The Dialogue of Dreams
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
Why We Dream (International Congress on Neurology and Brain Disorders, London, September, 2019)
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Are dreams a source of reliable divination? Generations upon generations seem to have thought so. They incubated dreams by travelling afar, by fasting and by engaging in all other manners of self deprivation or intoxication. With the exception of this highly dubious role, dreams do seem to have three important functions:
All three functions are part of a much larger one:
The continuous adjustment of the model one has of one's self and of one's place in the world – to the incessant stream of sensory (external) input and of mental (internal) input. This "model modification" is carried out through an intricate, symbol laden, dialogue between the dreamer and himself. It probably also has therapeutic side benefits. It would be an over-simplification to say that the dream carries messages (even if we were to limit it to correspondence with one's self). The dream does not seem to be in a position of privileged knowledge. The dream functions more like a good friend would: listening, advising, sharing experiences, providing access to remote territories of the mind, putting events in perspective and in proportion and provoking. It, thus, induces relaxation and acceptance and a better functioning of the "client". It does so, mostly, by analysing discrepancies and incompatibilities. No wonder that it is mostly associated with bad emotions (anger, hurt, fear). This also happens in the course of successful psychotherapy. Defences are gradually dismantled and a new, more functional, view of the world is established. This is a painful and frightening process. This function of the dream is more in line with Jung's view of dreams as "compensatory". The previous three functions are "complementary" and, therefore, Freudian.
It would seem that we are all constantly engaged in maintenance, in preserving that which exists and inventing new strategies for coping. We are all in constant psychotherapy, administered by ourselves, day and night. Dreaming is just the awareness of this on-going process and its symbolic content. We are more susceptible, vulnerable, and open to dialogue while we sleep. The dissonance between how we regard ourselves, and what we really are and between our model of the world and reality – this dissonance is so enormous that it calls for a (continuous) routine of evaluation, mending and re-invention. Otherwise, the whole edifice might crumble. The delicate balance between us, the dreamers, and the world might be shattered, leaving us defenceless and dysfunctional.
To be effective, dreams must come equipped with the key to their interpretation. We all seem to possess an intuitive copy of just such a key, uniquely tailored to our needs, to our data and to our circumstances. This Areiocritica helps us to decipher the true and motivating meaning of the dialogue. This is one reason why dreaming is discontinuous: time must be given to interpret and to assimilate the new model. Four to six sessions take place every night. A session missed will be held the night after. If a person is prevented from dreaming on a permanent basis, he will become irritated, then neurotic and then psychotic. In other words: his model of himself and of the world will no longer be usable. It will be out of synch. It will represent both reality and the non-dreamer wrongly. Put more succinctly: it seems that the famous "reality test" (used in psychology to set apart the "functioning, normal" individuals from those who are not) is maintained by dreaming. It fast deteriorates when dreaming is impossible. This link between the correct apprehension of reality (reality model), psychosis and dreaming has yet to be explored in depth. A few predictions can be made, though:
- The dream mechanisms and/or dream contents of psychotics must be substantially different and distinguished from ours. Their dreams must be "dysfunctional", unable to tackle the unpleasant, bad emotional residue of coping with reality. Their dialogue must be disturbed. They must be represented rigidly in their dreams. Reality must not be present in them at all.
- Most of the dreams, most of the time must deal with mundane matters. Their content must not be exotic, surrealist, and extraordinary. They must be chained to the dreamer's realities, his (daily) problems, people that he knows, situations that he encountered or is likely to encounter, dilemmas that he is facing and conflicts that he would have liked resolved. This, indeed, is the case. Unfortunately, this is heavily disguised by the symbol language of the dream and by the disjointed, disjunctive, dissociative manner in which it proceeds. But a clear separation must be made between subject matter (mostly mundane and "dull", relevant to the dreamer's life) and the script or mechanism (colourful symbols, discontinuity of space, time and purposeful action).
- The dreamer must be the main protagonist of his dreams, the hero of his dreamy narratives. This, overwhelmingly, is the case: dreams are egocentric. They are concerned mostly with the "patient" and use other figures, settings, locales, situations to cater to his needs, to reconstruct his reality test and to adapt it to the new input from outside and from within.
