The Science Behind Dreams and Nightmares Sleep researchers estimate that nearly three quarters of our dream emotions are negative. But what do nightmares actually mean? Guests discuss the science behind nightmares and shed light onto the murky field of dream interpretation and analysis.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION.

I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

You're late to work, when a strange woman slightly resembling your mother chases after you with a shotgun; you fall into a dark tunnel studded with sharp, scalding pokers and land in a cave that slowly starts to fill with water; your arms and legs can move, but you know you'll never get to the studio on time to start the show - sound familiar? Well, maybe except for that last part.

Nightmares are universal experience. They can haunt our nights, even make us sit, bolt up right in bed, eyes wide and hands shaking. But why, and what does it all mean?

Later in the program, a special Halloween visit with "Ask Amy." If you have questions for Amy Dickinson about Halloween treats, costumes, parties, and apple bobbing, you can email us now: talk@npr.org.

But first, the science of nightmares.

Call us if you want to know more about the hows and whys of scary dreams. We'd also like to hear about your worst nightmare.

Our number is 800-9898-255, email: talk@npr.org. And you can tell us about your nightmares on our blog: npr.org/blogofthenation.

Natalie Angier is a science columnist for the New York Times and author of the article, "In the Dreamscape of Nightmares, Clues to Why We Dream at All." She joins us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

Ms. NATALIE ANGIER (Columnist, New York Times): It's great to be here.

CONAN: And I was startled to read that most of our dreams are bad dreams.

Ms. ANGIER: That's right. Most of our dreams - they've found in virtually all the studies - whether they are asking people to keep journals of their dreams or if they're having sleep in the lab and waking them up periodically, about 75 percent of the content and emotions described are negative.

CONAN: And that there is an actual definition of a nightmare - one of those bad dreams that's bad enough to make you wake up.

Ms. ANGIER: That's right. That's a definition of a nightmare. So you can have a bad dream that you just continue to sleep through or if it wakes you up, that's called a nightmare.

CONAN: Uh-huh. And how often - you know, everybody is different - but how often do these things happen?

Ms. ANGIER: Nightmare is very quite a bit, but it does seem as though they are more frequent than people remember. When they ask people just to say on recall how many nightmares have they had in the last six months to a year, they might say one or two. But when you ask them to keep a journal, they start reporting things more like once a month.

CONAN: Once a month? And…

Ms. ANGIER: Once - and those are the ones who, you know, are startling enough that you write them down.

CONAN: And the one that didn't surprised me is that they are more common in childhood, except the pre - you know, five years and younger don't have them.

Ms. ANGIER: Yeah. It used to be thought that actually there are young children who are prone to nightmares. But when they did the - the biggest study that did recently found that there was actually relatively few preschoolers who had nightmares. But starting at age five, you really started to see 25 percent of the kids getting them at least once a week.

CONAN: Once a week?

Ms. ANGIER: Yeah.

CONAN: And what triggers that, do they think?

Ms. ANGIER: Well, they don't know what triggers it, but it's probably something to do with the development of the brain and they're - fact that they're scared a lot in waking life, too. I mean, there is a correlation between fearfulness and your tendency towards nightmares.

CONAN: And that as we get older into adolescence, do they decrease or increase?

Ms. ANGIER: They seem to continue to increase until early adulthood, and then they kind of level off and they start to fall, and so you have the average 55-year-old might have one-third the number of nightmares as the average 25-year-old.

CONAN: But, still, that means every couple of months of shaking and gibbering and drooling.

Ms. ANGIER: That's right. It does seem to be a fairly universal experience, too, in every culture they've ever looked at. Ask anybody in any culture, they'll report having had nightmares. Probably, 99.99 percent of people have had them.

CONAN: And the explanations for them, though, I suspect vary according to culture.

