thumbnail of California Stories; Dreams: Theater of the Night
Hide -
<v Roger Bingham>Hello, I'm Roger Bingham. Tonight, while you sleep, you will see your own private movie. You'll be the writer, producer, director, audience. Maybe even the star. It'll seem real. But tomorrow it may have melted away, leaving only tantalizing traces because it was just a dream. But what are dreams? Are, the omens or prophecies? Can they give us insights into ourselves? Can we learn how to use them? Or are they just random, meaningless images manufactured by the brain, a kind of mental froth on the surface of sleep? Why are we in this magic theater of the night? And what happens inside? <v Roger Bingham>Most of us sleep about eight hours a night and we spend nearly two hours of that in the land of dreams. It's a place where anything can happen and often does. The place where we meet strange people, have strange conversations, do strange things, and then with the light of day, we return with our traveler's tales, tales of journeys inside our own brains.
<v Roger Bingham>Let's begin with one of those tales. Jessica's dream. She describes it to psychologist Dr. Ernest Rossi. <v Jessica>In the dream, I am rowing on the ocean and I'm going along and everything is all right. And suddenly the waters part and after all and my boat is in the bottom of the ocean and I get out of the boat and step and look around and I can see the caverns of the ocean and an fish all jumping around and, because they have no water. And and then suddenly I began to, I hear a rumble, a very large rumble. And it's frightening. It's like an earthquake almost. And the sound it gets louder and louder and I become very frightened. And I look in in both directions, both ways. I see these huge walls of water approaching. And I put my hands down. And in my dream, I die before the water crushes me from the sound. The rumbling and the sound is so great that I die. And then I wake up. <v Speaker>We'll explore Jessica's dream later. But first, let's go back to the man whose theories of dreaming were the cornerstone of psychoanalysis: Sigmund Freud. Dreams, Freud thought, were a kind of safety valve that allowed us to let off psychic steam being generated by taboo desires in our unconscious minds. This extract from a piece called Hungers by video artist Ed M. Shriller seems uncannily Freudian. These X-rated emotions, Freud said, were disguised by an internal censor, then emerged hidden behind symbols and strange stories during dreams. If we could understand the dream's symbolism, Freud believed, we could discover the underlying meaning. Freud's onetime disciple, Carl Jung, had a different interpretation of dream content. Again, an artist's imagination seems to illustrate the analyst's theories. This video is by David M. According to Jung, we all share an ancient collective unconscious, populated with archetypal figures and symbols that we use as the raw material for our dreamscapes. The key point is this: both Freud and Jung believed that dreams were messages scripted and produced by the unconscious.
<v Speaker>By the early 1950s, using the kind of techniques we are simulating here, researchers were beginning to cast serious doubt on purely psychological theories of dreaming. They looked instead for possible biological roots of our nightlife. Volunteers at sleep labs were wired up to electrodes connected to a machine that measures eye and muscle movements, heart rate and the electrical activity of the brain, the EEG. This is the Sleep Disorders Clinic at the University of California, Los Angeles, one of a nationwide network of sleep labs exploring the frontiers of the night.
<v Speaker>Good night, Roger. <v Speaker>Good night. <v Speaker>Volunteers are closely observed as they sleep. Cameras in the room record their movements. And while the dreamer takes off on his nocturnal flights of the imagination, information from the monitoring equipment is relayed to the pens of a polygraph that trace out the signature of sleep. Through the night, that signature changes dramatically. On the left is deep sleep. The eyes are actually still the little activity you see is being conducted through the skin from the EEG. Muscle tone is reduced and the EEG shows characteristic large, slow brain waves. On the right is REM sleep. The eye movements are rapid, hence the term rapid eye movement or REM sleep. Again, muscle activity is reduced, but the EEG shows rapid brain waves more like an active awake brain. <v Speaker>Most of us awaken from REM sleep report having vivid dreams, the first REM period begins after about 90 minutes of sleep, then alternates with non-REM sleep, repeating at roughly the same 90-minute intervals through the night. Each REM dream time is longer than the one before. So if you go to sleep about eleven, your first REM period should be half past midnight and the best time to catch your longest dream will be about 6:00 or 6:30 in the morning.
