the dreaming self

Time has revealed dream phenomena as paradoxical realms that are highly resistant to empirical investigation. Dreams fascinate, mesmerize us, and pique our curiosity, namely because they appear so diametrically opposed to waking life.  They violate the laws of physics without shame. And despite attempts to probe, encroach upon, uncover, and map territory traditionally exalted under philosophical inquiry, they remain enigmatic and ineffable.

The hallmark mental characteristics of dreams — the dearth of insight, severe disorientation, amnesia, absurdity, misperception, the absence of cause and effect relationships, and the loss of an analytical anchor — more closely resemble episodes of psychotic decompensation than anything we might experience in self-regulated conscious states.

What happens in a cinematic and surreal dreamscape is that… our gelatinous legs will not carry us to safety after our brains issue the motor command; we see no issue with giving a public speech whilst concurrently disrobing; we strangle strangers in our impulsive rage without remorse or fear of punishment; and our loved ones transmute into theriomorphs [animal form] and then reassume human form — and there’s nothing at all anomalous about that in our dream world. Sometimes the Eiffel Tower is in our backyard, and sometimes we instinctively know who somebody is despite their deceptive Protean disguise. It’s all arbitrary, nonsensical, and paradoxical, yet it all makes perfect sense when you’re experiencing it in an altered state of consciousness.  

Recent History of Dream Analysis

Examining the phenomenon from a sociohistorical perspective, one cannot deny the eminence and exalted position dreams held in antiquity. During the Greco–Roman period, worshippers would pilgrimage to the temple of the god Asclepius and slumber in the abaton, believing that explicit details of a cure would be revealed to them in an extraordinary dream. 

A protracted period of intellectual somnolence ensued during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Age of Enlightenment, however interest in the topic was reignited with the publication of Freud’s seminal work on the topic, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). While his theories of dreams as an unconscious embodiment of wish fulfillment may not be as empirically veracious as he would have liked, Freud was instrumental in broaching the topic as a mental phenomenon worthy of philosophical consideration and scientific exploration. 

Jung began where Freud tapered off, interpreting dreams as a vehicle for the expression of archetypal raw material erupting from the collective unconscious. The imbuing of dreams with meaning had a snowball effect, and more and more thinkers were now joining the coterie eager to unlock their deepest and most profound mysteries. 

As one might expect, the philosophical interest in causality generated an emerging counterculture as well, with Harvard University psychiatrists such as Hobson and McCarley opting for a more reductive physiological approach which presupposes that the brain is a “dream-state generator” and dreams random byproducts of nocturnal brain activation.

Neuroscience and Modern Tools

The operative neuroscientific tools of today — PET scans, MRIs, and EEGs — have been inept at capturing the phenomenal essence of dreams. Subjective self-report is the only known window into dream phenomenology, and this is bound to stir, at the very least, discomfort, and at most, feelings of anathema in those with a reductive materialist worldview. 

How does one render the dream amenable to objective measurement when people struggle to recollect explicit details after waking? This, in fact, is a very valid question. Scientists will argue that subjective accounts are mutable and empirically unreliable — if we cannot reach a unanimous appraisal on a consensual public mugging, then what hope is there of giving a veracious account of a nebulous dream narrative unfolding at a time when memory processes are in complete abeyance? Here lies the conundrum…

Despite the gaping conceptual chasm, there is some agreement amongst cognitive scientists regarding the interpretative nature of physiological investigations. Animal studies with maze-running rats, for instance, have shown that the prima materia of the dream is real-life experience. Dreamscapes are jumbled, reassembled, and reordered waking experiences — a nonphysical dimension and perceptual space where past templates are utilized as predictive devices to determine how future events might unravel. Neuroimaging studies generally show increased activation in mesial temporal lobe and prefrontal lobe structures during dream states, and hence corroborate this conjecture. Dreams are purportedly salubrious, exerting a positive influence on mood and a regulatory effect on the body’s biochemical and immunological functions. This much we do know.

We also know that dreams occur primarily during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, an independent state which accounts for roughly 20 to 25% of sleep time and dominates the last third of the sleep cycle. This is why most people will remember a sliver of a dream segue upon awakening; the longest REM cycle occurs in the early hours of the morning and is somewhat protracted in length, up to an hour. 

