, Stickgold believes that the amnesiac's unconscious Tetris memories may have affected not only their dreams, but their waking behavior.

Unlike the normal subjects in their study -- who improved in their computer games over the course of the three days -- the amnesics showed marginal improvement. Most had to be taught the game all over again each day. But Roddenberry, an undergraduate at Harvard University, observed that at the start of a session, one of the amnesiacs placed her fingers on the exact three keys used in playing Tetris.

"She did not quite know what she was doing and yet she did know what she was doing," said Stickgold. "In a way, this is Freud's unconscious -- things activated in our brain that are in fact memories that guide our behavior but are not conscious," he said.

The notion that dreaming is prompted by a need to learn was supported by other findings as well. The researchers found that novices who reported seeing falling Tetris pieces did not perform as well in their initial two- hour Tetris training session as those who did not see the images.

"It's as if the more work you have to do, the more likely you are to get the imagery," said Stickgold.

Those who needed to do the least work were the experts in the study, each of whom had previously logged at least 50 and as much as 500 hours of Tetris playing, mostly on Nintendo sets. Half of them reported dreams of Tetris pieces falling before their eyes, but the last two experts reported an intriguing twist. Rather than seeing the Tetris pieces in black and white, as they were shown in the experimental protocol, they saw them as they appeared in their earlier Nintendo Tetris-playing days -- in color and accompanied by music.

This substitution of old images for new ones strikes at the most distinctive quality of dreams -- their often astounding creativity. In dreaming, the brain does not merely replay memories, but transforms them by associating them with old images and memories.

"It's actually hunting around and finding other relevant information to connect to, which is the integrative process -- which, over time, I would argue, is a critical function of sleep," said Stickgold.

"What we're really looking at here is the age-old mind-body problem: the mind-brain connection," said Stickgold. "We think of our mind as being ours. But there are real ways in which the brain has a set of rules of its own.

"We're getting an idea of what the brain uses as its rules for picking out cortical memory traces to reactivate and bring into our conscious mind, and, we're trying to see across wake-sleep cycles how that process happens."

Support for this research was provided by the National Institutes of Health and The Network on Mind-Body Interactions, a multidisciplinary research network sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Begun a decade ago, the Mind-Body Network has been committed to discovering the biological mechanisms by which the social world and mental processes affect physical health.

Crystalinks: Dreams

Size Of Brain Linked To Violence

February 4, 2000 - Science daily

Men who are most prone to rage and violence have significant deficiencies in a brain region that enables most people to learn moral sensibilities and exercise self-restraint, researchers at the University of Southern California have shown.

The study joins a growing body of findings that may force society to rethink how it regards violent crime, blame, punishment and the scope of free will.

"Our previous research had shown that convicted murderers -- really violent offenders -- have poorer functioning in the brain's prefrontal cortex," said USC psychopathologist Adrian Raine. In a study published in the Feb. 1 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, Raine and colleagues demonstrate that a physical abnormality may underlie the poor functioning in these violent, antisocial men.

Neurologists have long been aware of a strong link between damage to the prefrontal cortex and the acquisition of antisocial, psychopathic-like personality changes. Raine's study bolsters this link by taking people with lifelong antisocial tendencies and showing that they have prefrontal damage.

The prefrontal cortex is the brain's foremost outer portion, located right behind the eyes. Vital in the orchestration of emotion, arousal and attention, it seems to house the mental machinery that enables people to restrain themselves from acting on all of their impulses. The prefrontal cortex is thought to be central to a child's ability to learn to feel remorse, conscience and social sensitivity.

The 21 men studied were all diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD), which is characterized by irresponsibility, deceitfulness, impulsiveness, irritability, lack of emotional depth, lack of remorse, and life-long antisocial behavior. All of them had psychopathic personalities and had committed serious, violent crimes.

Using brain-imaging techniques, the researchers measured tissue volume in the prefrontal cortex. They found that the antisocial men had an 11 to 14 percent reduction in the volume of nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex compared to normal males -- a deficit of about two teaspoons' worth.

Raine suggests three reasons why prefrontal deficits may cause antisocial personality:

First, the region appears to be critical for self-restraint and deliberate foresight. "One thing we know about antisocials is that they do not think ahead," said Raine.

Second, it's crucial for learning conditioned responses -- essential, for example, to a child's linking the thought of a misdeed with anxiety over punishment. "Unconscious mental-emotional associations such as these lie at the core of what we call conscience," Raine said.

Third, if prefrontal deficits underlie the APD group's low levels of autonomic arousal, these people may unconsciously be trying to compensate through stimulation-seeking. "For some kids," said Raine, "one way of getting an arousal-jag is by robbing stores or beating people up."

Reduced prefrontal volume and lower autonomic responses predicted APD with an accuracy of 76.9 percent. In fact, Raine explained, the prefrontal and autonomic deficits were just as good at predicting whether a subject has APD as were the 10 "psychosocial risk factors" -- including poverty, parental criminality, and physical and sexual abuse -- also considered in the study. Combined, biological and social factors were 88.5 percent accurate in predicting APD.

This new study is the first structural brain-imaging study of any antisocial group, Raine said, and is significant because the subjects come from the general community rather than prisons, and because the study was controlled for some important factors, such as substance abuse and mental health problems unrelated to APD, that could have been directly associated with the brain deficit.

Clinical, functional and structural findings like Raine's are adding up to a persuasive case that antisocials, growing up from birth or early childhood with prefrontal deficits, have the deck stacked weightily against them.