<v Speaker>To scientists, there's an important clue here. If we have such a regular sleep and dream cycle, then presumably it's a natural biological rhythm. We also know that REM sleep decreases with age. Infants sleep about 16 hours a day. Half of that, eight hours, is REM sleep. Even fetuses in the womb have rapid eye movements. This isn't just a human behavior. Almost all mammals have REM sleep. On the other hand, reptiles don't. So it seems that during the transition from reptiles to mammals, REM sleep evolved. To a biologist, that suggests that REM sleep must have powerful survival value. It has become part of our genetic legacy. We are, in a sense, programmed to dream. <v Speaker>But why and how?
<v Speaker>In the late 1970s, Harvard scientists Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley suggested a controversial answer. It was already known that cells in an area of the brain stem, just above the spinal cord, are activated during REM sleep. According to Hobson and McCarley, these cells transmit a flurry of signals that trigger responses in other parts of the brain. The cortex, trying to make sense of it all, then tries to weave some kind of a story out of the bombardment of sensory information. The result is a dream, nothing more than a spin-off from night shift neurons causing a commotion in the cortex. <v Speaker>It's the opposite of Freud and Jung's belief that the unconscious has a story to tell and then finds illustrations in the brain's image bank. For the scientists, the images come first and the story follows. That may be why time and scenes can change so suddenly in dreams. It's simply an abrupt shift from one brain circuit to another. Some sleep researchers, like UCLA neuroscientist Jerry Siegel, now believe that the Hobson/McCarley idea may be simplistic. Siegel argues that higher regions of the brain, including the cortex, can play an active role in controlling REM sleep and dreaming. <v Speaker>REM sleep essentially is an interaction of this very phylogenetically old part of the brain, very primitive part of the brain with the higher centers in which the higher centers are influencing the brain stem and the brain stem is, in turn,influencing the higher centers in a very complicated way.
<v Speaker>To explore these basic brain mechanisms, recordings are made of the electrical activity of single brain cells during waking and REM sleep. Some cell groups switch on during REM, others switch off. <v Speaker>Information is relayed between cells by chemicals called neurotransmitters. Some of these messenger molecules cause cells to fire. Others inhibit them. So our different shades of consciousness, from waking to sleep to dreaming, are the result of ever-changing concentrations of brain chemicals. <v Speaker>Quit using the good bowl for banging like that. Quit it now. Get the hell out of here, go out in front then. That's about four times this morning that I have told you. I don't know if you're that deaf or that dumb - <v Speaker>This is what can happen when the finely tuned machinery of sleep and dreams develops a glitch. This man talks in his sleep and walks around.
<v Speaker>One night she woke me up, and when I woke up I was sitting at the edge of the bed like this with my hand down there, and I'll go here kitty kitty kitty kitty kitty. And she was sitting there laughing at me. She said Mal, what are you doing? And I says petting the cat. She says we haven't got a cat and we dont! And I woke up and went back to bed. <v Speaker>This tape, produced by Dr. Carla Schenk of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, shows patients with REM sleep behavior disorder a problem that's only recently been identified in humans. Because the cells that would normally inhibit muscular activity fail to fire, these patients act out their dreams, sometimes violently. Fortunately, they can be helped by drug therapy. It's another indication that we're beginning to understand the biochemistry of sleep. But does that mean that neuroscience has unlocked the mystery of dreams and that we should abandon the psychological explanations of Freud or Jung? Jerry Siegel. <v Speaker>I don't think that the knowledge that we've gained in sleep justifies dismissing dreams as meaningless or explaining them in any way. What we've found is the basic mechanism. What we've also found is that clearly the entire brain, or large parts of the brain, are involved in dreaming. So so what a neuroscientist can tell you is that, for sure, it's not a simple process.
<v Speaker>Until recently, exploring the underlying mechanisms of sleep and dreaming in humans was limited. As we've seen, sleep labs provide a general picture of brain and muscle activity. From photographs like these taken every 15 minutes through the night by Ted Spagna, we know what normal sleep looks like. Spagna, who perfected the technique, has worked closely with sleep researchers to document our night moves. Of course, these are photographs of the outside of sleep and dreams. How can we photograph the inside? <v Speaker>At the University of California, Irvine, researchers are using positron emission tomography, the PET scan to explore the dreaming human brain. As in this simulation, volunteers wired up to a polygraph are monitored while they sleep. When the characteristic signs of REM sleep appear, the volunteers are injected with a form of glucose known as an isotope. Brain imaging lab director, Dr. Monte Buchsbaum, continues the story.
