Yet another article by The Atlantic caught my attention the other day, titled The Dreams You Can’t Remember Might Never Have Occurred. I find dreams utterly interesting. No, no, not the Freudian nonsense, but what we can learn from dreams about how our minds and consciousness work, including trying to understand and explain why we even dream.
When you read the above article, or papers on dreaming in general, you’ll find lots of vague hints and what the authors believe or hypothesise. The problem with dreams, of course, is that we cannot really objectively measure what is going on, we can only rely on what the dreamers report. Real researchers – dare we say scientists? – define proper theories, and they make predictions thereupon, for which they subsequently try to get evidence, or falsification. But – always through subjective reports. Until we have a better understanding of the neuroscience of our brains, and potentially possibilities to do, and understand, actual measurements, we’ll have to live with these limitations, I guess. The mind is an elusive phenomenon.
For me, sleeping means dreaming. No exception. I always wake up from a dream. A quick nap for 30 minutes? I dream. Hence, I guess I am on the other side of the spectrum from people reporting white dreams, or no dreams (see the article). I even thought that I had dreamed during surgery. However, from what I have read since it seems we do not dream under general anaesthesia, as the level of consciousness is so much lower compared to sleep. So maybe I just started to dream when the anaesthetic wore off, before I became conscious after the surgery.
To state the obvious, when we sleep, even as we cease to interact with our surrounding physical world, our consciousness experiences do not necessarily disappear. We may dream. What is fascinating, if you think about it, is that we find ourselves embodied and immersed in an experiential reality, where we have a dream-self, with which we identify. And often there are others that share this reality with us, and their existence and their behaviour seems to be autonomous: my brain is creating a virtual reality with me and others as autonomous avatars! I am aware that this is a trivial insight, as we all can experience it each and every night. It left me in awe nonetheless, when thinking about it clearly: our brain has the ability to simulate other autonomous creatures, which is far beyond just being ourselves and having our own subjective experience, the usual in a wakeful state.
Dreaming understood and explained as simulations of some reality has converged and is being accepted as valid in the relevant research field. In addition, most dreams have some kind of social interactions, both friendly and adversary. Hence, such dreams simulate a social reality. The other avatars – ie. the actors other than my own dream-self – in the simulation can be anything from friends to strangers to demons, and while the ones known to us usually look pretty much as their real-life counterparts, their behaviours often are not. That is, they can act in bizarre ways. It is still unclear if that is a result of the brain’s difficulty of simulating complex human behaviours and interactions realistically, or if there’s a functional explanation, that is, if that erratic behaviour serves a purpose. In any case, what’s interesting is that we don’t detect that bizarreness in the dream, unless the dream is lucid.
The question is, why would our brain invest into these efforts? World simulations are computationally expensive. Would dreaming have “survived” evolution if it didn’t have a purpose? Is it just a fluke of nature? Some scientists hypothesise that dreaming serves the purpose of honing certain skills and capabilities, hence increasing our abilities to survive and thrive in nature and societies (Threat Simulation Theory, Social Simulation Theory).
Adding to the many open questions – or weirdness – are lucid dreams, where you are aware that you’re dreaming. I do have lucid dreams at times, not very often though. That is, I get into a state in which know that I am dreaming, and can influence, to some extent, the further development of the events, or at least be calm that whatever will happen is, well, only a dream, which can make weird experiences pleasurable. I love unreal, otherworldly realms, created by my mind. Especially if some laws of physics, or my related abilities are out of the ordinary, like being able to fly. Or I dream within a dream, so “waking up” means I am still in a dream, although a different one, which is a strange experience. Of course, we have to ask, how would one even detect that state of being in a dream in the first place? I am not an experienced lucid dreamer, but it’s the strangeness of the experience, eg. physics contradicting the usual experience, combined with something that jolts my mind into being more conscious, or more awake, “upwards” from a deeper dream state. It’s a fine line there to hold between dream and wakefulness, a delicate, brittle state, at times even allowing to change between the two worlds for some time, but often resulting in waking up anyway, against my will to continue the dream.
And there is The Trippy State Between Wakefulness and Sleep. I can strongly relate to these states of dream-like experiences, however not being immersed, but observing. This tells me that I am actually falling asleep, being conscious of the process, being in some half awake, half asleep status. In fact, I love that state of mind, to give up control, and being aware of it. To be carried away into an unknown world. When I had my surgery, I paid attention to this process when the anaesthesia was induced. I noticed the first effects as tingling from the neck upwards and under the skull, and as something that is hard to describe, it’s somehow as if the brain expands, comparable to when a mind-altering substance (psychedelic) kicks in, but much faster, it lasted just a few seconds before I lost consciousness. With acid, or MDMA,1 you don’t lose consciousness, of course, but enter a world of strong and at times weird experiences which – inter alia – can be dream-like.
With meditation, something similar can happen. Usually, I arrive quickly in a focused state of the mind, observing my sensations and being rid of the workings and effects of the brain’s Default Mode Network that commands so much of our daily thinking and experience. At times, however, I go through a phase akin to the intermediate state before being asleep, with pictures and sounds appearing, which, as the second article above describes, might indicate a dissolution of concepts and meaningful experiences. Not that you lose conscious experiences during meditation, quite the contrary, but they are – in the best case – free of concepts, just a cloud of pure sensations and non-conceptual awareness, devoid of the shape of your body, or the world around you, including the concepts usually applied to perceive and understand it. Sounds are just sounds, without a location in the room, the tingling in your foot is just that, as you don’t have feet. Unless you do Vipassana meditation with the body scans, where you want to have a body. Ayo.
Human minds are strange beasts to start with, and dreams only add to this – they can turn the weirdness dial to eleven. Then again, they might be important tools for insights into the human mind, especially if, or when, put on a proper scientific footing, with theories than can be tested, pruned, and further developed. Just doing “studies” to see what’s there, with no prediction or hypothesis to test, is not science. I for one am fascinated by our brain’s capability to create full-blown virtual worlds, as bizarre as they might be at times.
MDMA is not a psychedelic in the narrow sense, such as LSD or psilocybin, but it evokes strong sensations in mind and body nonetheless. ↩︎