Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Law Dreams

Four weeks into the semester, the reports of law dreams are starting to trickle in.

For those who have never experienced this phenomenon, law dreams are the bane of the conscientious law student. (I've never had a report of a classic law dream from a devil-may-care student.) The law dream doesn't resemble your garden-variety exam dream, in which students dream they are sitting down to take a Corporate Taxation exam when they haven't even finished Contracts, let alone registered for any upper-division courses. No, the classic law dream, as I've experienced it and as students describe it, involves involuntarily wrestling with legal concepts during sleep. After a full day of conscientious studying, you lay yourself down to sleep, hoping to feel rested and refreshed in the morning. You drift off to sleep, and suddenly your unconscious brain is wrestling with the reason Palsgraf wasn't decided on the basis of duty, why it matters which ship "Peerless" the cotton from Bombay was loaded on in its passage to Liverpool, or whether to treat consent or its lack as an element of the tort or as a defense. These dreams feel like they last forever, and students wake up feeling drained by the mental struggle. 

Exhausting as law dreams may be, it may be some comfort to know they serve a useful function. Tons of research now shows how important sleep is not only for health but also for memory consolidation, with different areas of the brain consolidating long-term memory and procedural memory. Sleep after learning is essential to save the short-term memories into long-term memory, and new research also suggests that sleep is needed before new learning so the brain is receptive to new memories. But what about those law dreams? One influential paper suggests that "Type I" thought-like dreams are the result of memory replay as data is transferred from short-term working memory to long-term memory during non-REM sleep (those are the law dreams), while "Type II" dreams during REM sleep are the more familiar non-linear dreams. Remember the old jokes about sleeping with your book under your pillow to learn? Some researchers now advocate using sleep for active problem-solving by focusing on a problem before going to bed. There's even a technique called "lucid dreaming" which allows sleepers to gain control over the progression of their dreams as they practice awareness that they are actually dreaming and make choices about what will happen in the dream. Lucid dreaming, though, is only possible if you have regular healthy sleep. 

Now, go to bed.

(Nancy Luebbert)

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