- If dreams are mechanisms, which adapt the model of the world and the reality test to daily inputs – we should find a difference between dreamers and dreams in different societies and cultures. The more "information heavy" the culture, the more the dreamer is bombarded with messages and data – the fiercer should the dream activity be. Every external datum likely generates a shower of internal data. Dreamers in the West should engage in a qualitatively different type of dreaming. We will elaborate on this as we continue. Suffice it to say, at this stage, that dreams in information-cluttered societies will employ more symbols, will weave them more intricately and the dreams will be much more erratic and discontinuous. As a result, dreamers in information-rich societies will never mistake a dream for reality. They will never confuse the two. In information poor cultures (where most of the daily inputs are internal) – such confusion will arise very often and even be enshrined in religion or in the prevailing theories regarding the world. Anthropology confirms that this, indeed, is the case. In information poor societies dreams are less symbolic, less erratic, more continuous, more "real" and the dreamers often tend to fuse the two (dream and reality) into a whole and act upon it.
- To complete their mission successfully (adaptation to the world using the model of reality modified by them) – dreams must make themselves felt. They must interact with the dreamer's real world, with his behaviour in it, with his moods that bring his behaviour about, in short: with his whole mental apparatus. Dreams seem to do just this: they are remembered in half the cases. Results are, probably, achieved without need for cognitive, conscious processing, in the other, unremembered, or disremembered cases. They greatly influence the immediate mood after awakening. They are discussed, interpreted, force people to think and re-think. They are dynamos of (internal and external) dialogue long after they have faded into the recesses of the mind. Sometimes they directly influence actions and many people firmly believe in the quality of the advice provided by them. In this sense, dreams are an inseparable part of reality. In many celebrated cases they even induced works of art or inventions or scientific discoveries (all adaptations of old, defunct, reality models of the dreamers). In numerous documented cases, dreams tackled, head on, issues that bothered the dreamers during their waking hours.
How does this theory fit with the hard facts?
Dreaming (D-state or D-activity) is associated with a special movement of the eyes, under the closed eyelids, called Rapid Eye Movement (REM). It is also associated with changes in the pattern of electrical activity of the brain (EEG). A dreaming person has the pattern of someone who is wide awake and alert. This seems to sit well with a theory of dreams as active therapists, engaged in the arduous task of incorporating new (often contradictory and incompatible) information into an elaborate personal model of the self and the reality that it occupies.
There are two types of dreams: visual and "thought-like" (which leave an impression of being awake on the dreamer). The latter happens without any REM cum EEG fanfare. It seems that the "model-adjustment" activities require abstract thinking (classification, theorizing, predicting, testing, etc.). The relationship is very much like the one that exists between intuition and formalism, aesthetics and scientific discipline, feeling and thinking, mentally creating and committing one's creation to a medium.
All mammals exhibit the same REM/EEG patterns and may, therefore, be dreaming as well. Some birds do it and some reptiles as well. Dreaming seems to be associated with the brain stem (Pontine tegmentum) and with the secretion of Norepinephrine and Serotonin in the brain. The rhythm of breathing and the pulse rate change and the skeletal muscles are relaxed to the point of paralysis (presumably, to prevent injury if the dreamer should decide to engage in enacting his dream). Blood flows to the genitals (and induces penile erections in male dreamers). The uterus contracts and the muscles at the base of the tongue enjoy a relaxation in electrical activity.
These facts would indicate that dreaming is a very primordial activity. It is essential to survival. It is not necessarily connected to higher functions like speech but it is connected to reproduction and to the biochemistry of the brain. The construction of a "world-view", a model of reality is as critical to the survival of an ape as it is to ours. And the mentally disturbed and the mentally retarded dream as much as the normal do. Such a model can be innate and genetic in very simple forms of life because the amount of information that needs to be incorporated is limited. Beyond a certain amount of information that the individual is likely to be exposed to daily, two needs arise. The first is to maintain the model of the world by eliminating "noise" and by realistically incorporating negating data and the second is to pass on the function of modelling and remodelling to a much more flexible structure, to the brain. In a way, dreams are about the constant generation, construction and testing of theories regarding the dreamer and his ever-changing internal and external environments. Dreams are the scientific community of the Self. That Man carried it further and invented Scientific Activity on a larger, external, scale is small wonder.