Ms. ANGIER: That's right. I mean, in the past, of course, people think that maybe that's the whole reason why we developed this fear of spirits and all of our, kind of a - a lot of religious impulses may have come out of this. So, it obviously has a whole historical interpretation, but our modern understanding of nightmares is still in its infancy.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And how much science is indeed there to help our understanding? I mean, you can't - shaking people awake in the middle of the night doesn't seem to me to provide a prescription of getting a punch in the nose, but…

Ms. ANGIER: Well, the funny thing is that one of the things - the difference between bad dreams that you sleep to and nightmare that wake you up is that when they have people in a sleep lab - and they do a lot of research in these sleep labs, where they'll have person sleep, and then they'll look for the indication of dreaming, as in REM sleep, where your eyes are moving back and forth behind closed lid.

And when they wake people up, they'll report bad sensations. But what they've had trouble doing is having people have nightmares in the lab, that is things they wake up from on their own, which is surprising, because even people who have recurrent nightmares, even people with PTSD, you put them in a sleep lab and they don't know have as many nightmares, so it's been harder to study them. But they have been able to study bad dreams just by waking up and seeing what's going on.

CONAN: And also, there's the new kinds of scanners, PET scanners, of, you know…

Ms. ANGIER: MRIs?

CONAN: …there's fMRI so - that sort of thing - they can actually see what's going on which parts of your brain are active when various things are going on. Have they been helpful?

Ms. ANGIER: Exactly. They've been very helpful so that people have been able to sort of look at what happens to the brain at different stages of sleep and not just looking at brainwaves, but looking at areas of activity. And so, what they've found is that when you enter REM sleep - as one guy said it's like the Fourth of July. I mean, there's all sort of changes that go on. It's very dramatic.

So what happens is you have your limbic system, that's where your emotions are rising from, that's much more active than it is even during the day and in particular two areas that constitute the axis of fear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And so that's a lot of why these dreams - these emotions you have in your dreams tend to be negative because those are the parts of your brain that are most active. At the same time, the prefrontal cortex that would normally be the seat of our reason seems to be out to lunch, so you don't have that kind of, oh, you see something with, you know, four heads or you know, you start to see things turning into other things, and it seems perfectly natural in your dream.

CONAN: Logical in the dream. If your prefrontal cortex was there, it would just, well, wait just a minute.

Ms. ANGIER: Exactly.

CONAN: The other part that I was fascinated with was that the - obviously, your eyes are closed, your eyeballs are doing that rapid movement and your - if primary visual brain center is silent, the secondary one though is very active.

Ms. ANGIER: Exactly. So the primary visual cortex, which is the part of the brain that receives signals from the - visual signals from the outside world, is pretty quiescent, and then you have your secondary visual cortex which normally interprets and kind of receives those signals and make sense of them, that is not quiescent, that's a reactive.

So what that secondary visual cortex seems to be doing is it's getting these signals - a lot of them internally generated, not coming from the outside world - and it's getting these signals, and it's trying to make sense of them in a visual way.

So what you went up having is this whole visual scene inside your skull, inside your brain that's being created because the secondary visual cortex is trying to make sense of signals that are kind of ricocheting around there. So that's one of the interesting things.

The other interesting thing that happens to the brain in this rapid eye movement, REM sleep, is that there's a part of the brainstem, some area about the size of the pea that controls - it paralyzes you basically. So your body is still while you're having your dreams, and yet all of the signals from your brain that would normally be controlling the muscles and movement are still active.

So you have this sense of movement in your dream, but at the same time you're not getting anywhere, which could explain why so many dreams are about frustrated attempts to get somewhere you can't get to, because you're paralyzed.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's see if we can get some callers in on this conversation.

Our guest is Natalie Angier, science columnist from the New York Times, author of the recent article "In the Dreamscape of Nightmares, Clues to Why We Dream at All."

Our number, if you'd like to join us, is 800-9898-255, email is talk@npr.org.

Tammy(ph) is with us, Tammy(ph) from Indianapolis.

TAMMY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

TAMMY: I have two - two things that happened during my nightmare. Number one, I can realize that I'm having a nightmare and then I can tell myself, well, if I start screaming, it will wake me up. And that's exactly what I do. I start screaming in my dream and I wake myself up. Also, if I'm in a dream and I want - then I realize I'm in a dream, and I can do something and change my dream. Like, if there will be a staircase, I'll think, well, I want to go up that staircase then I start up. But as soon as I take control of my dreams, so to speak, it wakes me up.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. But part of that idea is that, you know, you're aware that you're in a dream and therefore, if it gets really bad, you can just scream and that'll wake you up.

