Author Topic: A neuroscientist blogs about a dream of his  (Read 6286 times)


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A neuroscientist blogs about a dream of his
« on: November 26, 2007, 11:35:45 AM »
Dr. Novella is an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.

The NeuroLogicaBlog covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society.

Novella blogs about his dream, and offers some comments about dreaming in general at:
Should we invite him here to comment?
"We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves."
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Matt Koeske

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Re: A neuroscientist blogs about a dream of his
« Reply #1 on: November 28, 2007, 04:30:17 PM »

Thanks for the article/blog entry, Kafiri!  (An aside: I like the fact that blog entries and articles are becoming indistinguishable.  As a creative writer, it is always a pleasure to see the language "mutate" and adapt.)

I have to admit that I feel it's a bit of a shame that the neuroscientists feel they must polarize their attitudes with those of the dream interpretation theorists.  Freud is probably most to blame for encouraging this prejudice . . . as his dream interpretation technique was so projective and cookie-cutter-like.  I doubt there are many neuroscientists who have read any Jung at all.  Not that Jung's dream theories are flawless, but I do think they lean toward scientific usability.

That is, the notion that dreams contain (and may be constructed primarily from) archetypal themes, characters, and scenarios is a movement toward the studiability of dream phenomena.  It helps construct the paradigm of a dream phenomena classification system.  Understanding that various dream themes are common among all human beings (regardless of differences in socialization) is the first best step toward seeing dream phenomena as scientifically meaningful (i.e., not just random and senseless).  Throw in some Jungian archetypal theory (primarily, the idea that archetypes are expressions of instincts) and we have two very big, very significant pieces to start putting the puzzle together.

If dreams have common themes and these commonalities can be seen as archetypal (and therefore as potentially adaptive [at least in our environment of evolutionary adaptedness] patterns of behavior), then we can hypothesis (with a high level of credibility) that 1.) dreams have a functional, evolutionary purpose, and 2.) that purpose is not best observed via neurological brain scans but through the study of dream phenomenology.

Of course, even off to as good a start as this, here is where we run smack into trouble.  How do we best study dream phenomenology?  That is the troubling issue for anyone who wants to understand dreams as scientifically as possible.  Like everyone else, I only have theories and guesses, but I think we can do a little bit of paring down in the name of scientific reasoning.

For instance, take the notion that dreams are "surreal" or that they are nonsense or random/chaotic.  To me, this seems like a very unscientific opinion . . . and its prevalence in neuroscientific circles is a stupid prejudice that handcuffs potentially valuable investigations.  What I mean is that the scientific method encourages the observer (scientist) to try to escape the delusions and confines of the egoic perspective in order to see data and phenomena from, essentially, as close to "Nature's perspective" as is possible.

So the first scientific movement in the study of dream phenomena should be the setting aside of the notion that the non-egoic logic of dreams is "senseless" or random.  As not only a dream interpreter, but also a surrealist writer, I know that I create almost entirely within the realm of non-egoic logic . . . and that this dream-like logic is in no way senseless or random.  So, like many other poets and all Jungians, I am used to looking past the egoic perception facade when I look at dream phenomena.

What I think the neuroscience-based dream theorists are falling into is a dimension of the "egoic fallacy".  In the grip of the egoic fallacy, we do not realize that the way we think we are thinking is not really the way we are thinking.  That is, we confuse the conscious thoughts zipping in and out of our working memories with the entire thought process of the brain.  Of course, if we asked a neuroscientist if s/he believed this was valid, s/he would say, no . . . absolutely not.  Neuroscientists know as well as anyone that the brain's thought process is much larger and more complex than the way we experience it "consciously".  Why then, do they seem to instantly forget this fact when they look at the "illogic" of dream phenomena?

That, as I said above, is the result of a prejudice that limits the constructive thinking of neuroscience.

Another thing that this prejudice against the meaningfulness of dream phenomena leads neurosceintists to conveniently forget when observing dream phenomena is that the human thought process is highly symbolic . . . and not at all rationalistically literal like the socialized ego of modern society.  So (for you neuroscientists lagging behind out there  (-)monkbggrn(-)), this is how the above adds up: we know that the entire thought process of the brain is much larger and more complex, and therefore, not exactly like the egoic thought process as we (believe! we) perceive it . . . and we know that the thought process is highly symbolic or that it organizes thoughts using the "tool" of symbolism (among other things, of course). 

Therefore, if we are to attempt a more scientific investigation of dream phenomena, we must first try to circumvent the egoic perspective by hypothesizing that the thought process behind dream phenomena should not be treated as literal, rationalistic, or egoic . . . but as 1.) symbolic, and 2.) significantly more complex than the ego-awareness of conscious thinking.

