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Astrologers and psychics, move over, labcoat scientists are getting in on the study of dreams. First up, Harvard Professor Robert Stickgold tells us about how he found a foothold into studying dreams, and published the first paper on the scientific study of dreams in 40 years with a little help from Tetris. Then, MIT Prof Matt Wilson peers into sleeping rat brains. He’s learned to read the synaptic brain chatter in the rat brains, and—though he won’t quite say it himself—it seems pretty clear that he’s seeing their dreams.


Robert Stickgold and Matt Wilson

Comments [44]

Taylor from North Carolina

I am curious as to why I have such strange dreams. They are nothing like what was described in the podcast. Are there other people like me? Even if I wake up five minutes into sleeping, my dreams are almost never a playback of my day, no matter how strenuous it was. I have dreams that are like stories, like novels. They are almost never about me, and they are often fantastical in nature - aliens, elves, weird alternate dimensions. I watch characters play out stories along plot lines that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with me. Do I just have an overactive imagination? Do I have less frontal lobe inhibition when I sleep to the point where my brain can make and remember these complex storylines? I'm not sure, but I wish I knew why I remember my dreams so often and why they're so abnormal.

Nov. 07 2016 05:08 PM
Afsoon from California

Very nice discussion on the dreaming segment. Personally me as a female, I always dream more often than my husband, and that's the case with many of my other married female friends, could be the possibility of the females being in deeper sleep knowing they have their male companion to protect them, and the males being more alert during sleep in case of predators? Anyways, very interesting topic.

Jul. 23 2015 05:06 PM

I would like further research of the relationship between the activity of the brain during sleep and during meditation.

Jun. 09 2015 03:55 PM
Jefferson Steele from Baltimore

I really enjoyed this in depth look at sleep and dreaming. I was very surprised to hear the segment that described the rat dreams as "replays" of the day's events. I can clearly remember up until about age 8 or so, that I would have a visual "review" of the day just as I was falling into deep sleep. I remember the "replays" as being a vivid string of images, events, and people form my day that played in a "fast-forward" fashion. These were very detailed glimpses, but they were literally like looking at shards of glass that had visual images on each bit. I asked other members of my family if they ever saw their day just before they went to sleep, and they looked at me like I was crazy. I'm glad to hear that this kind of thing is as natural as falling asleep. Great job, as usual, on your fascinating show.

Jun. 07 2015 06:44 PM
Langston from Newark, NJ

I would like to hear you guys discuss the doings of things, which we seem unable to do in waking life. For example, since I was a young child I have been able to willingly fly in my dreams. I would like to see what's going on in my brain while that's happening. Might this mean we can actually fly?

Jun. 07 2015 09:56 AM
Carol from Sugar Land, TX

Caught the episode in my car and drove a few extra miles to hear it to the end.
Years ago I dreamt the game "Doom" after playing on a computer and it frightened me so badly I never played that game again. As I remember, the game entails travel through a maze while monster warriers leap out and you try to destroy them with whatever armament arsenal you chose. shotgun, chainsaw, flamethrower, etc.
I still own the game disc for "Doom" but that was so long and several computers ago, doubt it would play.
Didn't someone make a correlation between a game called "Grand Theft Auto" and violent acts in real life?
Very thought-provoking episode. Kudos to you!

Jun. 07 2015 08:16 AM
Cathy Sengel from Rhode Island

Fascinating show.
Throughout my life I have dreamed of places, often with great detail to buildings and surroundings, not often pivotal to the dreams or even memorable. Months and even years later, in places I have never been before, I recognize them. Sometimes they are fleeting sensations and others immediate knowledge of the exact place with wisps of memories from the dreams. The dreams are never prophetic or unusual, but the spaces are definitely familiar when I see them in my travels.

While living in very isolated rural Maine, I often had a nightmarish dream of driving through rows and rows of nondescript waterfront warehouses in some unknown city looking for my two young sons. When recounting it to my nearest neighbor years later, she noted with surprise, "I have that dream too, but I have your boys in my car." Neither of us has ever had the dream since.

Jun. 06 2015 02:19 PM
Upton D. Wilder

I found this npr very interesting. The idea that in our sleep our minds our solving the worlds problems subconsciously is very fascinating. The example used about the rat and the scientist that was examining its brain waves lends credence to this idea. Its would be pretty amazing if our brains do in fact involuntarily continue solving problems in our heads with out us actively thinking about the problem. All the more reason why sleep is so important.