TAMMY: Exactly.

CONAN: Uh-huh. I wonder, is her experience common, Natalie Angier, as far as you know?

Ms. ANGIER: Well, this is something that's related to what's called lucid dreaming, which is being aware that you're dreaming and yet still participating in the dream or trying to wake yourself up.

And in fact, it's interesting because some dream researchers think that it's not a good idea to wake yourself up from a nightmare because they think that bad dreams serve a purpose and that you have to kind of see it through. And what they think the purpose of it is is what they call fear - creating fear extinction memories. The idea of being that your brain is constantly fearful of real life and forming memories of what to be afraid of. And if this process is not somehow dealt with, we'd have this kind of runaway fear reaction, so you'd still be, as an adult, afraid of things you were afraid of as a child. So the idea here…

CONAN: I'm still afraid of everything I was afraid of as a child.

Ms. ANGIER: Right. Well, maybe you just haven't had enough…

CONAN: Nightmares, obviously.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But does the brain performs a sort of liver function to purify our thoughts?

Ms. ANGIER: It's - what it does is it takes all this sort of fearful materials from real life, and you may recall that in most of your bad dreams, they're not direct recapitulations of something bad that happened. It's like pieces of it put together and re-imagined.

And the idea is that through this reinvention, you're actually, kind of, defanging those bad, fearful memories. And if you allow that process to occur, it's healthy. Whereas a nightmare, by waking you up, you sort of - you end it prematurely and the functions kind of cut off in the same way that if you have a phobia in life, the worst thing that you can do is give in to it. You want to see it through. So by staying in the dream and kind of having that reinvention occur, that helps you to cope.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, if you wake yourself up, then, Tammy, you're going to have to have that dream again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TAMMY: Yeah. Yeah. Next time, I'll try to - in my dreams - think not to wake myself up and see what happen.

CONAN: Spread your wings and fly away from it.

Ms. ANGIER: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TAMMY: Thank you.

CONAN: Right. Bye-bye. And, you know, it's interesting, Natalie Angier, you're suggesting that - in the article that that, in fact, is the evolutionary function of the benefit we get out of dreaming.

Ms. ANGIER: That's right. Well, it does seem as though our brain and body sort of collude for this business of dreaming safely and dreaming about fearful things safely because those fear regions of your brain are so active. At the same time, you're paralyzed so you're not going to hurt yourself, unless you have a disease where that little disabler is disabled. But most of the time, you can't hurt yourself. So, the idea is that we're supposed to be having these negative, mostly negative dreams, so it could be that it is adaptive.

CONAN: We're talking about dreams today, more specifically, about nightmares and what purpose they may serve.

Up next: what all those dreams of zombies and drowning might mean? You can join us: 800-989-8255 or drop us an e-mail. The address is talk@npr.org. We're also asking listeners to tell us their nightmares on our blog today. That's in npr.org/blogofthenation.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Amy Dickinson joins us a bit later for a special Halloween edition of our "Ask Amy" segment. If you have questions for her about Halloween treats, costumes, or parties, you can e-mail us now: talk@npr.org. And stay with us, she'll join us in a few minutes.

Right now: your worst nightmares. We're talking about why we have bad dreams and what function they may play.

Our guest is Natalie Angier, science columnist for the New York Times. We have a link to her article, "In the Dreamscape of Nightmares, Clues to Why We Dream at All" at npr.org/blogofthenation. If you want to know more about the hows and whys of scary dreams, give us a call: 800-989-8255, e-mail: talk@npr.org. And describe your worst nightmare for us on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And let's see if we can get Phillip(ph) on the line. Phillip's with us from Milford in Michigan.

PHILLIP (Caller): Hey, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Sure.

PHILLIP: Yeah. I thought this was really interesting. When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I was having a recurrent nightmare where I would stand on a moving platform that would take me through this haunted house. And these giant monsters just totally scare me in. It's frightening me, and I was - it was waking me up every night.

