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Dream contents and failing memories.

J. Lee Kavanau


Mentation during sleep states is thought to originate in an activation of brain circuits that encode inherited and experiential memories. Spontaneous degradation of the strengths of synapses occurs in all brain circuits because of "turnover" of molecules essential for synaptic function. In circuits employed frequently during waking, synaptic strengths are refreshed and maintained in their dedicated or functional ranges largely through use, by virtue of activity-dependent synaptic plasticity. In circuits employed infrequently during waking, synaptic strengths are refreshed largely during sleep, by circuit activations induced by spontaneous, self-generated, largely low-frequency brain waves, also by virtue of activity-dependent synaptic plasticity. The outputs of circuits activated during sleep do not necessarily rise to the level of 'unconscious' awareness. Such an absence of awareness of the outputs of individual circuits, that is, an absence of dreaming, is proposed to be the primitive condition in animals that sleep. On the other hand, temporal binding of these outputs is accompanied by the thoughts and perceptions of dreams, which is proposed to be the advanced condition. Linking or serial ordering of otherwise 'static' thoughts and perceptions gives rise to continuous, often narrative and veridical, dreams. In all cases, dream contents are derived from the memories--not necessarily veridical--encoded in the reinforced circuitry. In the absence of synaptic strength refreshments during sleep, synaptic strengths in infrequently used circuits would weaken and the circuits would become incompetent, with their encoded memories degraded or lost. Maintenance of synaptic strengths in infrequently used circuitry during sleep apparently does not always achieve perfection. Weakened synapses begin to occur in circuits in appreciable numbers in children after the age of about 5 years. When these 'incompetent' circuits (with weakened synapses) are activated during sleep, there are minimal influences on dream contents, namely, distortions that make some objects, such as animals, faces, and scenes, unrecognizable. As weakened synapses increase in numbers with age, the numbers of distorted objects in dreams also increase. In adults, people in as many as 80% of dreams may be unrecognizable. Besides the normal weakening of synaptic strengths, some synapses become defective, in consequence of deleterious, adventitious, exogenous influences, for example, radiation. As these faulty synapses accumulate in old memories, activation of circuits incorporating them during sleep leads to dreams with incoherent, bizarre, or impossible contents. The infrequent activation of such old, incompetent circuits in some waking conditions leads to false memories, delusions, or hallucinations.

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