"We are talking about a predisposition to antisocial behavior," Raine stressed. "Some people who have prefrontal deficits do not become antisocial, and some antisocial individuals do not have prefrontal deficits. It's important to make clear that biology is not destiny."

Even so, Raine's findings raise important ethical questions about culpability and free will. "To what extent," he asked, "should we take disordered brain functioning into account as part of the reason for certain types of crime? Assuming these people are not responsible for their own brain damage, should we hold them fully responsible for their criminal acts?"

At present, there is no way to repair large-scale brain damage or deficits. Still, Raine said, society could move to address the problem of biologically based violence. "Let's not forget the physical and sexual abuse or the poverty. That's very important. But I think one reason we have failed to provide effective treatments and interventions is that we have ignored the biological side of the equation.

"We need to focus resources on that small group of kids, the 5 percent, who will commit 50 percent of the crime and violence later in life," Raine continued. "Tackling imprisoned adults is almost a waste of time. Tackling kids when they're juvenile delinquents is far too late. We have to get to these kids much earlier in life, when the brain is more plastic."

Raine suggested a number of interventions that could be applied. Cognitive and behavioral therapy and drug therapy have potential. Biofeedback -- training children or adults to control their own arousal levels -- could be a useful tool. And children could be channeled into safe activities that might satisfy their natural stimulation-seeking and aggressive proclivities, steering them clear of the antisocial, criminal lifestyle into which they are otherwise likely to fall.

"Studies in England show that army bomb-disposal experts have low resting heart rates," Raine said. "That's very interesting, because it makes me wonder whether biological predispositions to antisocial behavior could be adaptive, too. Society needs fearless people, after all, people who might contribute to society as bomb-disposal experts, firefighters and test pilots if they could be identified and helped in time."

Raine, a professor of psychology in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, is first author of the journal article and author of a book titled "The Psychopathology of Crime: Criminal Behavior as a Clinical Disorder."

Co-authors of the journal article are Todd Lencz, Hillside Hospital, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System; Susan Bihrle and Lori LaCasse, department of psychology, USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences; and Patrick M. Colletti, department of radiology, USC Keck School of Medicine .

This study was supported by grants to the first author from the National Institute of Mental Health and the Wacker Foundation.

Internet Addiction Becoming Major Problem

Sun Media - May 27, 1999 - Edmonton, Canada

Ryan suspected his wife was addicted to the Internet when she began staying on their computer until 3 a.m. every night.

"At first, I thought it was because it was a new toy," said Ryan, who didn't want his real name used. "But by the time she was spending up to 16 hours a day chatting on the Internet, I knew she had a problem."

When his 34-year-old wife admitted she was having phone sex with an 18-year-old man she had met online, Ryan, 43, moved out of the family home.

Welcome to the secret world of Internet addiction, a new disorder that's slowly gaining recognition.

A U.S. survey of 18,000 Net surfers last year one of only a handful to look at the issue, found that 6% of users were addicted. Of those that admitted a dependency, 31% said they'd had a real-life sexual affair with a person they'd met online.

"It's not how many hours you spend on the Net, but whether your use of it is having an effect on your life, your family, job or education," said American psychologist Dr. David Greenfield, who helped conduct the survey with ABC News.

Some experts say it is a problem that must be taken as seriously as alcoholism or drug addiction.

"It really does parallel other addictions because it causes family problems, troubles at work and at school," said Dr. Kimberly Young, director of the Center for Online Addiction at the University of Pittsburgh.

Greenfield's study found that sex was a factor for many Net surfers, addicted or not.

Over 40% of Net addicts and 12% of non-addicted users claimed they had masturbated while online.

Flirting was even more popular, with over half the Net addicts and 20% of non-addicts admitting to it.

For some people, the computer world starts to rival their real world.

Spouses and children are neglected, job deadlines missed and social events skipped as the user becomes obsessed with spending time escaping reality.

Although romance and sex draw many people, others are addicted to games, stock market trading and even auction houses,Young said.

She became interested in the problem in 1994 when a girlfriend complained her husband spent hours having sexual conversations with women on the Net.

Dr. David Greenfield ... Study of Net addicts "I posted a survey on the Net and the next day I got 40 responses from people saying their life had been turned upside down (by the Net)."

Net addiction is marked by a pattern of behaviour rather than hours logged, Young said.

Checking e-mail compulsively, preferring to talk to people online rather than face-to-face and lying about the extent of usage, are all warning signs.

Chat rooms -- Web sites where computer users can communicate on-screen with people all over the world -- are one of the biggest draws.

"The appeal is the unconditional approval that people will give you there," said pastoral counsellor Mike Paddison of the Edmonton Family Centre.

He believes Net addiction is often symptomatic of relationship problems.

"They are unhappy at home and the Net is their social life ... it is a lifeline," said Paddison, who has counselled about a dozen such cases in the past two years.

Said Young: "On the Internet you can conceal your real name, occupation, physical appearance and age. You can take that freedom and quickly pour out your strongest feelings and deepest desires. This leads to the illusion of intimacy."

"Anything that can increase your pleasure and decrease your pain can be addictive," Greenfield said.

Many Net addicts suffer the same problems other addicts suffer such as low self-esteem, loneliness, depression and anxiety.

Home-based computer users are most at risk and a typical addict is a middle-aged woman with a limited education, Young said. However, she has seen cases of all ages and social groups. Anything that can increase your pleasure and decrease your pain can become addictive.