To not found the investigation of dream phenomena on such a hypothesis (or one similar to it) would be to approach dream phenomena unscientifically from the getgo . . . and it should therefore come as no surprise that everything turns senseless in no time at all.

I.e., neuroscientists, you have to think outside the box a little more here.  The box is blinding you.

Of course, to say that dream phenomena (as a representation of the human thought process) is "symbolic" is not all that helpful, because it then requires us to rather arbitrarily translate symbols into a more rational language.  This has never been done to scientific satisfaction on anything resembling a "universal" basis.  That is, one cannot take any dream thrown at them and devise a symbolic translation or interpretation of it.  Even with solid interpretive tools (like Jungian ones), many dreams remain mysterious and many more remain vastly uncertain. 

My personal response to this concern is that the very notion of an "accurate" dream interpretation theory is pure foolishness.  Yes, I think Jung's is "more accurate" than Freud's (and we have to remember that Jung would employ Freudian-style interpretations is certain circumstances, thus incorporating Freudian theory while not limiting himself to it).  But what appeals to me most about Jung's theory is not its accuracy per se, but its way of approaching dream content.  I.e., bringing in the archetypal paradigm that looks for common themes found also in religion, myth, art, and folktales.  The one-to-one translation of dream symbols via the Jungian method is (like any such translation) hit or miss . . . but by recognizing the evolved patterns of behavior that seem to help construct these dream symbols, the Jungian method allows (with a typically high degree of accuracy) dream themes, symbols, feelings, and situations to be contextualized.  Narrowed down, that is.

I think it is compatible with conventional Jungianism to suggest that we would do better not to try to determine what a dream symbol means, but to investigate what a dream symbol is.  Is a dream symbol really reducible to a meaning?  Should it be . .  and if so, why?  Because that would suit what we are more used to, egoically speaking?  And what does that have to do with what is (the realm of science)?  I don't think there are any useful data that suggest that dream phenomena (and our thought process in general) should be rationally meaningful.  Such a belief would seem to be founded on the idea that egoic consciousness is an accurate perception of the environment.  But where is the evidence for that?  It seems to me more accurate to say that egoic consciousness is an effective tool for helping us navigate our environments successfully . . . but not necessarily for telling us precisely what the things in our environment are.

This is an important differentiation to make when investigating the human thought process.  So when we try to investigate dream phenomena, it seems more advisable to me to approach such phenomena more like a naturalist than an "opportunist".  Dreams, after all, are most certainly natural.  And if we wanted to (naturalistically) study a new species of animal (for instance), we wouldn't start off by asking, "How might we domesticate this creature?"  Rather, we would observe its behavior in its natural environment in order to understand how it succeeds, how it is "fit", how it interacts with its environment.  In other words, the proper scientific way to study this animal would be to construct an understanding of it based on its relationships to the various things around it.

It seems perfectly reasonable to me that dreams (being natural phenomena that well predate the evolution of the human species) should be studied very much like they were a species of animal.  And so, we construct an understanding of dreams (or dream symbols) from the observation of the way they interact in their environments.  Dreams, I think, represent a species of thought.  Perhaps even a whole order or class of thought.  We need to be willing to consider that dreams may even be an accurate representation of the entire human thought process, albeit viewed from a perspective unlike the more detached one of waking consciousness.  That is, dreams could be the way we think all the time that we are merely unaware of, since the ego latches on only to the generalities of thought that are most useful (or obsessing) to it, and then only very briefly.

I don't mean to posit that as a theory, because I can't provide enough evidence for it . . . but it is among a group of equally reasonable hypotheses given the data we have.  My understanding is that the brain scans of neuroscience tell us that the the material thought process during the dreaming state is much the same as that of the waking state.

I do feel comfortable at least positing a "sub-hypothesis" based on this possibility.  This sub-hypothesis would state that it is useful to investigate dream phenomena with the working hypothesis that dream phenomena depict a thought process that is as intentional as that of the waking thought process.  And since we assume that our waking thought process has to be useful for our survival, the dreaming thought process is likely also useful or serves a biological, evolutionary function.

This hypothesis doesn't (in itself) dispel the possibility that, although we know dreaming is a necessary biological function (probably providing some kind of maintenance or self-regulation), this function might be a "waste disposal" of perceived data that has no real use in the complex of our psyches and is therefore better discarded for psychic efficiency's sake.  But the dream-as-waste theory doesn't hold up very well to the fact that many people find images in their dreams very compelling and memorable . . . or at least distinctly affecting (yes, even neuroscientists).