<v Monte Buchsbaum>The isotope is actually injected while the subject is dreaming. The brain takes up the isotope and holds it in those brain cells that are working hardest. At the end of about 25 or 30 minutes, all of the isotope has been taken up from the blood and is now sitting in the brain, much as a latent image would sit on a photographic film or on your magnetic tape. We now can move them into the PET scan, in essence, developing the picture and showing the brain activity during the dream. So we have frozen the dream a moment in time when the subject was dreaming. The red, yellow and white colors show high activity in these subjects who are doing a visual task. We can see that they're exercising the visual lobes of the brain. This subject has his eyes closed in the dark and you can see very little activity in these same visual areas. Surprisingly, during the dream, an active dream with visual imagery, the visual area of the brain is hardly active and we see the right side of the brain and the frontal lobes, the areas where personality and the organization of behavior and perhaps the imagination are located. These are the areas which are active, which are creating the ideas we see in the dream. <v Speaker>By matching the PET scan images to dream reports, the Irvine researchers should be able to find out if different types of dreams switch on different areas of the brain. But will that allow them to discover the meaning of the dreams? Psychologist Richard Hire.
<v Speaker>I think that dream content will have meaning unique to the individual beyond the way molecules twist or synapses move. There, uh a lot of these psychological phenomena like dreams, while they may have a biological basis, also have meaning that can be discussed and thought about independent of the biological basis. That's what Freud did, that's what psychoanalysis does, and I think psychoanalysis is very good at that. Will, PET scanning lead to a better interpretation of dreams than a psychoanalyst can do? I don't think so. I think that if Freud were alive today he'd be here studying dreaming with PET scanning and bringing the two together. <v Speaker>Every day, our senses are bombarded by new information that our brains have to process. Some scientists have suggested that like an offline computer, one that's disengaged from the external world, our sleeping brains are constantly processing new images, comparing them with old memories and updating their programs. Most of the time we're simply not aware of this routine maintenance work. But occasionally glimpses of the new programs being run by the brain's night shift surface and those glimpses become dreams.
<v Speaker>That's just one of the speculations about why we have REM sleep and dreams. Many of the theories use computer analogies. During REM sleep, for example, the brain is still active, but it receives no input from the outside world. In the same way when a computer runs and amends existing programs. It's taken offline. Some sleep theorists have suggested that without our offlinenightshift capability, our brains would have become overloaded, trying to handle the daily traffic of sensory information. REM sleep then, may be Mother Nature's economical way of keeping us on top of things without driving us crazy. It's an intriguing idea, but is there any real evidence that we spend part of the night processing new data? <v Speaker>How do we prove that our daily sensory experience finds its way into our dreams? Well, that's just what researchers Howard Roffwarg and John Herman tried to do using these. It's a simple experiment, but ingenious. You see, these are ordinary welder's goggles, but they have special filters that let only red light in. So it's really like looking at the world through rose-tintedgoggles. Volunteers wore these goggles for about a week. At night, they were monitored in a sleep lab. And sure enough, when they were awakened from REM sleep in their dreams, they saw red.
<v Speaker>So it seems that our daily experience can be replayed in the theater of the night. But why? Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick suggested that dreams are a kind of overnight cleaning up operation. In REM sleep, he argues, the brain's sorts through its latest sensory inputs and dumps anything that might become distracting, or even damaging, if it was permanently stored in the filing system of our memories. It's a bit like nightly debugging of a computer program to prevent future breakdowns. Other scientists have argued that REM sleep is a sort of pilot light for the brain. Without it, we might lapse into terminal loss of consciousness. Instead, it periodically fires up the brain circuits in preparation for full waking activity. <v Speaker>But perhaps the speculation about dreams that resonates best with our individual experiences is that they're a kind of learning process. A rehearsal for life. Maybe in dreams we're problem-solving. Let's go back to Jessica's dream.
