Dream to Predict? REM Dreaming as Prospective Coding

Front Psychol. 2016 Jan 5;6:1961. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01961. eCollection 2015.


The dream as prediction seems inherently improbable. The bizarre occurrences in dreams never characterize everyday life. Dreams do not come true! But assuming that bizarreness negates expectations may rest on a misunderstanding of how the predictive brain works. In evolutionary terms, the ability to rapidly predict what sensory input implies-through expectations derived from discerning patterns in associated past experiences-would have enhanced fitness and survival. For example, food and water are essential for survival, associating past experiences (to identify location patterns) predicts where they can be found. Similarly, prediction may enable predator identification from what would have been only a fleeting and ambiguous stimulus-without prior expectations. To confront the many challenges associated with natural settings, visual perception is vital for humans (and most mammals) and often responses must be rapid. Predictive coding during wake may, therefore, be based on unconscious imagery so that visual perception is maintained and appropriate motor actions triggered quickly. Speed may also dictate the form of the imagery. Bizarreness, during REM dreaming, may result from a prospective code fusing phenomena with the same meaning-within a particular context. For example, if the context is possible predation, from the perspective of the prey two different predators can both mean the same (i.e., immediate danger) and require the same response (e.g., flight). Prospective coding may also prune redundancy from memories, to focus the image on the contextually-relevant elements only, thus, rendering the non-relevant phenomena indeterminate-another aspect of bizarreness. In sum, this paper offers an evolutionary take on REM dreaming as a form of prospective coding which identifies a probabilistic pattern in past events. This pattern is portrayed in an unconscious, associative, sensorimotor image which may support cognition in wake through being mobilized as a predictive code. A particular dream illustrates.

Keywords: REM dreaming; pattern; prediction; prospective coding; unconscious.