Mar. 23 2015 11:25 PM
Ryan Laguardi from Milliken Colorado

So I listened to this episode and it was great. It answered most of my questions. But I still have one.. why can I never remember my dreams. as soon as I wake up its gone no chance of memory. Why's that?

Mar. 09 2015 02:27 PM
Nate Ocean from Oceanside

Sleeping and dreams aside, all this begs the question of why, when i am finally fully awake in the shower the next morning,I find that i have a solution to the technical problems that seemed insurmountable just the day before.

Oh, and having sex while you are asleep, I want to know more about that too. ;)

Mar. 04 2014 11:30 AM
Karel from Austin, Texas

After my husband died, I found myself dreaming in great detail, with lots of color. (I usually dream in color, but this was more vivid and detailed than usual.) I also dreamed that I visited him and had conversations with him, and it was very therapeutic and helped me work through my emotions. On another note, I have had the experience of dreams that recur over many years that involve visiting the same building over and over, exploring its various rooms. Lately, I find that I have my most creative thoughts during that state that's between awake and asleep. My mind wanders around, thinking about things I've been pondering during the day, and I seem to come up with solutions that I make a mental note of to follow through on later. So, in these cases, I don't actually have to fall asleep in order for my brain to put things together in new ways. Dreams are fascinating.

Mar. 02 2014 10:58 PM

Not sure I heard the whole program, but what I heard followed the typical model of humanity as made up of brain and body. The Judeo/Christian model is soul (which includes the mind), body, and also spirit, a triune model. If you look at humanity this way, dreams do not need to originate from within a person, but can originate from the spirit realm. This is very important in Judaism, since Joseph's prophetic dream got him sold into Egypt, and his interpretation of the Pharoh's dream got him promoted to high position in Egypt. In Christianity, another Joseph, the husband of Mary, receives direction from an angel in 3 dreams connected to the birth of Jesus. That can be found in the beginning of the book of Matthew.

Certainly dreams do come from our experiences also, but there is a whole other dimension of dreaming which is far more intriguing than that one.

Mar. 02 2014 10:22 PM
Paul from Bend, Oregon

Regarding the dream studies, awaking the rats/humans 2 hours after sleep onset might miss the timing of REM sleep which, in man, occurs about every 90 minutes. The first REM is usually short and likely would be gone by the time individuals were awakened after 180minutes. Dreams are not likely to be remembered unless the awakening occurs during or immediately after REM ends

Mar. 02 2014 08:21 PM
Peter Roof from Arlington, VA

In the movie "Inception" much of the story takes place in dreams. There was a known ratio of time from reality to dream they stated as 1:12. That is where dreamed action that seemed to take place in twelve hour's time actually played out in just an hour. Is there such a ratio (fixed or variable) in reality? I think I have experienced the compressed time where my own complex dreamed stories seemed to take many hours to play out and I wake up and only a few minutes had passed.

Mar. 02 2014 01:37 PM
Jenny from Vancouver BC

It's the weirdest thing. Since I listened to this episode I have been remembering my dreams in such great detail !

Jan. 29 2014 11:02 AM
carolita from NYC

I'd love to know how the thing works where you're in a dream that's obviously going south, and you're gonna die or something awful is about to happen to you, and you just suddenly step into the dream from your brain and say, "Okay, that's it. Time to wake up. This dream is going to end very badly."
Sometimes it's like, in my dream I think, "Oh, wow, this is that place from that other dream."

Mar. 16 2013 12:57 PM
P.M. from Vienna

Actually Jad, it pronounced; kekulay
...just sayin

Mar. 14 2013 11:49 PM

Dreams reinforce learning. Need to explore PTSD and the connection to dreaming. We fall asleep and in the first 2 minutes relive the most important events of the day. I hypothesize that dreaming reinforces traumatic events and repeated similar traumatic events are reinforced with more dreams leading to PTSD and the bad dreams that go along with it which continue the cycle. With better understanding it may be possible after a day of trauma to replace the early dreams with alternative events to dream about, replace image of a bomb exploding with something more pleasant such as a fun repetitive video game. The traumatic event will be reinforced less often in dreams.. This will decrease incidents of PTSD.

Mar. 14 2013 09:16 PM
J from Los Angeles, California

I know is this many years after the episode first aired but I was just talking about dreams today and found out that out of the 10 people in my office, I'm the only one who dreams in the third person (as in I watch myself doing something) while everyone else dreams in the first person (they are doing the actions within the dreams). I figured that this is probably why I can't control my dreams no matter how many different techniques I try.

Anyway, dream prespectives! How does everybody else dream?

