Understanding Why We Remember (Or Don’t) Last Night's Dreams

Concluding that the “hardware” of brain activity when we sleep is basically the same as when we don’t, Italian researchers have been able to measure brain activity of people who have remembered their dreams after waking up.

Gianni Parrini

ROME - Have you ever asked yourself whether you were awake or asleep? As it turns out, in our brain, and especially in our memory, there is not much difference between being awake or being asleep. A new study by Italian researchers delves into this gray area, discovering clues about the brain process that allows us to remember our dreams the morning after.

The study, whose findings were just published in the Journal of Neuroscience, aims to answer two key questions: "Why do we sometimes forget and other times remember the dreams when we awake?" and "Do these two options involve different areas of our brain?" To the latter, the Italian team concluded that the brain areas and activities that are involved in dreams are basically the same as our cognitive process when we are awake.

The neurological findings help explain that simple morning question we've all asked ourselves, explains Professor Luigi De Gennaro, who worked with a group of researchers from the psychology department of Rome's La Sapienza University, the Fatebenefratelli Research Association and L'Aquila and Bologna Universities.

"We have monitored a high number of patients' brain electric activities, comparing the data recorded when they remembered their dreams to data recorded when they forgot them," says De Gennaro. "It clearly appeared that only when the electroencephalography (electrical measuring of brain activity) showed a slow oscillatory pattern during REM sleep, did people remember their dream when they awoke."

The experiment has again confirmed that people dream during all the stages of sleep, and not only during the REM sleep. The team monitored 65 people who slept normally for around seven-and-a-half hours. When they awoke, the subjects filled an exhaustive form about their dreams. "Their sleep was interrupted in two different moments: during REM sleep and at stage 2 of non-REM sleep," explains De Gennaro. "In the latter, the memory of the dreams is not linked to the presence, but to the absence of alpha waves."

Comparing the brain to a pc
The researchers found that the brain areas that control the emotional intensity of dreams, also work during waking hours. "Basically, the same cerebral areas and similar neurophysiological automatisms allow the access to ‘episodic memory," which consists of images and scenes which remain in our long term memory," says De Gennaro. "Comparing the brain to a pc, we can say that the hardware does not change from sleep to waking. Only the way it works changes." In other words, night thoughts and day thoughts consist of the same electricity and matter.

Many researchers think that dreaming has an important role in strengthening memories, given that while asleep, the brain processes the information which have been acquired during waking hours. Sigmund Freud hypothesized that dreams came from "daily remnants' of psychic activity. But Professor De Gennaro explains that their studies have a different target. "Our studies of physiology or electro-physiology are about how we dream, not about why we dream. That question is for the psychoanalysts and psychologists."

Zeroing in on the difference between people who tend to remember their dreams and people who tend to forget them will be the next step of the Italian research. "During our tests, we have observed that there are some people who tend to keep permanent memory of their dream, while others do not," says De Gennaro. "Our goal is to understand if this difference is due to structural features of the brain or to its way of working."

Even if the research is making progress, dreams are still a mystery. "Our knowledge covers about 20-30% of dreams. We cannot study the dream directly, but just its memories, and we can reach it only through the dreamer's report. For this reason, we still cannot know if newborn babies and animals dream like we do."

Read the original story in Italian

Photo By Shandi-lee

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!