Despite the large amount of time we spend asleep, surprisingly little is actually known about sleeping and dreaming. Much has been imagined, however. Over history, sleep has been conceived as the space of the soul, as a state of absence akin to death, as a virtual or alternate reality, and more recently, as a form of (sub)consciousness in which memories are built and erased. The significance attributed to dreams has varied widely as well. The Ancient Greeks had surprise dream encounters with their gods. Native Americans turned to their dreams for guidance in life. Shamans dreamed in order to gather information from the spirits.
Sleep and dreams have defined eras, cultures, and individuals. Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of dreams revolutionized twentieth-century thought. Historical archives record famous short sleepers and notable insomniacs—some accounts reliable, some not. When Benjamin Franklin counseled, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” he was using sleep habits to symbolize his pragmatism.
Important public policy issues have arisen in our modern 24-hour society, where it is crucial to weigh the value of sleep versus wakefulness. Scientific knowledge about sleep is currently insufficient to resolve the political and academic debates raging about how much and when people should sleep. These issues affect almost everybody, from the shift worker to the international traveler, from the physician to the policy maker, from the anthropologist to the student preparing for an exam.
In 2004–2005, the Penn Humanities Forum will focus on the topic of “Sleep and Dreams.” Proposals are invited from researchers in all humanistic fields concerned with representations of sleep, metaphors used to describe sleep, and sleep as a metaphor in itself. In addition, we solicit applications from those who study dreams, visions, and nightmares in art or in life, and the approaches taken to their interpretation.
We also welcome proposals about the effects of dreaming on the dreamer, and the resulting emotions, behaviors, and actions taken or foregone in response to dreams.
In this Forum on Sleep and Dreams, we will see how the diversity of academic disciplines can help to answer important questions about sleep and dreaming—questions that may touch the basis of human intellect. The Forum is fortunate in...
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...stingly, the same type of brain arousal takes place whether people actually do finger tapping or only imagine it.
What surprised Sutton most, however, was detection of remarkably similar activity in much larger networks spanning areas of the cortex dealing with both input from the senses and output signals to the muscles.
"Patterns of activity in small, more primitive areas of the brain are recapitulated in larger, more advanced parts," Sutton says. "This means that nature did not have to develop new rules of operation for different levels of the brain from small clusters of cells to large systems."
In other words, as the brain evolved from a thimbleful of cells in a worm's head to the billions of cells with trillions of connections in humans, many of the same principles of organization were retained.
Those similarities make it infinitely easier to make computer models of the brain. "We already have built models which allow us to understand what is going on more quickly," Sutton notes. "Many types of mental illness may result from disorders of this organization. Understanding the details of what is happening will allow us to help real people with real suffering."
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