Jun. 12 2012 09:01 PM

I was struck tonight by the memory of a dream I think I had many years ago. From time I will spontaneously (or so it seems) remember a dream I had . . . and sometimes, because the dream is based in reality (instead of me battling an alligator, for example) I can't tell if I really dreamt it, or if it is an actual memory.


May. 26 2012 03:21 AM

What about DMT? what this study is not mentioning that DMT might have to do much with us dreaming.

Jan. 13 2012 08:52 AM
Carrie from Detroit, MI

I love talking about dreams, so I love this episode. I have always dreamed vividly and remembered a LOT. I feel that dreamers dictionaries are no help because everyone has different connections to the places/objects/people they dream about.
I do have a recurring dream - very beautiful but very scary - the moon crashes to earth. It is always at night and sometimes it's as a whole, other times in parts. It's beautiful to watch but there is always that moment right before panic - the moment of realizing the weight of the event!
I am so thankful our brains have this "other" thing it does - every day - so surreal and strange and entertaining and horrible - all at once.

Sep. 29 2011 10:21 PM
Fiachra Horan from Ireland

One thing I've noticed listening to different podcasts about the brain, sub consciousness and dreaming is that they never seem to deal with the question of why a large number of people rarely remember their dreams.

I myself only remember maybe one or two a month, and it's not a case that I remember the dream vividly, only that I wake with the notion that I did in fact dream that night. Upon taking to a friend who has persistent night terrors and vivid/lucid dream she found the concept of going to sleep and for all intents and purposes not existing for a few hours and then waking up again to be a very strange notion.

Jun. 17 2011 06:51 AM
cbj from Venice, CA

Thank you mccy!

Sep. 22 2010 02:57 PM

The song in the interlude at about 40:00 (if anyone is still wondering) is "Casino Versus Japan." And the track is called "Marilyn Set Me Free."

It's on iTunes, amazon, etc., for purchase...

Mar. 26 2010 08:15 PM
Jason from York, PA

As always, Radio Lab delivers a great show on an interesting topic. I couldn't help but comment on my experience. 6 years ago I started a job in a factory. Nothing special, but it was repetitive. Extremely repetitive. Doing the same thing once every 2 minutes...over... and over. I had dreams about doing my job for at least a week straight. It was horrible!!! hehe. I felt like I never left my job.

Sep. 06 2009 07:06 PM
Ronnie from Boise ID

How Cruel was it to incessantly Yawn through the credits to this show?!

May. 27 2009 03:15 PM
Sean from Hornell, NY

While listening to this program I immediately remembered a particular instance from grade school, in which I had to memorize a poem. (I do not remember which one, but I do recall it being rather wordy). I read and recited piece by piece, over and over, but just could not seem to be able to recite the whole thing. Finally my mother, as frustrated as I was, suggested I just go to sleep and work on it in the morning before school.
Astoundingly, as my mother woke me the next morning, I realized that I remembered the whole thing and instinctively recited it for her without hesitation.

Jun. 05 2008 08:11 PM
Lindsey from NYC

The idea that people had dreams about Tetris after playing it doesn't surprise me.

When I played for long periods of time I would see patterns and connections when I walked down the street, I was always fitting pieces of trees into cars, into trees, and so on. My problem with this study is that because it is so vivid and so graphic it seems to almost have to leave a mark on your brain, it's that intense. I would think that the alpine game would be more appropriate and more random.

Viva Radio Lab.

Apr. 25 2008 09:19 PM
Katie Medlock from Texas

I can't get that music clip out of my head...very chill. I do hope someone out there knows what it is.

Apr. 01 2008 03:24 AM
Godwin Chen from New York

Yes! I'm interested in the name of that song too.

Feb. 11 2008 06:30 PM
Douglas from New Zealand

Ted and Erik,
I've also been on the hunt for those to musical interludes. If you ever figure them out, please let us know.

Dec. 05 2007 04:52 PM
Erik from Minneapolis, MN

Ted - great question! I've been wondering the same thing. I really enjoyed both of the longer musical interludes - I've sent email to the Radio Lab folks, but haven't received any replies as of yet.

Does anyone else recognize these two clips from this episode:


Nov. 11 2007 10:16 PM
Rebecca Schmitt from Woodbury, MN.

Wow, caught your show on sleep and dreaming on our drive home. My 14 year old son and I were so engrossed that when we got home we took a radio out to the back yard and continued to listen via a lawn chair.

After hearing your show my son was thrilled to relate to me that after playing a video game and getting stuck on it, after going to bed he easily beat it the next morning. He realized that this was not the only time that this had happened. Realizing if he ever got stuck, it was time to give it a break and come back to it the next day.

