Open Access Open Access  Restricted Access Subscription or Fee Access

Dreaming during REM sleep: autobiographically meaningful or a simple reflection of a Hebb'ian-based memory consolidation process?

U. Voss, A. Klimke


REM sleep is a state of desynchronized electrophysiological activity of the brain. It is usually accompanied by mental activity characterized by a succession of complex visual experiences commonly referred to as dreaming. Although REM sleep and dreaming are not implicitly conjoined, when they co-occur, they have a very distinct phenomenology, as, typically, the dream plot is bizarre and incohesive which is mirrored in heightened brain activation coupled with strongly attenuated coherence levels. At the same time, owing to increased limbic system activity, REM sleep dreams are highly emotional. Moreover, concrete emotions are often unrelated to dream events. Nevertheless, REM sleep dreams are often subjectively perceived as story-like and autobiographically meaningful. Indeed, elements of salient life events, attachment figures, and personally relevant emotions, especially trauma, seem to have a higher probability of re-appearing in dreams, albeit the dream plot itself remains highly distorted. This has prompted several theories on the interpretability of dreams, some authors leaning towards dreams reflecting waking mentation, others suggesting complete dissociation between waking and dreaming, both sides not fully accounting for empirical findings. In this review, we provide an overview of recent findings on the factors mediating REM sleep neurophysiology and dream content. As a first step towards integration of conflicting research results, we introduce a testable model (Trace-Spur-model) based on Hebb’ian theory of neural networks, proposing that dream bizarreness is a function of state-related modulations in synaptic strength allowing for hyper-associative mental activity, possibly enabling either a restructuring and integrative consolidation or extinction of learning experiences acquired in waking. In this model, dreams are viewed as phenomenological expressions of this neurophysiologic activity where dream recall allows a fragmentary witnessing of such processes, similar to peeking into an enduring and complex networking system. However, the content of the recollected dream is probably strongly deterred by autobiographical memory bias, favoring those images we can form some sort of association with.


REM sleep; dreaming; Hebb; continuity; discontinuity

Full Text:



Bell A, Hall C. The Personality of a Child Molester: An Analysis of Dreams. Chicago, IL: Aldine; 1971. 9.

Benchenane, K., Peyrache, A., Khamassi, M., Tierney, P.L., Gioanni, Y.,

Battaglia, F.P.,Wiener, S.I., 2010. Coherent theta oscillations and reorganization of spike timing in the hippocampal- prefrontal network upon learning. Neuron 66 (6), 921–936

Berger, R. J., Olley, P., & Oswald, I. (1962). The eec, eye-movements and dreams of the blind. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 14(3), 183-186.

Bertolo, H., Paiva, T., Pessoa, L., Mestre, T., Marques, R., & Santos, R. (2003). Visual dream content, graphical representation and EEG alpha activity in congenitally blind subjects. Cognitive Brain Research, 15 , 277–284.

Blagrove, J Henley-Einion, A Barnett, et al.: A replication of the 5-7 day dreamlag effect with comparison of dreams to future events as control for baseline matching. Consciousness Cogn. 20 (2):384-391 2011

Bowe-Anders, C., Herman, J. H., & Roffwarg, H. P. (1974). Effects of goggle-altered color perception on sleep. Perceptual and motor skills, 38(1), 191-198.

Brown, M., Amoroso, D. M., & Ware, E. E. (1976). Behavioral effects of viewing pornography. The Journal of social psychology, 98(2), 235-245.

Cartwright, R. (1986). Affect and dream work from an information processing point of view. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 411-427.

Cartwright, R., Agargun, M. Y., Kirkby, J., & Friedman, J. K. (2006). Relation of dreams to waking concerns. Psychiatry Research, 141(3), 261-270.

Castaldo, V., & Shevrin, H. (1970). Different effect of an auditory stimulus as a function of rapid eye movement and non-rapid eye movement sleep. The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 150(3), 195-200.

Comarr, A. E., Cressy, J. M., & Letch, M. (1983). Sleep dreams of sex among traumatic paraplegics and quadriplegics. Sexuality and disability, 6(1), 25-29.

Cipolli C, Ferrara M, De Gennaro L, Plazzi G. Beyond the neuropsychology of dreaming: insights into the neural basis of dreaming with new techniques of sleep recording and analysis. Sleep Med Rev. 2017;35:8–20. 17

Crick, F., & Mitchison, G. (1983). The function of dream sleep. Nature, 304(5922), 111-114.

Delorme, M.A., Lortie-Lussier, M., & De Koninck, J. (2002). Stress and coping in the waking mid-dreaming states during an examination period. Dreaming 12, 171–183.

Dement, W., & Kleitman, N. (1957). The relation of eye movements during sleep to dream activity: an objective method for the study of dreaming. Journal of experimental psychology, 53(5), 339.

De Gennaro L, Marzano C, Cipolli C, Ferrara M. How we remember the stuff that dreams are made of: neurobiological approaches to the brain mechanisms of dream recall. Behav Brain Res. 2012;226:592e6. 16.