Physiology also tells us the differences between dreaming and other hallucinatory states (nightmares, psychoses, sleepwalking, daydreaming, hallucinations, illusions and mere imagination): the REM/EEG patterns are absent and the latter states are much less "real". Dreams are mostly set in familiar places and obey the laws of nature or some logic. Their hallucinatory nature is a hermeneutic imposition. It derives mainly from their erratic, abrupt behaviour (space, time and goal discontinuities) which is ONE of the elements in hallucinations as well.
Why is dreaming conducted while we sleep? Probably, there is something in it which requires what sleep has to offer: limitation of external, sensory, inputs (especially visual ones – hence the compensatory strong visual element in dreams). An artificial environment is sought in order to maintain this periodical, self-imposed deprivation, static state and reduction in bodily functions. In the last 6-7 hours of every sleep session, 40% of the people wake up. About 40% - possibly the same dreamers – report that they had a dream in the relevant night. As we descend into sleep (the hypnagogic state) and as we emerge from it (the hypnopompic state) – we have visual dreams. But they are different. It is as though we are "thinking" these dreams. They have no emotional correlate; they are transient, undeveloped, and abstract and expressly deal with the day residues. They are the "garbage collectors", the "sanitation department" of the brain. Day residues, which clearly do not need to be processed by dreams – are swept under the carpet of consciousness (maybe even erased).
Suggestible people dream what they have been instructed to dream in hypnosis – but not what they have been so instructed while (partly) awake and under direct suggestion. This further demonstrates the independence of the Dream Mechanism. It almost does not react to external sensory stimuli while in operation. It takes an almost complete suspension of judgement in order to influence the contents of dreams.
It would all seem to point at another important feature of dreams: their economy. Dreams are subject to four "articles of faith" (which govern all the phenomena of life):
In compliance with the above four principles dreams HAD to resort to visual symbols. The visual is the most condensed (and efficient) form of packaging information. "A picture is worth a thousand words" the saying goes and computer users know that to store images requires more memory than any other type of data. But dreams have an unlimited capacity of information processing at their disposal (the brain at night). In dealing with gigantic amounts of information, the natural preference (when processing power is not constrained) would be to use visuals. Moreover, non-isomorphic, polyvalent forms will be preferred. In other words: symbols that can be "mapped" to more than one meaning and those that carry a host of other associated symbols and meanings with them will be preferred. Symbols are a form of shorthand. They haul a great amount of information – most of it stored in the recipient's brain and provoked by the symbol. This is a little like the Java applets in modern programming: the application is divided to small modules, which are stored in a central computer. The symbols generated by the user's computer (using the Java programming language) "provoke" them to surface. The result is a major simplification of the processing terminal (the net-PC) and an increase in its cost efficiency.
Both collective symbols and private symbols are used. The collective symbols (Jung's archetypes?) prevent the need to re-invent the wheel. They are assumed to constitute a universal language usable by dreamers everywhere. The dreaming brain has, therefore, to attend to and to process only the "semi-private language" elements. This is less time consuming and the conventions of a universal language apply to the communication between the dream and the dreamer.
Even the discontinuities have their reason. A lot of the information that we absorb and process is either "noise" or repetitive. This fact is known to the authors of all the file compression applications in the world. Computer files can be compressed to one tenth their sizes without appreciably losing information. The same principle is applied in speed reading – skimming the unnecessary bits, getting straight to the point. The dream employs the same principles: it skims; it gets straight to the point and from it – to yet another point. This creates the sensation of being erratic, of abruptness, of the absence of spatial or temporal logic, of purposelessness. But this all serves the same purpose: to succeed to finish the Herculean task of refitting the model of the Self and of the World in one night.
Thus, the selection of visuals, symbols, and collective symbols and of the discontinuous mode of presentation, their preference over alternative methods of representation is not accidental. This is the most economic and unambiguous way of representation and, therefore, the most efficient and the most in compliance with the four principles. In cultures and societies, where the mass of information to be processed is less mountainous – these features are less likely to occur and indeed, they don't.