Finally, the seventh night, I basically defeated the dream. I was - the dream started out the same, and right before I was about to stand on the moving platform, I stopped. And I thought to myself - I was like, why would I get back out here? I get scared every time. So instead, I called around the house and kind of look in the windows. And I thought those same monsters jumping up and scaring, basically, where I would have been standing.

CONAN: Hmm.

PHILLIP: And I never had that dream again.

CONAN: So you saw the man behind the curtain?

PHILLIP: Yeah. Yeah, but…

CONAN: And never had that dream again?

PHILLIP: Nope.

CONAN: And when you go to the haunted house, do you go in?

PHILIP: Oh, absolutely. It really doesn't scare me anymore.

CONAN: A triumph there, Natalie.

Ms. ANGIER: Well, yes. Actually, he's doing the sort of thing that they tried to get people who have recurrent nightmares as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. They try to get them to do exactly that which is - the problem with those dreams is they are recurrently often recapitulate exactly the bad thing that happens.

So what they try to do is have the patient imagine alternatives to every step of the dream and if you can sort of start to control the dream instead of having it control you, that's one of the ways of beginning therapy in dealing with these deep emotional issues. So, it is actually the right approach.

CONAN: Hmm. Phillip, congratulations.

PHILLIP: Yeah. Thanks so much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Joining us now is Kelly Bulkeley. He is a dream researcher and a faculty member of the Dream Studies Program at John F. Kennedy University, which is near San Francisco. He spoke with Natalie Angier for her article, and joins us now from the studios at U.C. Berkeley.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Dr. KELLY BULKELEY (Visiting Scholar, Graduate Theological Union; Faculty Member, Dream Studies Program, John F. Kennedy University): Nice to be with you.

CONAN: Is there a scientific consensus about dream interpretation? What can we really know from people's dreams?

Dr. BULKELEY: Well, there isn't a consensus, but there is a movement now beyond the battles between Freudian psychoanalysts who say that every dream has a deep, dark, hidden meaning to it…

CONAN: Mm-Hmm.

Dr. BULKELEY: …on the one hand, and then sleep laboratory scientists who say that dreams are just random, neural nonsense on other. And what we're not starting to realize that dreams have meaningful connections with our waking lives that aren't really that mysterious in terms of interpreting them.

CONAN: So the standard anxiety dream that I described at the beginning of the program - you're late; you're trying to get to work; one thing happens after another; you're later, you're later, you're later. That - well, that's seems pretty explicable. You're worried about getting up late in the morning.

Dr. BULKELEY: Basically, yeah. And that's - those kinds of dreams are, in fact, quite common, and they reflect people's everyday anxieties about their work or their school or their, you know, whatever it is that's troubling them in waking life. That carries over into their sleep and their dreams.

CONAN: Yet, each of us, I think, has dreams that, well, at least to us as we remember them don't make a whole lot of sense at all.

Dr. BULKELEY: Yeah, well - sure, dreams are - they have - I mean, the way I put it is dreams have infinite creativity at their disposal. They can put us anywhere with anyone doing anything, you know? And so that's always possible(ph) from dreams. But actually, a lot of researches shown that if you look at people's dreams across time over, as Ms. Angier said, over a long period of time in a dream journal, you'll actually see that dreams are pretty mundane and…

CONAN: Hmm.

Dr. BULKELEY: …reflect our everyday experiences. Dreams do get very crazy and bizarre, but those are actually the exceptions.

CONAN: There are also - she was talking about that second visual cortex, which is processing information, in this case, not from the outside world, but more less from inside. Is that what generates those dreamscapes, because, again, not all the time, but a lot of people tend to return to the same dreamscapes over and over again, whether it's a nightmare or not.