More often than not, EEG tracings will be characterized by theta activity and fast rhythms that take the guise of sawteeth. There is a distinction made between tonic and phasic stages of REM sleep; the former is underscored by desynchronized EEG, atonia or hypotonia of the major muscle groups, and depression of reflexes, whilst the latter is comprised of rapid eye movements in all directions, as well as random tongue movements, irregularities in respiration, arbitrary middle-ear muscle activity, and phasic swings in heart rate and blood pressure.

Lesions in peri-locus coeruleus alpha region and in the medial medullary region of the brainstem incur REM sleep without muscle atonia, meaning that patients will act out their dreams. We see functional or structural alterations to these morphological brain structures in patients who develop this pathological acting out, a condition known as REM behavior disorder. This parasomnia is also one of the cardinal prodromal markers of Parkinsonian syndromes and Lewy body disease, and incidentally both these conditions habitually impel visual hallucinations. Research has established that dreaming cognition experienced during REM sleep and hallucinations co-opt some of the same neural mechanisms — some food for thought there.

An Integrative Approach

In hindsight, what becomes patently obvious is that there are purely psychological and more physiological-evolutionary explanations able to theoretically account for dreaming cognition. On one hand, we have dream phenomenology described in qualitative subjective terms by a percipient, and on the other we have the underlying sleep state in which it predominantly occurs – described using physiological criteria like EEG, EMG, and EOG. Which of the two should we favor, if any? Or should we circumvent the need to impose an arbitrary dichotomy and take a more integrative approach to dreaming cognition? 

Recently I encountered an article entitled Dreaming and Waking Cognition (Graveline Y.M. & Wamsley E.M., 2015). In it the authors make a decisive argument against higher-order interpretations that tend to imbue dream imagery with symbolism and allegorical meaning. Moreover, they scrutinize the interpretability of dreams in clinical settings. While I do not repudiate the idea of dreaming and waking cognition as kindred phenomena with shared neurological and experiential correlates, I do wonder about their appraisal and treatment of an altered conscious state — one that lies on the furthest boundaries of the human consciousness spectrum — as if it was an indivisible singularity with no nuances.

 If waking conscious awareness can vary  in form and content (i.e., relaxed state, hypnoid state, hypoarousal, psychosis, delirium, coma), then there’s reason to believe that the same heterogeneity also exists in dreaming states. “Shared” correlates imply latitude for phenomenal variability and anomaly; nothing is absolute. The implicit assumption of a binary system with discrete functional units is an intellectual trap in consciousness research, one which we should avoid making at all costs. 

More than Meets the Eye

In and of themselves, theories must remain unbiased and accommodate all observed and reported data, not just the preferred datasets. Currently, the hegemony of the Western mind sciences does not permit conceptualizations of the nonphysical mind as distinct from the brain, and thereby wholly dismissing precognitive dreams as a respectable domain of scientific investigation. 

Historiographical accounts of polymaths, scientists, and creative luminaries converge on the “dream” as an illumination phase of the creative process. Emerging as instances of historical novelty, profound scientific discoveries and truths which initiate radical shifts from conventional ideas in science, technology, and art or shatter them altogether are frequently made in dream states. 

Kekulé came up with a simple structure for benzene after experiencing a hypnagogic vision in which carbon atoms congregated in the form of an ouroboros, a snake biting its own tail. The celebrated Indian mathematician Srinivasan Ramanujan claimed a Hindu goddess revealed mathematical formulas, equations, and conjectures to him in the dream state. For Rene Descartes, a series of dreams served as inspiration for the development of scientific method. How these profound illuminations occur in an input-deprived cortex starved via logical operative cognition eludes understanding and cannot be feasibly explained by any existing neurophenomenological model of the human mind and consciousness. 

Indeed, scientific progress in this field may be illusory and continue to be under the influence of the reductionistic agenda. As the philosopher Colin McGinn eloquently asserts, humans suffer from “cognitive closure” and have invented scientific tools that are essentially products of logical operative cognition; they cannot detect, let alone investigate, quintessential nonphysical phenomena on the other side of that boundary. In the final analysis, we may have reached a stalemate when it comes to our spirited investigation of dreams—one likely to persist until there is a radical shift in the ontological and epistemological axis of science.

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