Eichenbaum H (2015) The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map . of Social Space . Neuron 87, 10-11.

Fosse, M. J., Fosse, R., Hobson, J. A., & Stickgold, R. J. (2003). Dreaming and episodic memory: a functional dissociation?. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 15(1), 1-9.

Foulkes, D. 1982. Children's Dreams: Longitudinal studies. New York: Wiley-Interscience.

Foulkes, D. The psychology of sleep. New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1966.

Foulkes D. Dream reports from different stages of sleep. J Abnorm Soc Psychol. 1962;65:14–25.

Foulkes, D., Pivik, T., Steadman, H. S., Spear, P. S., & Symonds, J. D. (1967). Dreams of the male child: an EEG study. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 72(6), 457.

Foulkes, D., & Rechtschaffen, A. (1964). Presleep determinants of dream content: Effects of two films. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 19(3), 983-1005.

Griffith, R. M., Miyagi, O., & Tago, A. (1958). The universality of typical dreams: Japanese vs. Americans. American Anthropologist, 60(6), 1173-1179.

Hall C. A cognitive theory of dreams. J Gen Psychol. 1953;49(1): 273–282.

Hall, C. S., Domhoff, G. W., Blick, K. A., & Weesner, K. E. (1982). The dreams of college men and women in 1950 and 1980: A comparison of dream contents and sex differences. Sleep, 5(2), 188-194.

Hearne, K. M. (1978). Lucid dreams: An elecro-physiological and psychological study. Liverpool: Liverpool University.

Hebb, D.O. (1949). Organization of behavior. New York: Wiley.

Hebb, D.O. (1953). On human thought. Canad. J. Psychol, 7, 99-110.

Herman, J., Ellman, S., & Roffwarg, H. (1978). The problem of NREM dream recall reexamined. The mind in sleep: Psychology and psychophysiology, 59-62.

Hobson, J. A., Hong, C. C. H., & Friston, K. J. (2014). Virtual reality and consciousness inference in dreaming. Frontiers in psychology, 5.

Hobson JA, Schredl M. The continuity and dis-continuity between waking and dreaming: a Dialogue between Michael Schredl and Allan Hobson concerning the adequacy and completeness of these notions. Int J Dream Res. 2011;4:3–7. 13.

Hobson, J. A., & Stickgold, R. (1994). A neurocognitive approach to dreaming. Consciousness and Cognition 3 (1):1-15 (1994)

Koppehele-Gossel, J., Klimke, A., Schermelleh-Engel, K., Voss U. (2016) A template model of embodiment while dreaming: Proposal of a mini-me. Consciousness and Cognition 46 (2016) 148–162.

LaBerge, S. (1985). Lucid dreaming: The power of being awake and aware in your dreams. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher.

Louie, K., & Wilson, M. A. (2001). Temporally structured replay of awake hippocampal ensemble activity during rapid eye movement sleep. Neuron, 29(1), 145-156.

Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good, C. D., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., & Frith, C. D. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97(8), 4398-4403.

Maguire, E. A., Woollett, K., & Spiers, H. J. (2006). London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus, 16(12), 1091-1101.

Marquardt, C. J., Bonato, R. A., & Hoffmann, R. F. (1996). An empirical investigation into the day-residue and dream-lag effects. Dreaming, 6(1), 57.

Mizuseki, K., & Miyawaki, H. (2017). Hippocampal Information Processing Across Sleep/Wake Cycles. Neuroscience Research.

Nielsen, T. A. (2000). A review of mentation in REM and NREM sleep:“covert” REM sleep as a possible reconciliation of two opposing models. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23(6), 851-866.

Nielsen, T. A., & Powell, R. A. (1988). Longitudinal dream incorporation: Preliminary evidence of cognitive processing with an infradian period. Sleep Res, 17, 112.

Nielsen, T. A., & Powell, R. A. (1989). The" dream-lag" effect: A 6-day temporal delay in dream content incorporation. Psychiatric Journal of the University of Ottawa.

Nielsen, T. A., Zadra, A. L., Simard, V., Saucier, S., Stenstrom, P., Smith, C., & Kuiken, D. (2003). The Typical Dreams of Canadian University Students. Dreaming, 13(4), 211.

Pagel JF, Blagrove M, Levin R, States B, et al. Defining dreaming – a

paradigm for comparing interdisciplinary studies of dream. Bull Am. Acad. Sleep Med. 1999;6(4):34.

Pagel JF, Blagrove M, Levin R, States B, et al. Definitions of dream – a paradigm for comparing field descriptive specific studies of dream. Dreaming 2001;11(4):195 – 202.

Pagel, J. F. (2003). Non-dreamers. Sleep Medicine, 4(3), 235-241.

Poe, G.R., Nitz, D.A., McNaughton, B.L., and Barnes, C.A. (2000). Experience-dependent phase-reversal of hippocampal neuron firing during REM sleep Brain Res. 855, 176–180.