Dr. BULKELEY: Yeah. Well, that recurrent feature is actually, I think, a key piece of evidence suggesting that dreams are not random neural nonsense. There is far too much regularity and patterning in our dreams and recurrence of themes and settings and such to really make sense in that kind of a random neural nonsense model. And what seems to happen is yet, as you said, the secondary visual processing system, which is basically responsible for our imagination, you know, when you close your eyes and you imagine being on a beach or being…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BULKELEY: …you know, with someone, THAT'S the part of the brain that is very active. And that does seem to be very active in our dreaming and generating intensely realistic and vivid, visual experiences we have.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Here's an e-mail from Kyle(ph) in Oklahoma City. Is this awareness we have while we sleep left over from our nights as less developed creatures that may have had to wake up, ready to defend themselves and get away from danger? I guess, Natalie Angier, that goes back to the evolutionary purpose of dreams.

Ms. ANGIER: Yes, some people do think that they have this kind of practicing -basically, practicing skills that you need for escape and protection and…

CONAN: Fight or flight.

Mr. ANGIER: Exactly. And of course, other - most mammals do dream, so it is -probably does have some kind of function like that, although there's…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ANGIER: …quite a bit of debate.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Here's one - this from Toni(ph). I have a recurring nightmare of somebody breaking into my house and raping me or hurting my family. I heard this could be related to my life feeling out of control. I often have this nightmare when my partner goes out of town and I'm by myself. What can I do stop having this recurring nightmare?

Well, I'm not sure you can help her with that, Kelly Bulkeley, but is this as straightforward as it might seem?

Dr. BULKELEY: Well, there's - every dream has, in my view, multiple dimensions of meaning, so I'm not going to say that there's one simple answer to that. But certainly, a dream like that sounds like it's reflecting the realistic waking concerns the dreamer has that when her partner is gone, she in fact more vulnerable. And so, a frightening dream like that would be expressing, yeah, I'm scared of that.

Now, houses are often symbolic of the body. So, you know, I might - if this were my dream - I might wonder, hmm, is this reflecting some potential health concern, maybe threat to my body, to myself, my identity? I mean, there's a lot of metaphorical possibilities that if, you know, we could sit down with her, we could explore.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Shawn(ph), Shawn with us from Ann Arbor in Michigan.

SHAWN (Caller): Yeah, thanks for having me.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.

SHAWN: Yeah. I, for, probably as long as I can remember, maybe the last 10 years or so, I will have just terrible - I've been calling them night terrors. I'm not sure what the correct name for them would be, but - I wake up in the middle of the night, most oftentimes I won't even remember doing things; somebody will have to tell me about them. I'll move around, I'll wake up with just incredible anxiety, not sure where I am. And I've been confused about it.

CONAN: Kelly Bulkeley, is that little restrictor that Natalie Angier talked about before that turns off our limbs when we're asleep, is that turned on in sleepwalking?

Dr. BULKELEY: Well, yeah, exactly. And that's actually called REM sleep disorder when we're - when that little part of the brain isn't doing its job and we physically act out our dreams. It's an important distinction, though, to make between nightmares as Ms. Angier and, you know, you've been discussing, which are classically described as scary dreams that wake you up. On the one hand - and then night terrors, which are different kind of sleep phenomenon. They are more frequent in childhood. They usually don't have any specific imagery involved, but they have this sort of terrifying, physically convulsing effect. So you're listener may be experiencing, as he sort of said, night terrors rather than nightmares.

CONAN: Sounds almost like a panic attack.

Dr. BULKELEY: Yeah. It's akin to that.

CONAN: Hmm. Are you still having these, Shawn?

SHAWN: I do, still. I'm actually staying with a friend right now. And it increased its frequency maybe because I don't - I'm not so familiar with my surroundings. But yeah, I am.

CONAN: Mm-Hmm. Would he be well advised to get help for this, Kelly Bulkeley?

Dr. BULKELEY: Well, if they became really persistent and troubling in his waking life, sure. Stress is often a factor, you know? The more stress you're under, the more likely it is that a night terror will occur.

Strange sleeping situation, you know, tends to heightened one's anxiety. Even if you don't consciously know that, you're unconsciously aware of, hmm, this isn't my usual setting. I'm a little more vulnerable here, a little more at risk…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BULKELEY: …and that could spark it, yeah.

CONAN: Any hotel. Shawn, thanks very much. Good luck.

SHAWN: Thank you.

