Michel Jouvet:
THE PARADOX OF sLEEP: THE STORY OF DREAMING (MIT Press, 1999)


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This is a very personal book. Jouvet tells us about his experience, his beliefs, his frustrations, his dreams and his current projects. He gives us some historical background on how dreams became part of a scientific project from the 1960s onwards.

He is fascinated by the idea of writing a history of dreaming (assuming that patterns of dreams have been changing over the centuries) that would perhaps explain what dreams are about. But he also admits it is a difficult idea.

Jouvet's main thesis was that dreaming is not part of the sleeping state but a separate, independent, third state of brain activity, which he called "paradoxical sleep".

He lists a few of the problems (or, better, puzzles) still facing the scientists, the main one being the paradoxical nature of dreaming: when an animal dreams, it is easy prey to an attacker. Why would evolution evolve something like dreaming? It is also unexplained why only warm-blooded animals seem to dream (or, at least, to have REM sleep).

Jouvet attacks Freud's theory of dreaming (an easy task) and then criticizes also a few of his colleagues (Snyder's sentinel model and Crick's cleaning model, but also in general theories that dreams help consolidate long-term memory) before advancing his own theory (in very humble terms, already expecting it to become obsolete in the short term): that dreams help cement the identity of the dreamer.

This theory of "iterative genetic programming" ("Paradoxical sleep and the nature-nurture controversy", 1980) is based on the observation that, evolutionarily speaking, there seems to be an inverse relationship between post-natal neurogenesis (the brain of cold-blooded animals continues to grow throughout their lifetime, whereas the brain of warm-blooded animals is largely shaped at birth) and REM sleep (widespread among warm-blooded animals). Jouvet concludes that REM sleep could play the same role that neurogenesis does: continuously recreate the self. Within the debate of nurture and nature, Jouvet side with those who think that we don't simply inherit from our parents some somatic (bodily) traits, but that we also inherit traits of a personality. The events of a day tend to change that personality. At night the "original" personality gets reinforced during dreams, whose goal is to erase knowledge that is harmful to that personality and to keep what is useful.


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