Rahimi, S., Naghibi, S. M., Mokhber, N., Schredl, M., Assadpour, H., & Ramezani Farkhani, A. (2015). Sophisticated evaluation of possible effect of dis-tinct auditory stimulation during REM sleep on dream content. International Journal of Dream Research, 8(2), 146-151.

Rechtschaffen, A., & Siegel, J. M. (2000). Sleep and dreaming. Principles of neuroscience, 4.

Revonsuo, A. (1995). Consciousness, dreams and virtual realities. Philosophical Psychology, 8(1), 35-58.

Revonsuo, A., Tuominen, J., & Valli, K. (2015). The avatars in the machine: Dreaming as a simulation of social reality. In T. Metzinger & J. Windt (Eds.), Open MIND, 32(T). Frankfurt am Main: MIND Group.

Rosen, M. G. (2013). What I make up when I wake up: anti-experience views and narrative fabrication of dreams. Frontiers in psychology, 4, 514.

Ross JH. The continuity and discontinuity between waking and dreaming from the perspective of an analytical psychological construct. Commentary on “The continuity and discontinuity between waking and dreaming: A Dialogue between Michael Schredl and Allan Hobson concerning the adequacy and completeness of these notions”. Int J Dream Res. 2011;4(2):81.

Ryan, J. H. (1961). Dreams of paraplegics. Archives of general psychiatry, 5(3), 286-291.

Saurat, M. T., Agbakou, M., Attigui, P., Golmard, J. L., & Arnulf, I. (2011). Walking dreams in congenital and acquired paraplegia. Consciousness and cognition, 20(4), 1425-1432.

Schredl, M. (2010). Characteristics and contents of dreams. International review of neurobiology, 92, 135-154.

Schredl M. Continuity in studying the continuity hypothesis of dreaming is needed reply to the comments on “The continuity and discontinuity between waking and dreaming: A dialogue between Michael Schredl and Allan Hobson concerning the adequacy and completeness of these notions”. Int J Dream Res. 2012;5(1):1–8.

Schredl, M., Atanasova, D., Hörmann, K., Maurer, J. T., Hummel, T., & Stuck, B. A. (2009). Information processing during sleep: the effect of olfactory stimuli on dream content and dream emotions. Journal of sleep research, 18(3), 285-290.

Schredl, M., Ciric, P., Götz, S., & Wittmann, L. (2004). Typical dreams: stability and gender differences. The journal of psychology, 138(6), 485-494.

Schredl, I Reinhard: The continuity between waking mood and dream emotions: direct and second-order effects. Imagin Cogn Pers. 29:271-282 2009-2010

Schredl, M., & Hofmann, F. (2003). Continuity between waking activities and dream activities. Consciousness and Cognition,12, 298–308.

Siegel, J. M. (2001). The REM sleep-memory consolidation hypothesis. Science, 294(5544), 1058-1063.

Strauch, I., & Meier, B. (1996). In search of dreams: Results of experimental dream research. Albany: SUNY Press.

Solms M. The Neuropsychology of Dreams: A Clinico-Anatomical Study. Hillsdale: Erlbaum; 1997. 26. Solms M. Dreaming and REM sleep are controlled by different brain mechanisms. Behav Brain Sci. 2000;2:843–850. 27

Tauber, E. S., Roffwarg, H. P., & Herman, J. (1968). The effects of longstanding perceptual alterations on the hallucinatory content of dreams. Psychophysiology, 5, 219.

Tavares, R.M., Mendelsohn, A., Grossman, Y., Williams, C.H., Shapiro, M., Trope, Y., and Schiller, D. (2015). A Map for Social Navigation in the Human Brain. Neuron 87, 231–243.

Verdone, P. (1965). Temporal reference of manifest dream content. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 20(3_suppl), 1253-1268.

Vertes, R. P., & Siegel, J. M. (2005). Time for the sleep community to take a critical look at the purported role of sleep in memory processing. Sleep, 28(10), 1228-1229.

Voss, U., Tuin, I., Schermelleh-Engel, K., & Hobson, A. (2011). Waking and dreaming: related but structurally independent. Dream reports of congenitally paraplegic and deaf-mute persons. Consciousness and cognition, 20(3), 673-687.

Voss, U., Holzmann, R., Hobson, A., Paulus, W., Koppehele-Gossel, J., Klimke, A., & Nitsche, M. A. (2014). Induction of self awareness in dreams through frontal low current stimulation of gamma activity. Nature neuroscience, 17(6), 810-812.

Windt, J. M. (2015). Dreaming: A conceptual framework for philosophy of mind and empirical research. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Woollett, K., & Maguire, E. A. (2011). Acquiring “the Knowledge” of London's layout drives structural brain changes. Current biology, 21(24), 2109-2114.

Yu, C. K. C. (2008). Typical dreams experienced by Chinese people. Dreaming, 18(1), 1.



  • There are currently no refbacks.