CONAN: I appreciate the call. Let's see if we can go to now to - this is Lynn(ph). Lynn is with us from Fort Myers in Florida.

LYNN (Caller): That's right.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

LYNN: Why does one - and I have very vivid dreams pretty much every night and I remember a number of them when I wake up in the morning. And my husband says he never dreamed and he never remembers dreams. And I just wonder why that is. Why I remember them so vividly and why he doesn't remember any?

CONAN: Yeah, and we get an e-mail along those lines from David(ph) in Statesboro, Georgia. What if I don't dream? Does that mean I'm not reaching deep enough sleep?

Dr. BULKELEY: Hmm.

CONAN: I wonder, Kelly Bulkeley?

Dr. BULKELEY: Well, your listener has pointed to one of the real mysteries, one of the many mysteries in dream research, the variability of dream recall. And, yeah, that's the truth. Some people remember, you know, two or three dreams every single night. Other people never remember any dreams at all.

It tends to be a bit of a gender distinction. Women tend to remember more than - more dreams than men do. An important thing to remember is that that our minds are active all through sleep - all the way through the sleep cycle. And so, some dreams seem to cross that threshold into waking awareness and others don't. And I usually tell people don't worry about the dreams you don't remember, you know? They're doing whatever business they need to do. But the dreams that do cross that threshold, that do enter into your waking awareness, I often think have some - not necessarily a message, not some heaven-sent revelation, but just some other aspect of our minds at work that may have some relevance for things going on in our awaking lives.

CONAN: Those people who are in one of those experiments where they're in sleep labs and awaken in the middle of the night - those who have reported not remembering or not having dreams before, do they then remember dreams?

Ms. ANGIER: Yeah. If you wake up people while they're in REM sleep, they will almost always be able to recall that they were dreaming something at that point. And in fact, Robert Stickgold at Harvard Medical School, his advice to people who want to remember more of their dreams is to drink a lot of water before you go to sleep and then you'll be waking up frequently throughout the night, because waking up is, you know, that's when you usually remember your dreams right before you…

CONAN: This from Phil(ph) in San Antonio, Texas. Is it true eating spicy foods before bedtime can produce erotic or - actually, he wrote erratic - a little Freudian there - or scary dreams. It seems to affect me in this way? Kelly?

Dr. BULKELEY: Yeah. I mean, just as what Ms. Angier said, the - anything that's going to disrupt your sleep or make you more likely to wake up in the middle of the night, you're probably more likely to remember your dream. For example, pregnant women often report a big increase in their dream recall. We're not sure if that's because it's a hormonal process or just because they're getting up six or seven times a night to go to the bathroom.

CONAN: Sleeping more lightly is - we might…

Dr. BULKELEY: Exactly.

CONAN: …delicately put it on the radio.

Dr. BULKELEY: Exactly.

CONAN: And I wonder, as you become more aware of dream research, Kelly Bulkeley, does it affect the way you approach your sleep?

Dr. BULKELEY: Oh, sure. I'm a big - I try to get as much sleep as I can, and I'm a real tough cookie with my kids. I make sure they're down and ready to sleep as soon as I can get them there. Yeah. The curious thing about dreams is that once you sort of begin to pay attention to them, they start to change. And things that you start to notice - new things start to emerge.

It's a very - as I've experienced in many people I know and work with, it's sort of a back and forth conversation almost gets going between your waking consciousness and your dreaming imagination.

CONAN: Hmm. Yet, these conversations can seem to last a very long time often, years can seem to pass, and you do wake up and it's only been a matter of seconds, we're told - experts tell us our dreams are quite short.

Dr. BULKELEY: Yeah. Well, you know, like I said, dreams have this infinite creativity at their disposal. And it's - one of the things - I sort of look at it as the mind playing at night, you know? When Ms. Angier said when we go to sleep, we're in this sort of safe space, and the mind is freed to try out different possibilities, to explore different scenarios, to play literally. And I think that's - that ultimately has a lot of benefits for our waking-life functioning.