<v Speaker>And in my dream, I die before the writer crushes me from the sound. The rumbling and the sound is so great that I die. And then I wake up. <v Speaker>Could this be the product of cells firing randomly in the brain stem? Did they somehow conjure up, say, the memory of a boat ride? And did her brain trying to make sense of it, then invent the rest of the plot? Or is this a message from her unconscious? She's had a dream like this several times over the past five years. How and why does it recur? Scientists speculate that the biochemical mechanisms of permanent memory storage are switched off during REM sleep, so very little sticks. That's why we forget most dreams so easily. But when we wake up during a dream, our brain chemistry changes and the images are stored in the attic of our memories. But what should we do with our dreams? Leave them there like unwanted gifts? Or take them down, examine them and try to understand them. Dr. Rossi. <v Speaker>You tune into your dreams and start recording them. You start just wondering about them and say if you do not find patterns of meaningfulness. Most people who do take the task seriously do find those patterns. And the fascinating thing is that the meaning is evolving. It's changing as we ourselves are changing. Both Freud and Jung have tremendous genius, a tremendous amount of wisdom. However, we can't slavishly follow, follow them. Our generation is different. Our consciousness is different. And we have to go back to the source within ourselves. So that would be the important message I'd like to communicate. We can learn from models of the past, but the final analysis, when I have this dream, that's my dream. And I have to dialog with it. I have to reflect upon it to see what meaning is being created.
<v Speaker>So what is the meaning of Jessica's dream or yours or mine? According to Dr. Rossi, it's not fixed. Through dialogs with our dreams, we can continually create new meaning. <v Speaker>At the beginning of this program, I compared us to producers, directors, writers, actors, and audiences in the theater of the night. To a psychoanalyst, maybe that's just another way of saying our unconscious. Of course, to many neuroscientists, brains are us. Our night theater is a production of our resident company of brain cells.
<v Speaker>So how good was the analogy? Surely if we are dream directors, we can change a scene if we are writers, we can change the script. That's exactly the notion that some sleep researchers have now begun exploring. They argue that we can learn a technique called lucid dreaming. During a lucid dream, we are aware that we are dreaming and we may be able to change the dream as it unfolds. Could that be a valuable skill? Well, there is growing evidence that our mental attitudes can affect our bodily well-being via the immune system. Is it possible that similar mechanisms might operate as we sleep? Could we learn to produce healing images and control the chemistry of dreams? Or is that just a dream? <v Speaker>Our journey through the landscapes of the night is just beginning. Scientists have started to map the terrain looking for areas in our brains that may produce these private, late shows. But dreams remain an enigma. They're as much poetry as physiology. In fact, a poet may have put it the best: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep. For California stories, I'm Roger Bingham. Pleasant dreams.
California Stories
Dreams: Theater of the Night
Producing Organization
KCET (Television station : Los Angeles, Calif.)
Contributing Organization
The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia (Athens, Georgia)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip-526-x921c1vv5g).
Episode Description
"DREAMS: THEATER OF THE NIGHT "Every night, most of us are the producers, writers, audience often stars of our own private late show. "We dream! But, why? What function do dream have? What do they mean, if anything? From Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories to today's biochemical, dreaming-brain research, this program explores the complex landscape of dreams -- our theater of the night. "DREAMS: THEATER OF THE NIGHT is part of our critically acclaimed, Emmy-winning, single-subject, half-hour, weekly documentary series, CALIFORNIA STORIES. "For its commitment to local science documentary programming, and for honoring the challenge of excellence demanded by our viewers/subscribers, we believe DREAMS: THEATER OF THE NIGHT is worthy of a George Foster Peabody Award."--1988 Peabody Awards entry form.
Broadcast Date
Asset type
Media type
Moving Image
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Producing Organization: KCET (Television station : Los Angeles, Calif.)
AAPB Contributor Holdings
The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia
Identifier: cpb-aacip-1e52fd073aa (Filename)
Format: U-matic
Duration: 1:00:00
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “California Stories; Dreams: Theater of the Night,” 1988, The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 8, 2023,
MLA: “California Stories; Dreams: Theater of the Night.” 1988. The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 8, 2023. <>.
APA: California Stories; Dreams: Theater of the Night. Boston, MA: The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from