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Weird Dreams, Reading Fiction May Lead to Higher Intelligence

— June 14, 2021

Neuroscientist suggests having strange dreams may break limited thinking and increase intelligence.

Neuroscientist Erik Hoel, PhD, from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, says weird dreams serve a purpose and that is to help the brain understand daily experiences in a deeper way.  He explained, “If dreams are very unlike waking life, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature.  They’re supposed to be unlike your waking life so that they can keep you able to generalize, keep you flexible, and keep you from overfitting and shrinking your concepts to just fit into your daily life.  And it is actually cognitively useful for dreams to do that.”

Hoel received his PhD in neuroscience from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently a research assistant professor at Tufts.  Previously, he was a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University in the NeuroTechnology Center and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.  Hoel is also a 2018 Forbes “30 Under 30” for his neuroscientific research on consciousness.

Weird Dreams, Reading Fiction May Lead to Higher Intelligence
Photo by Matias North on Unsplash

“Humans,” he suggests in a recent study, “actually expand their brain power in much the same way that artificial intelligence (AI) systems are trained to become smarter.”  However, the study indicates, “When an AI system becomes too familiar with data, it can oversimplify its analysis, becoming an ‘overfitted brain’ that assumes what it sees is a perfect representation of what it will encounter in future.”

Testing AI systems, scientists often use randomization to counter this data and promote deeper learning.  This more chaotic feed breaks the AI of limited thinking, so the system is able to make more complex decisions.  Hoel’s weird dream theory, called the Overfitted Brain Hypothesis, has been published in several international research journals and magazines.  Hoel, who is also a fiction writer and recently released his debut title The Revelations, believes that reading fiction may work in much the same way.

“Our brains are so good at learning that we’re always in danger of being overfitted,” Hoel said of his hypothesis.  Whether it be dreams, or writing and reading fantasy, the more misaligned with logical thought processes, the greater potential for learning.

“We spend a huge amount of our time consuming narratives and stories that aren’t true,” he explained. “And I think it’s reasonable to ask why.  So, what I wanted to do is think about why it might actually be that dreams, but also the consumption of media fictions and story stuff that’s not real, could also be relevant or cognitively useful to us in this way.”  He added, “The very strangeness of dreams and the way they diverge from waking experience gives us insight that there must be a biological function behind it.  Our experience with deep neural networks, which themselves were inspired by brain function, gives us a possible clue about why this happens.”

“This theory is interesting,” responded Christopher Winter, MD, from Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine in Virginia.  But, he feels the study’s findings regarding weird dreams and higher intelligence will be difficult to prove.

Sigmund Freud would probably agree.


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