Even people who have no faith in dream interpretation or no sense of valuation for dreams can often be haunted or "possessed" by various thoughts, images, and feelings in their dreams.  That hardly seems like an effective method of waste disposal to me.  We (who are not Jungians) should also do our best to remind ourselves that it is only in our modern "age of reason" that dreams are so devalued.  For the majority of human existence, dream phenomena were treated as extremely important, even at times advising or guiding conscious decisions.  I am not saying this was "right".  I merely mean to suggest that we should ask whether or not our devaluation of dream phenomena today is based in prejudice or "rationalistic, factual wisdom".

So . . . assuming for the time being that this primer on "why study dreams" is sufficient to move forward with, how does one study dream phenomena like a naturalist studies a species of animal?

This is no doubt a woodsy area of speculation, but once again, I think we can begin by paring away ideas that are more likely to be false and thereby keep steering our ship toward the right star.  For instance, the natural habitat of dreams is thought.  We can't really determine whether dreams exist within the category of thought or if they are the category of thought.  But the thought environment is where dreams are observed. 

We know the thought process that guides our behaviors and problem solving is generally productive or evolutionarily successful . . . and we know that the dream thought process shows no material differences from the waking thought process.  We also know that the dreaming process is biologically useful as a self-regulatory system (but not precisely why or how).  This is the system, the ecosystem or complex environment that dreams live in.  If we want to determine whether or not dream thoughts/phenomena are of themselves functional, meaningful, and useful to the survival of the organism, we have to observe them in their natural environment (with as little prejudice and intrusion as we can manage).

One of the most common observations of dream phenomena is that they tend to contain images related to the observed information of the previous day or so.  This is one of the "harder" facts that neurological dream researchers cling to . . . but I would like to propose that the reality is much too complex for this observation alone to depict.  Yes, without doubt, dreams showcase a lot of very recent information . . . but how is this information usually showcased?  Is it isolated from everything else, dancing by like sugar plum fairies?

No, this recent information is conventionally combined with other imagery that can't be said to be recent.  Sometimes it is even apparent that the other imagery combined with recent information is from "distant" memories.  Sometimes these distant memories are not recalled until they are combined with the new, more recent information.  On the most basic of levels, it would seem to be more accurate to say that dreams showcase the relationship of recent information with older information . . . and not merely that dreams showcase recent information.

This is a small adjustment, but it is potentially momentous as a theoretical leap forward in the study of dream phenomena.  For instance, it casts yet more doubt on the possibility that the dreaming process is a waste disposal system for useless information (although, this still isn't to say it might not also serve this function).  The combination of new memories with old memories would seem to be a functional form of processing, a "making use of" information.  It isn't a separative/removal process but a combanitive/building process.  This suggests that the biological, self-regulatory process of dreaming is not only constructive, but that its constructiveness is in some way reflected in its dream phenomena.  Dream phenomena, then, would seem to be meaningful at least as representations (or rather as our perceptions of) the interrelationality of memory-making.  After all, there is a potential parallel between the connection of new and old thought contents and the function of the self-regulation of the complex system of the psyche (i.e., the brain's information).

Why then do certain new memories fit together with certain old memories?  To ask this question and search for valid answers is to investigate the nature of human thought itself.  And as we segue into the study of thought itself, we have to glance back over our shoulders at the gateway that led us to this "land of plenty": the dream.  I am proposing that the dream as a phenomenon is one of the best potential tools available to us for an investigation of how we think and what it means to think.  If this proposal holds any water, then the marginalized field of scientific dream research would seem to be a neglected oasis of potential knowledge about the human thought process.

And why has this oasis not been properly utilized in our study of thought?  Once again, because of prejudice.  Not reason.

To go farther than this along the same road, we have to start developing a different skill set (i.e., if we are neuroscientists rather than depth psychologists).  Specifically, we would need to start recoding and studying dreams as more than the dreamers superficial recognition and conveyance of dream events.  We would have to devise a method of studying how new memories are combining with old memories in our dreams and why.  This would require 1.) dreamers willing to be guinea pigs who have excellent dream-recall ability, and 2.) an increased aptitude (not to mention willingness) in dream researchers to help the dreamers suss out the thoughts and feelings beneath the uppermost surface of their dreams.

Essentially, this requires a skill set more commonly found in a dream analyst.  The "sussing out" process (which requires a certain amount of expertise so that it doesn't become an "implantation" process) would then be equivalent to what we call "dream associations" in the depth psychology realm.