Dreams are by far the most mysterious phenomenon in mental life. On the face of it, dreaming is a colossal waste of energy and psychic resources. Dreams carry no overt information content. They bear little resemblance to reality. They interfere with the most critical biological maintenance function - with sleep. They don't seem to be goal oriented, they have no discernible objective. In this age of technology and precision, efficiency and optimization - dreams seem to be a somewhat anachronistically quaint relic of our life in the savannah. Scientists are people who believe in the aesthetic preservation of resources. They believe that nature is intrinsically optimal, parsimonious and "wise". They dream up symmetries, "laws" of nature, minimalist theories. They believe that everything has a reason and a purpose. In their approach to dreams and dreaming, scientists commit all these sins combined. They anthropomorphise nature, they engage in teleological explanations, they attribute purpose and paths to dreams, where there might be none. So, they say that dreaming is a maintenance function (the processing of the preceding day's experiences) - or that it keeps the sleeping person alert and aware of his environment. But no one knows for sure. We dream, no one knows why. Dreams have elements in common with dissociation or hallucinations but they are neither. They employ visuals because this is the most efficient way of packing and transferring information. But WHICH information? Freud's "Interpretation of Dreams" is a mere literary exercise. It is not a serious scientific work (which does not detract from its awesome penetration and beauty).
I have lived in Africa, the Middle East, North America, Western Europe and Eastern Europe. Dreams fulfil different societal functions and have distinct cultural roles in each of these civilizations. In Africa, dreams are perceived to be a mode of communication, as real as the internet is to us.
Dreams are pipelines through which messages flow: from the beyond (life after death), from other people (such as shamans - remember Castaneda), from the collective (Jung), from reality (this is the closest to Western interpretation), from the future (precognition), or from assorted divinities. The distinction between dream states and reality is very blurred and people act on messages contained in dreams as they would on any other information they obtain in their "waking" hours. This state of affairs is quite the same in the Middle East and Eastern Europe where dreams constitute an integral and important part of institutionalized religion and the subject of serious analyses and contemplation. In North America - the most narcissistic culture ever - dreams have been construed as communications WITHIN the dreaming person. Dreams no longer mediate between the person and his environment. They are the representation of interactions between different structures of the "self". Their role is, therefore, far more limited and their interpretation far more arbitrary (because it is highly dependent on the personal circumstances and psychology of the specific dreamer).
Narcissism IS a dream state. The narcissist is totally detached from his (human) milieu. Devoid of empathy and obsessively centred on the procurement of narcissistic supply (adulation, admiration, etc.) - the narcissist is unable to regard others as three dimensional beings with their own needs and rights. This mental picture of narcissism can easily serve as a good description of the dream state where other people are mere representations, or symbols, in a hermeneutically sealed thought system. Both narcissism and dreaming are AUTISTIC states of mind with severe cognitive and emotional distortions. By extension, one can talk about "narcissistic cultures" as "dream cultures" doomed to a rude awakening. It is interesting to note that most narcissists I know from my correspondence or personally (myself included) have a very poor dream-life and dreamscape. They remember nothing of their dreams and are rarely, if ever, motivated by insights contained in them.
The Internet is the sudden and voluptuous embodiment of my dreams. It is too good to me to be true - so, in many ways, it isn't. I think Mankind (at least in the rich, industrialized countries) is moonstruck. It surfs this beautiful, white landscape, in suspended disbelief. It holds it breath. It dares not believe and believes not its hopes. The Internet has, therefore, become a collective phantasm - at times a dream, at times a nightmare. Entrepreneurship involves massive amounts of dreaming and the net is pure entrepreneurship.
In the film “Inception”, Dom Cobb, is an “extractor”: he steals confidential information by hacking into a subject’s brain during a dream and conning the victim into disclosing his secrets. This intellectually-challenging and visually-captivating film makes a series of assumptions, none of which withstands close scrutiny:
The film’s fundamental assumption is that dreams are objective entities, akin to buildings whose existence is independent of the observer and are, therefore, accessible to all and sundry. But dreams are highly subjective experiences. External and internal cues are interpreted by and integrated into complex, shape-shifting and highly-idiosyncratic neural networks resident in the head of the dreaming individual. One cannot “tap” into another person’s subjectivity (thoughts, emotions, dreams), even in principle (this is the infamous problem of Intersubjectivity). While we can communicate and discuss our inner world, we cannot share it in any meaningful sense, we cannot invite visitors or tourists there. Lucid and directed dreaming is possible, but dream-sharing is not. If we were to enter someone else’s mind, we would merely experience our reactions to her mind and not the mind itself.
