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Robert Stickgold and his Tetris experiments


Professor Robert Stickgold is from Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. A profound sceptic of Freud he has attempted to use science to disprove core Freudian beliefs. He has used sleep studies to disprove Freuds wish fulfillment theory. For instance how can nightmares about Iraq be considered as wish fulfillment dreams if a mother dreams of her sons death?

It just seems amazing today how Freud can still even be considered as credible. The very fact that Stickgold is even trying to disprove his ideas shows that they are considered legitimate. Freuds books fill the shelves of psychiatry and psychology departments. Its ability to masquerade as science is amazing. Freud came up with a few sex obsessed ideas and they seem to have been accepted. People are looking for deep and complex meanings to dreams when we should look for more down to earth and realistic causes. He wrote a book that is called the "The interpretation of dreams" that contains less than ten dreams. How can this be considered scientific?

Science uses a process of experiment and proof. Yet the study of dreams is extremely problematic. Stickgold mentions this. "Put ten dream analysts into a room and they will come up with ten answers". Yet Stickgold believes that he has magically managed to interpret dreams himself. Yes he has managed to get several people to dream the same dream. He managed to get several people to have virtually the same dream. He set up groups of participants to learn the puzzle game Tetris. Many had dreams of Tetris squares falling. He concluded that the study helped show how the dream mind helps us to learn and integrate new information. We do not improve playing Tetris unless we go to sleep. Groups did not improve as the day went on. When they slept and played the game the next day though they improved. Dreams then help us integrate new information. They help us formulate new rules and to analyze the game in detail. We make connections and we form insights.

However, that not the only possible explanation. Just because they all had the same dream does not mean he has some magic insight into the dreams meaning. Maybe they were just linked to adrenalin. Often if we get highly involved in some task then we find it difficult to switch off. so the dreams may be linked to that. Yet because of his scientific need to keep his hands clean and not descend into the merky world of emotional dreams he is maybe limiting his studies. He maybe in danger of replacing Freuds myth with a myth of his own. Indeed, Stickgold is virtually saying that all dreams are learning dreams. Thats perhaps a mistake. Just because the dreamers saw Tetris shapes falling does not mean that these were Tetris learning deams.

Robert Stickgold seems to want to divorce himself from the messy business of dream interpretation. Its not an easy subject and is highly subjective. But descend the scientist must if they are to help disprove the ideas of Freud. They must try to explain complex dreams. They seem not to have devised methods to analyze emotional rather than learning tasks. They must get their hands dirty trying to explain dreams a teenage girl has about her boyfriend. Otherwise they are ignoring the main causes of dreams.

Yet emotional issues are one of the main occupations of the mind. Occasionally we can get caught up in a puzzle game like Tetris yet mostly we think about emotional relationships. We read peoples behavior - "does he really love me?". We think through dilemmas - "can I really trust my eight year old son to walk to school on his own?". Dreams help us think through these emotional issues.

Finnish psychologist Antti Revonsuo has studied rats. Yet he has fallen into the same trap as Stickgold. He has tried too hard to study dreams in a clinical scientific way. He found that rats deprived of sleep do not manage to preserve their own lives because they have forgotten survival techniques.

Yet the survival techniques of a rat are a lot different than those of the average human being. Few humans can so quickly and easily be deprived of their own lives as the average rat. Humans are not obsessed by survival since their lives are not at any immediate risk. Humans exist in a complex emotional and intellectual world. They do not just blindly study some learning task. They do not simply ask themselves how is Tetris played more successfully? They ask themselves about the people alongside them. They ask themselves about the sets of behavior that they are expected to exhibit? They ask about how they can get paid for the tests and do as little as possible? They maybe try to conceal any annoyances and dislikes for the staff studying them. Constantly people evaluate and reevaluate their worlds. They maybe for instance secretly thinking "These tests are a total waste of time".