What I mean to suggest (and ultimately refute) is that one of the reasons more-scientific studies of dream phenomena have not definitively shown dreams to be "meaningful" is that these studies are based in a fundamental misunderstanding of what a dream really is.  That is, the prevailing notion in these studies is that dreams (as phenomena) are series of events . . . that the dream is meaningful to us and to our scientific studies as such a series.  But here again we are falling into the fallacy of egoic perception.  The ego values superficial narratives, as they fit into its simplified sense of order.  But as any dream analyst worth his or her own spit knows, dream images are only doorways to vast rooms filled with associations.  Associations could also be called information interrelationality.  As we are able to get at this information interrelationality, we begin to observe the psyche as complex system and natural, biological process.

Of course, the investigation of dream associations is more arbitrary and harder to regulate than more-scientific dream researchers might like.  But to this I would reply (again) that to study dreams as merely series of quasi-narrative events is not to study dreams at all.  Dreams are associations as well as the superficial symbols and events that we perceive and recall from them.  As a dream analyst myself, I have to report that my personal experience is that dreams can rarely be rendered meaningful, useful, or sensible without associations.  But it is also my experience, even among relatively skilled dream workers, that few people are truly capable of providing valid and valuable associations to their dream images.

There are various reasons for this.  For instance, valuable dream association recall requires at times a level of introspection that most people would find too dangerous.  This brings both denial and dishonesty into the dream association conveyance equation.  Additionally, there is a certain skill that a dreamer and analyst must develop that allows her or him to differentiate true associations from "reflection after the fact".  A "true association" isn't "civilized" or filtered through an intellectual or belief-driven paradigm.  Many people (especially in intellectual communities like ours) have a difficult time differentiating between a feeling and a constructed reflection or reaction to a feeling or event.  The feeling (which is the primal stuff of association) is not even considered a valid "thought" by many intellectuals, and therefore is not even recognized.  The feeling association is not "what it means to me" or "how I can understand it", but simply "what is".

In my experience, thoughts or memories connect with one another through their elements.  To make an over-simplified analogy, our thought process might connect our car, the eyes of a mysterious lover, and the sky because all are related through the color blue (assuming, of course, that the eyes and the car are also blue).  Blue, in this analogy, would be an element of memory or thought.  In a more accurate scenario, memories are connected by many different elements . . . and many of these elements are not as concrete as the color blue, but likely consist of feeling responses or moods or aspects of moods.  The dream symbols as we perceive them would then be higher level complexes that represent the conglomeration of interrelated thought elements.  As symbols they trigger for the ego (our sense of perception) the related understanding of all the elements they contain or represent.

Often, when pulling out associations to dream symbols, we find that they make no sense to us as differentiated elements.  This is yet another reason that determining valid dream interpretations is so difficult.  We have the tendency to ignore and devalue that which we do not recognize as meaningful to us . . . and most of what we deem meaningful consists of higher order phenomena.  Thought elements, as a rule, tend to be unconscious (although somewhat available to consciousness through directed introspection).  The ego does not think or perceive "in elements" but in higher order complexes.  So pulling out useful associations requires a certain suspension of egoic prejudice.  The associating dreamer must recall the dream image and allow the feelings and elemental associations to just pop out.  That is, they shouldn't be constructed thoughts but little epiphanies.

This is an imperfect process to say the least.  Sometimes it is possible for a skilled, neutral observer to recognize that some associations offered by a dreamer appear more constructed than other, but the best general policy is to value any and all associations offered by the dreamer (primarily because our thought process is much more unconscious than it is conscious, which means that although we might lie or construct on the surface, we are still likely to reveal related thought elements in our substantially larger subtext).  The absence of provided elemental and feeling associations may indicate some kind of blockage or devaluation in the associative process, and a skilled dream worker can often determine where feeling associations are conspicuously absent not only in others, but perhaps even in themselves (in much the same way that Jung's word association test determined what might be the presence of complexes around words that elicited longer pauses from the associator).  But in my experience, any association information given by the dreamer is probably useful (association, not analysis).  In that experience, I have seen (to my own personal, scientific satisfaction), that the "meaning" or intent of dreams exists almost entirely in their associations and elemental thoughts.  These elements cohere in logical patterns, and the determination of the elements often lends the dream a more logical structure, increasing our ability to assign egoic meaning or "sense" to it.

In other words, dreams will seem more senseless when they are studied as superficial series of events (as they typically have been studied).  But illuminating the elemental associations around all the dream images almost always (i.e., when such associations are available) increases the sensicalness and logic of the dream structure . . . and often in very dramatic ways.