Intersubjectivity is defined thus by "The Oxford Companion to Philosophy"(1995):
"(Intersubjectivity) refers to the status of being somehow accessible to at least two (usually all, in principle) minds or 'subjectivities'. It thus implies that there is some sort of communication between those minds; which in turn implies that each communicating minds aware not only of the existence of the other but also of its intention to convey information to the other. The idea, for theorists, is that if subjective processes can be brought into agreement, then perhaps that is as good as the (unattainable?) status of being objective - completely independent of subjectivity. The question facing such theorists is whether intersubjectivity is definable without presupposing an objective environment in which communication takes place (the 'wiring' from subject A to subject B). At a less fundamental level, however, the need for intersubjective verification of scientific hypotheses has been long recognized". (Page 414).
2. Defenses and Dreams
The film cannot make up its mind: Cobb tells the aptly-named Ariadne, the “architect” (dream-designer) that the dreaming person’s defences are down and all vigilance is gone. This vulnerability makes possible the art of extraction and renders counter-extraction (aka neurosecurity, defensive tactics against thieving extractors) a necessity.
Yet, throughout the movie, the invaded subject’s “subconscious” (should be “unconscious”) keeps attacking the extraction team. It keeps sending out hostile, violent, and murderous “projections” (figments) to eliminate them. Cobb even compares these apparitions to white blood cells! So, which is it in a dream state: defences down or defences at a maximum?
As Freud, the surrealists and Dadaists knew well, dreams are audio-visual manifestations of the unconscious, the seat of all psychological defense mechanisms. In dreams, we are hypervigilant and paranoid. One cannot compel a subject to reveal secrets even under hypnosis, let alone while dreaming. Moreover: dreams provide access only to the unconscious – but, secrets reside exclusively in the conscious part of the mind! The extractors are looking for confidential information in the wrong place!
Finally, dreams use symbols and representations and require interpretations. Even the most pedestrian information is thoroughly encrypted using a highly private language. The film errs in that it depicts dreams as merely “augmented reality”, albeit of a highly imaginative and creative sort. Dreams are coded messages, not representations of the world. In this sense, every dreaming person is a solipsist and an extraterrestrial alien.
3. Waking up and the stability of dreams
In the film, there are only two or three methods of terminating the dream state and waking up. In reality, the repertoire is unlimited: we wake up for hundreds of reasons including metabolic processes, pain, environmental stimuli, anxiety, compulsive thoughts, circadian awareness, habits, and fears. Dreams are highly unstable states. So unstable, in effect, that many scholars believe that this, precisely, is their role: to keep us alert and on our toes even as we sleep. The use of sedatives (as in the film) actually suppresses dreaming, making them highly counterproductive as far as the extractors are concerned.
4. Dream time dilation
This is a long-discarded myth: dream time is roughly equal to real time. One hour in a dream translates to one “real” hour. It is true, though, that the laws of physics are sometimes suspended while dreaming: distances contract or vanish, for instance. This gives the erroneous impression of time dilation.
5. “Totems” and the reality test
The film warns against the blurring of boundaries and distinctions between dream and reality, especially if one leverages one’s memories in the framework of lucid dreaming and incorporates them in the design of new phantasmagorias. Dreamers may lose the reality test and remain unable to tell the two states apart. To guard against this ominous psychosis, extractors use “totems”: objects whose behaviour is different in a dream to their true and everyday conduct. Cobb carries a spinning top which, in his dreams, never stops spinning (an oddity which informs him of his slumberous state, of course).
While it is true that objects acquire unfamiliar, even outlandish properties and behaviours in our dreams, their deviations and abnormal characteristics vary from one dream-instance to another and are utterly unpredictable. In one dream, the spinning top will spin forever; in another, it will refuse to spin at all; and, in a third, it will turn into a dove. “Totems”, therefore, would be useless as a litmus test. Far better to use a classic “reality check”: try to go through a solid object, levitate, look at the face of an analogue clock, or flick a light switch on and off.
Moreover, it is not strictly true that all dreams “feel real” to us. Some dreams do and others don’t. We often know that we are dreaming even when we are in the throes of an unfolding visual narrative that is inexorable. We sometimes test ourselves in the dream or even will ourselves to wake up. This ability to tell dream from reality is at the heart of our certainty of which is which.
