‘Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices,

That if I then had waked after long sleep

Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

I cried to dream again.’

“The Tempest,” William Shakespeare

Have you ever emerged from a dream and wished to return? Perhaps the dream permitted an unexpected encounter with a deceased loved-one, walking and talking as they once did. Maybe the setting of the dream was a long-forgotten home or school room, church or cinema – a ghostly visitation of a place where meaningful experiences occurred or where important lessons were first learned. Or, even in the foggy amnesia of awakening, you could not help but long for the sense of enthusiasm or gaiety you believe characterised your dream merely moments earlier.

Many, perhaps most, of us will experience something like that in our lifetimes, but there may be other ‘riches’ afforded by dreams that do not induce a conscious ‘cry to dream again.’ A recent article in New Scientist outlines the basic elements of the ‘overfitted brain hypothesis’ (OBH), a recent theory regarding the purpose of dreams. Erik Hoel, a fiction writer and neuroscientist, describes the OBH as an attempt to make sense of dreaming’s potential evolutionary benefit without neglecting to account for the function of the seemingly arbitrary and strange phenomenology of dreams. Essentially, OBH claims that the human brain is so adept at efficiently mapping, consolidating, and navigating (being ‘fitted’ to) the world that it can easily become over specialised to what it encounters day to day. Dreams help counter this tendency toward narrowness in human cognition by introducing complexity, surprises, and bizarre spatio-temporal overlaps. Through dreaming, the brain is tested and neural pathways are forced to stay in a state of adaptability/plasticity. It is all very intriguing, even if more research is necessary to explore the effect of dreaming on neural pathways and to account for dreams that are memories. If true, however, the OBH would definitely mean that we have more reasons to remain in a dream state than our occasional and ephemeral feelings of nostalgia or elation upon waking.

Adam J. Powell, November 2020