The Oracle of Night by Sidarta Ribeiro review – the secrets of sleep

A neuroscientist attempts to reconcile psychoanalysis with modern science in a fantastical romp through the history of dreaming

In 1953, scientists at the University of Chicago observed that people dream much more frequently during certain deep phases of sleep characterised by “rapid movements in both eyes, choppy breathing, irregular heartbeat and fast brain waves”. As the Brazilian neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro explains in his new book on the history of dream research, the discovery of what became known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep had profound implications. Where Sigmund Freud had postulated that dreams are an articulation of our deepest desires, neuroscience seemed to suggest they are in fact “purely random by-products of a strictly physiological underlying reality, and therefore of no psychological significance”; as such, the work of understanding dreams lay beyond the purview of science, “a matter for charlatans, fortune-tellers, priests, psychoanalysts and other professionals in the metaphysics business”.

Ribeiro looks to bridge the gap between neuroscience and psychoanalysis by drawing attention to various studies that suggest a scientific basis for psychoanalytic dream theories. Electrophysiological experiments carried out on rats in 1989, for example, showed that neurons activated while awake were specifically reactivated during subsequent sleep, which supports the idea, advanced by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), that dreams constitute a “day residue” – a revisiting of memories and emotions experienced during waking life. Research by the South African neuropsychologist Mark Solms has demonstrated that the brain’s dopaminergic reward system is activated during REM sleep, leading Ribeiro to deduce that “the Freudian proposition that desire is the motor of dreams is much more factual than its critics would acknowledge … Dreaming ‘is’ desire because both ‘are’ dopamine.”

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