CONAN: We're talking with Kelly Bulkeley, a dream researcher, and also Natalie Angier, a science columnist for the New York Times, about nightmares.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Michael(ph), Michael is calling us from San Francisco.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

MICHAEL: Lynn from Fort Myers, I think she answered my - first part of my question because I'm a total dream machine. I dream constantly every evening for as long as I can remember since I was kid, and I feel very blessed because it's absolutely fun. So, you answered that question about why do more people dream more than others. The second question is specifically, I dream a lot in foreign languages. And I was wondering if there's a secondary visual cortex, is there also like a secondary auditory cortex that allows you to believe you're speaking a foreign language or understanding a foreign language while you dream?

CONAN: Or, dream Babel fish perhaps that allows you to translate everything you hear. What do you think, Kelly?

Dr. BULKELEY: Well, yeah. I mean, visual and auditory sensations are by far -and movement as well - are the most prominent. We rarely smell or taste in our dreams, but we do seem to have exquisite visual and, like you say, auditory capacities. And I don't know enough about - I don't think a research has been done on sort of the brain basis of those kinds of phenomena, but it does occur. And again, it's one of these aspects of ordinary dreams, the fact that we're able to speak and we're able to converse and use language that suggested it's not purely random arbitrary nonsense, but that we actually maintain a lot of our mental abilities into sleep and dreaming state.

CONAN: Yet, like Michael, I have conversations with people to whom I only spoke in a language which I no longer speak, which I forgot since I was kid.

Dr. BULKELEY: Yeah.

CONAN: And I remember them perfectly.

Dr. BULKELEY: Well, go rattle around somewhere.

CONAN: Aha.

MICHAEL: My question is, is this - in my waking life, I could not even begin to imitate Russian or French. I speak - I'm partly bilingual in Spanish. If I'm in awaking life I can't imitate it, how is my mind fooled to think that I'm - it's like as in my dream, I can actually hear the language and not understand it, but my mind must imitate it. Correct?

CONAN: Maybe that prefrontal cortex thing shut down and otherwise illogical things happening with perfect logic associated to them.

Michael, thanks very much.

MICHAEL: Playing the violin, I'd be very happy as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANGIER: Right.

CONAN: I'm sure…

Ms. ANGIER: That's the key.

CONAN: Maybe the rest of us wouldn't, but…

MICHAEL: Okay.

CONAN: …that's the other thing.

MICHAEL: Thanks very much, guys.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much.

Let's see. We can go now to Mitch(ph), and Mitch is with us from Flint, Michigan.

MITCH (Caller): Hey, thanks for letting me on.

CONAN: Sure.

MITCH: I'm going to confirm through my brother that spicy foods can trigger dreams, because he gets more.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

MITCH: And my second one, it was - Neal, I used to be disc jockey. I was for 13 years. I started in the '80s, and we had albums. So I used to have - and to supplement my radio career, I had to make pizza. So I also worked in pizza and radio, and I would work 80 hours a week some weeks. So I had dreams of burning pizzas and having dead air at the same time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MITCH: I would be at a counter in my dream at, like, at the pizza place, taking orders and, okay, if you want a large with pepperoni and mushroom and you'd what? You want a Led Zeppelin? Okay, and I get an - I would go back, I would make the pizza and I would try to get it in and get the album on and it was insane. I had those dreams for five years after radio.

CONAN: I knew someone who also had those dreams and who vowed - I never knew this to be true - but vowed that after they woke up and realize that the record had been playing endlessly for quite sometime, got up and said, ladies and gentlemen John Cage end groove.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much, Mitch.

MITCH: Hey, thank you. I think I was having PTSD from PIZZA and radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And radio. That'll do it, too. Thanks very much.

Kelly Bulkeley, thanks for your time today.

Dr. BULKELEY: Nice to be with you.

CONAN: Kelly Bulkeley is a dream researcher and he joins us today from the studios at the UC campus in Berkeley, California.

Our thanks, also, to Natalie Angier, who's a science columnist for the New York Times. There's a link to her article on our Web page. Thank you very much.

Ms. ANGIER: And it was great to be here. Thanks.

CONAN: "Ask Amy" when we come back.

This is NPR News.

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