Was wondering how this would relate to craming for tests the next day verses learning something overtime?

I was also wondering if you know of or about any research done on the relationship of anxiety and the ability to learn. Despite my son's high cognitive level, my Dyslexic 14 year old has developed anxiety phobias to certain types of learning tasks related to his specific learning disability. It seems that this is very common when talking to the many parents of the learning disabled. Although the pieces of the puzzle seems to be all there when listening to the doctors and researchers present, they seem to have yet to put two and two together, connecting what they are saying with that of other researchers.

Thanks for a great show.


Oct. 24 2007 06:19 PM
Ted Weatherly from San Francisco

What's the song that's played from 40:10 to 41:09 in program, just before the last segment? Its sorta a dreamy downtempo song...I like it!

Jul. 16 2007 01:48 PM
Miguel Marcos

About 15 years ago, I was a consultant in NYC. At the time I was working on a project for a bank which made far more use of Microsoft Excel than I thought could be done at the time. I put in some serious hours, from 8 or 9 many times to 12 or 1 am for about a week and a half. I remember dreaming with spreadsheets on some nights.

I have no desire to dream with them again.

RadioLab is such a wonderful, wonderful program, that congratulations are due as well as thanks for producing it and for putting it online since I get to listen to it from overseas.

All the best to the RadioLab team.

Jul. 11 2007 03:14 PM
Radio Lab from WNYC Radio

Ken, some people do find our sound design to be too layered. However, your reference to specific 'clicks' sounds like there could be a problem with your sound file. Try listening again from our website, and feel free to send us an email at should you continue to have problems.

Jul. 03 2007 12:26 PM
Ken Voorheis from San Francisco Bay Area

I listened to RadioLab for my first time and found the 'Dreams' sequence to be fascinating, as in "stop whatever I am doing now and listen." The only thing that annoyed me about the program was the clicking noise in between segments, as if it was a bad editing job. At first I thought, "It sounds like they were editing on tape" but remembered that no one edits on tape anymore. Do you insert these clicking noises deliberately?

My wife says, "Yes," and she won't listen to your program because she finds the sounds so annoying. I will listen anyway because the essence of your program is more important than the clicks. What I find puzzling is that you take so much care to get listeners to the heart of the issue and steer them away with what sounds like sloppy editing. Lose the clicks and you will communicate better, in my humble opinion.

Jun. 28 2007 02:54 PM
Nancy from Dallas, TX

I solve many of my problems during sleep. I am a prolific dreamer and remember them when I wake up. I am amazed at the free association and entertained by the results. My dreams are more elaborate if I forget to take my medication for depression. The other night, I watched two movies, "The Good Shepherd" and "Breach". My dream was a wonderful "movie" of intrigue and espionage. That same night I also dreamed about looking for a house to buy. The next day I sketched the floor plan of my "dream" house. Maybe Matt Wilson at MIT might want to look into how medication, or the lack there of, effects our dreaming. (Maybe I'll dream about that myself tonight).

Jun. 22 2007 10:24 PM
Christie from Dallas, TX

I was listening to the show during my lunch time. When Mr. Stickgold talked about reproducing the rock climbing experiment, I was remembering that back in the day, I was a tetris addict, and dreamnt almost constantly about the game. I literaly said outloud, 'HE SHOULD TRY TETRIS', And then they said it. I almost crashed on the tollway. I thought I was the only crazy person who dreamnt about Tetris.

Jun. 22 2007 04:33 PM
Inna from Dallas, TX

Thanks, guys, for the RadioLab!
Most exciting show on the radio by far!

Jun. 15 2007 08:22 PM
ellina from NJ

Loved the episode about sleep deprivation. I am planning to use it in my class that I teach about psychology and learning. This was a fun episode and it was very well done and interesting!
keep up a good job, guys!

Jun. 07 2007 03:16 PM
Gerald Wilson

This episode confirms that Radio Lab is the greatest show on the radio. I was glued to the radio for the entire hour!

May. 26 2007 05:56 PM
kris kachirisky from Portland, OR

I caught this episode tonight completely by chance, while I flipped the radio on in the kitchen. I found it so compelling that I didn't want to leave the kitchen. I ended up cleaning it completely and sweeping. The episode ended just as I was considering mopping. Glad to be saved from mopping, but sorry the episode ended. I'm a big fan of this american life and loved how clearly such high level concepts were delivered. Bravo! And my family thanks you for the clean kitchen, by the way. ; )

May. 26 2007 12:37 AM

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