This week I invited my friend David Kahn to be a guest blogger here at “All The Snooze That’s Fit to Print.” David, a neuroscientist at Harvard who studies the dreaming brain, is currently preparing a paper on dreams and music that he’ll present in June at the International Association for the Study of Dreams conference in the Netherlands. Since part of that paper will explore the connection between improvisation and dreaming, I asked him if he’d give us a preview of some of those ideas. He generously agreed. Here’s what he has to say:

Is it improvised?  When we engage in conversation some of what we say is determined by a conscious decision, but then the words come out in correct syntactical form without continuous conscious micro management.  How much of our conversation is improvised?

When we improvise on a musical composition, how much of it is improvised and how much is culled from past experiences?  I personally enjoy a form of dance called contact improv that has no set steps.  It is improvised as the dancers come into unplanned contact.  But, even here, how much is truly improvised?   Often the dancers find themselves doing the same moves over and over falling into pre-learned patterns of “improvisation.”

When we dream we are not consciously directing our thoughts, yet here too, much of the content of dreams comes from previous thoughts, activities, feelings and over learned experiences.

Of course, all of our improvisations come from and draw from our past experiences.  However, scientists have shown that in dreaming and musical improvisation, the brain’s connectivity changes in a way that largely excludes the planning and executive decision making portions of the brain.  In fact, while dreaming the brain undergoes a radical change in its chemical neurotransmitter balance, as well.  It is these neurological changes that help make the dreaming experience unique and important.  The neurological changes during dreaming allow us to improvise within entirely new scenarios that we are unlikely encounter when awake.

Is this important?  Well, if nothing changes in our wake world then it is not important to explore alternatives.  However, we live in a world that is unpredictable where improvisation is necessary and may even be life saving.

In dreams we encounter novel situations, and we improvise. The profound brain changes that occur when dreaming may induce us to improvise how to deal with situations when we are awake, too: whether it be a threatening situation, the need to find a way out of an unfamiliar airport or train station, or even how and with whom to make love. Looked at from this point of view improvisation in dreaming may indeed by very important.

–David Kahn, Ph.D., Harvard

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