Head Trips

Back in July I put up a grumpy post in which I opined that “[d]reams are but a nocturnal processing system, of information received while the corporeal container is up and about. In any remembered dream I can easily find analogues to events or emotions experienced in an earlier waking state. Or nudges towards things I should, as KGO’s Ray Taliaferro puts it, ‘be thinking about, talking about, or doing something about.'”

Now, according to the New York Times, a Science Man is saying dreams maybe aren’t even that.

In a paper published last month in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Dr. J. Allan Hobson, a psychiatrist and longtime sleep researcher at Harvard, argues that the main function of rapid-eye-movement sleep, or REM, when most dreaming occurs, is physiological. The brain is warming its circuits, anticipating the sights and sounds and emotions of waking.

“It helps explain a lot of things, like why people forget so many dreams,” Dr. Hobson said in an interview. “It’s like jogging; the body doesn’t remember every step, but it knows it has exercised. It has been tuned up. It’s the same idea here: dreams are tuning the mind for conscious awareness.”

Meanwhile, a second Science Man, quoted in the same article, is claiming that dreaming, rather than some form of robotic jogging, is actually “consciousness itself.”


Dr. Hobson would dump Freudian and Jungian dream-theory into the dustbin, in arguing that dreaming is physiological, rather than psychological. Pretty much sucks the magic out of the things, in asserting—as, uh, I did—that dream content “is a kind of crude test run for what the coming day may hold.”

But Hobson then moves into some odd waters, by claiming that “dreaming is a parallel state of consciousness that is continually running but normally suppressed during waking.”

Dr. Rodolfo Llinas had previously sailed those same waters, in his 2001 book I of the Vortex. Apprised of Hobson’s research, Llinas told the Times:

“I argue that dreaming is not a parallel state but that it is consciousness itself, in the absence of input from the senses,” said Dr. Llinás[.] Once people are awake, he argued, their brain essentially revises its dream images to match what it sees, hears and feels—the dreams are “corrected” by the senses.

Hobson says that a Frankfurt study analyzing brain-wave activity during sleep found that “lucid dreaming” contained elements of both REM sleep and of waking consciousness.

“You are seeing this split brain in action,” he said. “This tells me that there are these two systems, and that in fact they can be running at the same time.”

“Lucid dreaming” is that state of mixed consciousness where “a heavy dose of REM [contains] a sprinkling of waking awareness.” The Times deems lucid dreaming “something [of] a mystery—and a staple of New Age and ancient mystics,” but it is definitely no big deal, because I experience it every time I nap.

There is some thought that the “two systems . . . running at the same time” business may explain people with schizophrenia: in such folks both dreamtime and the waking state are running full bore, accounting for things like Elvis in the apple tree, which in “normal” people would occur only with eyes closed.

And if Llinas is right, that dreaming “is consciousness itself,” and that the wakened brain “revises its dream images to match what it sees, hears and feels—the dreams ‘corrected’ by the senses,” then it may actually be those folks who are most “normal,” perceiving the world as it is, “uncorrected.”

Meanwhile, another group of studies discloses that people begin dreaming even before they become people.

During the third trimester, when an ur-person is still dependent on the womb, s/he is experiencing REM sleep—”well before,” as the Times puts it, “a developing child has experience or imagery to fill out a dream.”

The developing fetus may be “seeing” something, in terms of brain activity, long before the eyes ever open—the developing brain drawing on innate, biological models of space and time, like an internal virtual-reality machine.

I wanted to end this fairly flat and rudderless piece with Van Morrison’s “These Dreams Of You.” But, as groused about at some length here, that crusty old coot is still resisting the posting of his music to the tubes. So it’s the Grateful Dead’s “Lost Sailor” instead. Those boys still cleaved to the magic: “driftin’ and dreamin’/’cause there’s a place you’ve never been/a place you’ve never seen/you can hear it callin’ all the way.”

Sweet ones.


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When I Worked

November 2009
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