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Some BahaiTeachings.org readers, after reading my recent essay called Dreams and Visions of the Soul, wondered about human dreams and how they compare to animal dreams. They left these comments on our site:
“I wonder if you will tell us about the difference between human dreams and animal dreams.”
“…in the very cute and amusing videos on YouTube which show a puppy chasing something in its mind whilst asleep, what is animating that locomotion?”
Just about anyone who has ever seen a dog’s paws twitch and “run” in his sleep knows that animals dream. As far as scientists have been able to determine, all mammals experience some variant of REM sleep. Dogs, cats, rats and even dolphins dream. Whales probably do, too, although no brave scientists have managed to hook up their electrodes to a whale. Birds and reptiles might dream, as well. Armadillos and opossums dream even more than humans, apparently.
So what separates human dreams from animal dreams? What do animals dream about, anyway? Most importantly, if our dreams indicate the presence of a soul, what do animal dreams indicate?
We know that most mammals have similar brain components. Like humans, they all have a sleep-activated hippocampus and a brain structure called the pons, which secretes a hormone that paralyzes our muscles to keep us from moving too much when we dream. My pons didn’t work too well when I was a kid—which is why I had many sleep-walking adventures, including a memorable trip to the kitchen, which, in my dream, I mistakenly thought of as the bathroom. Hilarity ensued.
Two MIT neuroscientists, Matthew Wilson and Kenway Louie, have learned more about animal dreams than just about anyone. Their research actually recorded the firing of single cells in the brains of four rats as they ran through a maze. Different cells fired at different sections of the maze. Then Wilson and Louie observed the same cells firing while the rats slept—in the exact same order as when they originally navigated the maze.
This research shows us that animals replay their waking lives in their dreams, just as humans sometimes do. That fact leads scientists to believe that dreams actually fulfill a problem-solving function in both animals and humans, allowing our resting brains to go over difficult tasks and quandaries, potentially seeking and finding answers while we sleep.
But human dreams, we know from similar scientific studies, have the ability to go far beyond basic problem-solving, and into the much more mysterious areas of symbolism, psychological insight and even precognition. The best-known science in this area came from the sleep laboratory at New York’s Maimonides Medical Centre, where researchers investigated precognition in dreams. Their research subjects described their dreams, recording them immediately after waking, and then waited to see whether or not those dreams came true. After a sufficient amount of time passed, the researchers reported that five out of eight experiences directly corresponded with the original dreams, and two more were close matches. The odds against that randomly happening, according to the scientists, were 5000-1.
Many historical examples of this phenomena exist. In 1865, two weeks before his assassination, Abraham Lincoln had a precognitive dream about a funeral at the White House. In the dream, he asked someone who was in the casket and they replied, “The president of the United States.” Lincoln told his wife about the dream, but neither of them took it seriously. On the night of his death the President gave his bodyguard the night off.
This suggests that while all mammals sleep and dream, human beings have higher-order abilities and powers, in the same way intellectual capacities increase in the most complex life-forms:
According to science, all forms of creation are endowed with life; this element of life and energy depending on environment and adaptations. Life as an attribute of growth is manifest to a minute degree in the mineral kingdom. It is more powerfully manifested in the vegetable kingdom and when we study the animal world we observe that the power of life is expressing itself through more capable mediums, showing manifold attributes. Ascending to the human kingdom we find that life, or what is figuratively called spirit, is declaring itself with knowledge in the utmost power and transcendency. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 165.
Certainly, animals have feelings and emotions. Anyone who has ever felt the love of a pet or the trust of a horse for his rider knows that animals can not only sense but feel. In all animals, though, the ability to think and reason cannot rival the human capabilities for rational thought, for the creation of art, for the building of complex civilizations, for scientific accomplishment and technological achievement:
In the animal world there is the sense of feeling, but in the human world there is an all-embracing power. In all the preceding stages the power of reason is absent, but the soul existeth and revealeth itself. The sense of feeling understandeth not the soul, whereas the reasoning power of the mind proveth the existence thereof. – Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet to August Forel, p. 9.
Our souls, Baha’is believe, allow us to evolve beyond a purely animal existence. They lead us to higher levels of intellectual and spiritual development. They open our minds to more subtle and divine aspirations. Our souls allow us to dream, and make our dreams vehicles for our spiritual growth.