Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 20 June 2010

What dreams are made of

Last week’s New Scientist (12 June 2010) had a very interesting article on dreams, in particular ‘lucid dreaming’, by Jessica Hamzelou. She references numerous people: Ursula Voss (University of Franfurt), Patrick McNamara (Boston University), Allan Hobson (Harvard Medical School), Eric Nofzinger (University of Pittsburgh) Victor Spoormaker (Utrecht University) and Michael Czisch (Max Planck Institute); so it’s a serious topic all over the world.

Ursula Voss argues that there are 2 states of consciousness, which she calls primary and secondary. ‘Primary’ being what most animals perceive: raw sensations and emotions; whereas ‘secondary’ is unique to humans, according to Voss, because only humans are “aware of being aware”. This in itself is an interesting premise.

I don’t agree with the well-known supposition that most animals don’t have a sense of ‘self’ because they don’t recognise themselves in a mirror. Even New Scientist reported on challenges to this view many years ago (before I started blogging). The lack of recognition of one’s own reflection is obviously a cognitive misperception, but it doesn’t axiomatically mean that the animal doesn’t have a sense of its own individuality relative to other members of its own species, which is how I would define a sense of self. In other words, a sense of self is the ability to differentiate one’s self from others. The fact that it mistakenly perceives its own reflection as an ‘other’, doesn’t imply the converse: that it can’t distinguish its self from a genuine other – in fact, if anything, it confirms that cognitive ability, albeit erroneously.

That’s a slight detour to the main topic, nevertheless it’s relevant, because I believe it’s not what Voss is referring to, which is our ability ‘to reflect upon ourselves and our feelings’. It’s hard to imagine that any animal can contemplate upon its own thoughts the way we do. What makes us unique, cognitively, is our ability to create concepts within concepts ad infinitum, which is why I can write an essay like this, but no other primate can. I always thought this was my own personal philosophical insight until I read Godel Escher Bach and realised that Douglas Hofstadter had reached it many years before. And, as Hofstadter would point out, it’s this very ability which allows us to look at ourselves almost objectively, just as we do others, that we call self-contemplation. If this is what Voss is referring to, when she talks about ‘secondary consciousness’, then I would probably agree with her premise.

So what has this to do with dreams? Well, one of the aspects of dreams, that distinguishes them from reality, is that they defy rational expectations, yet we seem totally acceptant of this. Voss contends that it’s because we lose our ‘secondary’ consciousness during dreaming that we lose our rational radar, so to speak (my turn of phrase, not hers).

The article argues that with lucid dreaming we can get our secondary consciousness back, and there is some neurological evidence to support this conjecture, but I’m getting ahead of myself. For those who haven’t come across the term before, lucid dreaming is the ability to take conscious control of one’s dream. In effect, one becomes aware that one is dreaming. Hamzelou even provides a 5-step procedure to induce lucid dreams.

Now, from personal experience, any time I’ve realised I’m dreaming, it immediately pops me out of the dream. Nevertheless, I believe I’ve experienced lucid dreaming, or at least, a form of it. According to Patrick McNamara (Boston University), our dream life goes down hill as we age, especially once we’ve passed adolescence. Well, I have a very rich dream life, virtually every night, but then I’ve learnt, from anecdotal evidence at least, that storytellers seem to dream more or recall them more than other people do. I’d be interested if there was any hard evidence to support this.

Certainly, storytellers understand the connection between story and dreaming, because, like stories, dreams put us in situations that we don’t face everyday. In fact, it has been argued that dreams evolutionary purpose was to remind us that the world can be a dangerous place. But I’m getting off the track again, because, as a storyteller, I believe that my stories come from the same place that my dreams do. In other words, in my dreams I meet all sorts of characters that I would never meet in real life, and have experiences that I would never have in real life. But I’ve long been aware that there are 2 parts to my dream: one part being generated by some unknown source and the other part being my subjective experience of it. In the dream, I behave as a conscious being, just as I would in the real world, and I wonder if this is what is meant by lucid dreaming. Likewise, when one is writing a story, there is often a sense that it comes from an unknown source, and you consciously inhabit the character who is experiencing it. Which is exactly what actors do, by the way, only the dream they are inhabiting is a movie set or a stage.

Neurological studies have shown that there is one area of the brain that shuts down during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep which is the signature behavioural symptom of dreaming. The ‘dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) was remarkably subdued during REM sleep, compared with during wakefulness.’ Allan Hobson (Harvard) believes that this is our rationality filter (again, my term, not his) because its inactivity correlates with our acceptance of completely irrational and dislocated events. Neurological studies of lucid dreams have been difficult to capture, but one intriguing finding has been an increase in a specific brainwave at 40 hertz in the frontal regions. In fact, the neurological studies done so far, point to brain activity being somewhere in between normal REM sleep and full wakefulness. The studies aren’t sensitive enough to determine if the DLFPC plays a role in lucid dreams or not, but the 40 hertz brainwave is certainly more characteristic of wakefulness.