Nor is it universally true that dreams have no discernible or remembered “beginning” and that we just find ourselves inexplicably immersed in them. The professional literature contains numerous descriptions of dreams with neat beginnings. More often, dreams lack an ending. These absent resolutions and closures provoke and elicit in us psychodynamic processes which are conducive to personal transformation and growth, or even to healing.
6. Nested Dreams
False awakening (dream within a dream) is a documented – albeit, rare – phenomenon. The dreamer usually dreams that he is waking up. There are three caveats, though: (1) Most nested dreams occur in familiar surroundings (one’s bed, home, or workplace); (2) The nested dreams share subject matter, some continuity, and a narrative, a plot, or story line; and (3) Invariably the dreamer realises that he is dreaming. Only the second condition is met, to a limited extent, in the film.
7. Creation vs. Discovery or Inspiration
Everyone around Cobb insist that inception – implanting an idea in someone’s dreaming mind so that he feels that he has come up with it once he wakes up – is an impossibility. Dreaming, Arthur says, involves “pure creation”. It is a process that feels like discovery or inspiration rather than the laborious and tedious constructs that we come up with while awake. Cobb tells Ariadne that our brain is far more active and more efficiently deployed when we dream (completely untrue, judging by brain wave activity).
According to these cinematic extractors, implanted ideas would, therefore, feel alien absent the essential experiences of “discovery” and “inspiration”. The subject is bound to react with violence and aggression to the dimly perceived invasion and mind- or dream-snatching. It is the extractor team’s job to avoid these defences against intrusion by convincing the subject that the foreign idea is his. Saying more would constitute a cruel spoiler.
But can we really make the distinction between “our” ideas and ideas we have been exposed to and absorbed, ideas whose source is external? Is this taxonomy of “endogenous” versus “exogenous” correct? The answer is a resounding “no”. We cannot reliably attribute our ideas to their various sources and cannot credibly tell their origins. Nor do we try to. We assimilate memes and make them ours because such plagiarism has survival value. The unhindered dissemination of “strange notions” (to borrow Saito’s phrase in the film) has untold beneficial effects, as any Internet addict will attest.
Furthermore: inspiration and intuition are often cloaked as reasoning and ratiocination. We feel that certain discoveries, theories, and works of art are the outcomes of our toil and rational investment even when they are actually the tip of an unconscious iceberg. Dreams are no different: when we are in them we obey this or that logic; construct theories about our environment, events, and actors; and assume ownership of our ideas and actions, regardless of their source. We never bother or stop to ask the absurd and unanswerable question: “Wait a minute, whose idea was this in the first place?” and so the premise on which the entire film is built is dubious.
The spectacular Russian film, "Coma", poses a
fascinating dilemma. A mad medical scientist induces a vegetative state in
subjects, thereby transporting them into a shared self-generated fantasy
universe where they are happy (when they are not being chased by black entities
engendered by the intrusion of technologies on their habitat).
As the Evil Genius points out: if you experience contentment, does it matter if it is real? And what is reality anyhow? If our minds accept a delusion, hallucination, fantasy, or illusion as authentic and objective - does it not make it so (especially if it is shared by many)? Is it better to be a miserable, lonely, downtrodden failure in reality than a successful creative architect in a dreamworld? If we can avoid life's abundant losses and despondence, don't we have a moral obligation to do so by any and all means possible?
Moreover: do we possess the right to impose happiness on people unbeknownst to them or against their will? Is firewalling them from reality by disabling their brains one step too far? Do we need their consent to remove them from harm's way and afford them the succor and joy that they deserve? If the only outlet to one's creativity is out of this world, should one not opt out of one kind of existence and transition to another?
And in which sense is a life confined to the mind and its internal objects less real than being embedded in a physical environment? Is the good doctor good - or is he a deranged and malevolent villain?
The film leaves these questions unanswered, as it should. As we migrate deeper into cyberspace - the postmodern equivalent of medieval Heaven - these conundrums will become ubiquitous and the lines of demarcation between virtual and actual more fuzzy. Witness the fact that several TV personalities now occupy elected high offices, having played the very same roles on the small screen. History as reality TV is already here.
Short Fiction about Dreams and Dreaming
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