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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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The Dreaming Self: How much do we really know about dreams?

Paul Kiritsis - Friday, March 30, 2018

Time has revealed dream phenomena as paradoxical realms that are highly resistant to empirical investigation. Despite attempts to probe, encroach upon, uncover, and map territory traditionally exalted under philosophical inquiry, they remain enigmatic and ineffable.

            Dreams fascinate, mesmerize us, and pique our curiosity, namely because they appear so diametrically opposed to waking conscious experience in terms of both form and content. They violate Aristotelian homogeneity without shame. In fact, the hallmark mental characteristics of dreams–the dearth of metacognition, severe disorientation, amnesia, confabulation, misperception, reflexive recourse to hyper-associations, and the loss of an analytical anchor–more closely resemble episodes of psychotic decompensation than anything we might experience in self-regulated conscious states.

Well, what happens in a cinematic and surrealistic dreamscape is that… our gelatinous legs won’t 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 rage on impulse without remorse or fear of punishment; and our best beloved transmute into theriomorphs and then reassume human form–and there’s nothing at all anomalous about that. 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, at least when equated with the self-referential processes of diurnal arousal, yet it all makes perfect sense when subjectively appraised from within the perceptual context it occurred.

Examining the phenomenon from a sociohistorical perspective, one cannot deny the eminence and exalted position dreams held in antiquity. During the Greco-Roman period individuals with an ailment might pilgrimage to the temple of the god Asclepius where they would slumber in the abaton, hoping that explicit details of a cure might 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 fulfilment 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 irrupting 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 like 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.

            Founded on logical operative cognition, 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 dogmatic adherence to the assumptive worldview of eliminative materialism.

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 can’t 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.

            In hindsight, we see that there are purely psychological and more physiological-evolutionary explanations able to theoretically couch and account for dreaming cognition. Which of the two should we preference, if any? Or should we try to circumvent the impediment of an internalized either-or philosophy predicated on the Kantian-Cartesian epistemological box and take a more integrative approach to dreaming cognition?

            Recently I encountered an article by Graveline and Wamsley (2015) entitled Dreaming and Waking Cognition. In it the authors make a decisive argument against higher order interpretations which tend to imbue dream imagery with symbolism and allegorical meaning. Moreover, they scrutinize the interpretability of dreams in clinical settings. While I do not detest nor repudiate the idea of dreaming and waking cognition as commensurable phenomena with shared neurobiological and phenomenological 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 were a homogenous and monolithic neurophenomenological entity.

 If waking conscious awareness can manifest with variabilities 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 implies latitude for phenomenal variability and anomaly; nothing is absolute. The underlying unconscious assumption of a binary system with discrete functional units is an intellectual trap in consciousness research, one which we should avoiding making at all costs.

In and of themselves theories must remain unbiased and accommodate all observed and reported data, not just the preferred data sets. Currently, the hegemony of the Western mind sciences does not permit conceptualizations of the nonphysical mind as distinct from the brain, a phenomenon which has precipitated the dismissal of 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 dominant paradigms or shatter them altogether are frequently epiphenomena of dream states.

Kekele came up with a simple structure for benzene after experiencing a hypnogogic 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 the Hindi 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 the scientific method. How these profound illuminations occur in an input-deprived cortex starved of 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 may continue to be under the auspices 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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