To me, dreams are what-if scenarios, and are opportunities to gain self-knowledge. I’ve long believed that one can learn from one’s dreams, not in a Jungian or Freudian sense, but more pragmatically. I’ve always believed that the way I behave in a dream simulates the way I would behave in real life. If I behave in a way that I’m not comfortable with, it makes me contemplate ways of self-improvement. Dreams allow us to face situations that we might not want to confront in reality. It’s our ability for self-reflection, that Voss calls secondary consciousness, that makes dreams valuable tools for self-knowledge. Stories often serve the same purpose. A story that really impacts on us, is usually one that confronts issues relevant to our lives, or makes us aware of issues we prefer to ignore. In this sense, both dreams and stories can be a good antidote for denial.


larryniven said...

Out of curiosity, do you remember the last time that you had an honest-to-goodness nightmare? I only ask because it occurred to me the other day that I haven't had one in a long time, maybe a period of 5-7 years. Given how frequently I used to have them in my younger years - not nightly, but far too often - it struck me as a little odd, and I'm wondering if that's true of other people as well.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Interesting point, Larry. I expect that's the norm. I have a long history of depression, so I suspect that may have an influence, but I don't really know.

To answer your question, I had a really bad nightmare about a month ago. I suffer a sleep-disorder whereby I get pulses in my head whilst I'm trying to get to sleep, which may be a mild form of epilepsy, plus I have had 3 episodes of TGA (transient global amnesia) in the last decade. I'm booked into a sleep lab later this month, so they're going to see if they can it pick up on a brain-wave recording.

In my nightmare, I dreamt I had such a severe episode that it woke me up and I thought it was the real thing, but I now know it wasn't. Nevertheless, it scared the shit out of me.

I had lots of nightmares as a kid, and sometimes movies affected me as much as dreams. As an adult, I've dreamt that I've killed people and been killed, been in sword fights, faced a firing squad, all the experience you'd want as a writer. Stephen King once said that he writes to stop having nightmares.

Also, when I was a kid, I used to have a recurring dream of falling, but I stopped that by taking up rock-climbing in my 20s. I now have a recurring dream of being able to take giant steps and fly just like the characters in Ang Lee's Hidden Dragon Crouching Tiger (the first DVD I ever bought).

Regards, Paul.

larryniven said...

No kidding! I have that same dream myself from time to time, the giant-steps/flying one. I always chalked it up to biofeedback, though: as I'm sure you know, the brain (when it functions properly) turns off its ability to move the body during sleep other than to breathe and so on. But there are times when you want to move in your dream, so I figured that the giant-steps thing was just a glitch in how the brain understood motion.

Anyway, good luck with the sleep experiment thing - definitely let me know if anything interesting comes up.

J. Hamlyn said...

Brilliant Paul! I responded to a comment you made over on Steven L's blog and I was struggling to explain my thoughts but this post has clarified it for me. It's to do with our critical faculties and the question of whether some dispositions might maximize our potential to know some things more than others or, at least, to be more aware of the gaps in our understanding. Dreams suspend our "rational radar" so we willingly accept pretty well everything and anything, no matter how bizarre. Might it be said that the following is rather similar:

So whilst critical doubt or skepticism might be energy intensive, it has the benefit of ensuring (hopefully) that we don't become easy prey to falsehood.

But don't get me started on nightmares - the more I think about them the more I end up having them. Lucid dreaming is fun though, but incredibly hard to sustain in my experience.



Dee said...

i just started reading this blog (which i'm quite enjoying so far), and this is my first comment.

i used to have a lot of nightmares as a kid, really terrifying ones about being kidnapped, murdered, or chased by criminals and dead people. i'd wake up crying and ask to sleep with my mum. now i have them very rarely (i'm 22). i'll still have dreams about being chased every so often, but i don't feel the emotional terror like i did when i was little. (i've also learned from experience that the best way to end chasing dreams is to confront the chasers).

interestingly, i also used to have lucid dreams very regularly as a child. i could control the settings, the characters, the sequence of events and my own abilities in my dreams. now i probably have about two lucid dreams a year, and they're very short. i've also stopped experiencing deja vu, something i used to experience a lot as a child.

many of my friends also say they used to dream better as children. i wouldn't be surprised if there's a link between the greater neural plasticity of children's developing brains and their superior dreaming ability. that would be some really interesting research...

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Dee,

I suspect you're right. In the latest COSMOS magazine, there is a whole section on sleep and dreams. They claim that there are 2 types of REM sleep at different periods of sleep and that activate different parts of the brain. In very young children, they believe the emphasis is on motor activities, which makes sense.

Regards, Paul.