The last related subject I'd like to touch upon here is the idea of dreams as systemic coherence maintenance.  What we are learning about most complex systems is that their sense of "emergence" or ability to function as a singularity on a higher order (and often with a completely different purpose) than their elements is dependent upon the coherence of their elements and subsystems.  As this coherence is diminished for whatever reason, the ability of the emergent singularity to function is damaged.  It is for this reason that many complex systems (like organisms) appear to have developed self-regulatory mechanisms that both lessen the impact of decoherence (e.g., redundancy) and repair or regenerate decoherent elements in order to maintain the health of the emergent system.

My current suspicion is that the process of dreaming is yet another example of complex system behavior.  The association of new information with old (and previously valuated) information is (I'm thinking) done in the name of coherence management.  This might have an observable, material parallel in the behavior and thought of people who are sleep-deprived.  Perhaps the most accurate way to describe the mentality of sleep deprived people is "decoherent".  That is, they do not lack the elements of thought, but the efficient togetherness or interrelationality of thoughts that make the thinking process useful to the organism.

If dreams are part of the self-regulating system of psychic coherence maintenance in this sense, we must then ask why this maintenance process cannot be entirely accomplished while awake.  There are many things still in need of study here, but one likely hypothesis we can draw from this observation is that the waking consciousness or ego is not a "coherent thinker", not much of an psychic organizer.  During sleep, our dreaming process provides a kind of night janitorial service so that the (psychic) space we live and work in while awake can accommodate the fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants sloppiness that is the inevitable side effect of the limitations of working memory.

We perceive many pieces of information through the day that our egos just don't know what to do with.  We put almost all of these information pieces on a vast array of "back burners".  My guess is that these back burners are already starting to self-organize toward coherence as much as possible while we are awake . . . but that we are largely unconscious of this process, being distracted by more immediate and ego-familiar issues.  But if this is so, then the night time dream process is an undistracted (by waking life) continuation of the same kind of self-organizational thought process that is "always on".  No doubt some of the best organization can be done without the distraction of a continual barrage of new information.

In this portrait, our brains are constantly thinking, and that thinking is a self-regulation.  This marginalizes the ego in a way that many scientific researchers may find troubling.  Even many Jungians may find this ego-marginalization troubling . . . but the idea that the ego is an inferior and more or less subordinate organ of the Self is consistent with Jungian theory.

As for the maintenance of the ego as sense of identity, I think it is also quite possible that the thing we call identity or small-s self is a complex information system we use to navigate our environment.  That is, the actual evolutionary value of a coherent psyche is that it stands a better chance of negotiating with its environment successfully.  Therefore, as a biological, adaptive process, the human ego-identity is constantly being self-regulated with the goal of improved adaptivity or evolutionary fitness.

What the psychotherapist sees more so than any other professional is that human egos tend to break down and decohere under environmental pressures quite frequently.  What the Jungian psychotherapist sees is that the "unconscious" seems to offer the fundamental necessities for any potential healing or increase in psychic fitness or coherence.  All healing comes from the unconscious . . . the Jungian analyst knows this from everyday observation of the therapeutic process.

Perhaps then, this healing momentum from the unconscious is equivalent to the reorganization of memories, thoughts, and feelings in the name of increased coherence that we see in the dream process.  Seen this way, it is of no surprise then that Jungian analysts typically rely on dream analysis as the royal road to the patient's unconscious . . . and therefore to healing or adaptation.  Jungians know this from experience, but probably don't understand it very well on a more scientific and naturalistic level.  My belief is that there is a scientific, naturalistic reason for the effectiveness of dream-based psychotherapies . . . whether or not psychotherapists know it.

An aside:
Some (but not all) dreams might be described as individuation dreams . . . and these are more common in psychotherapeutic settings (where dream work is more directed).  Individuation dreams are frequently predicated on some degree of egoic collapse or decoherence (such as depression).  They differ from more typical dreams in being radically organizational.  We might say that "Big", individuation dreams are like psychic spring cleanings and represent major organizational adaptations in memory structure that seem to exponentially increase psychic coherence.  They often feel like a new piece of the puzzle that ties together an entire memory complex and renders it useful and meaningful to the organism.  But my guess is that these dreams do not differ significantly in function from typical dreams.  Perhaps some puzzle pieces just allow for greater increases in coherence . . . for instance pieces right in the middle of an image that touch on many other pieces (as opposed to a less-elaborately connected piece).  It can be harder to fit a new piece right into the middle of a preexisting complex without some degree of monkeying with the surrounding elements or without a distinct knowledge of the exact shape and connectivity of the piece.

So there is value not only in the scientific study of dream phenomena as a gateway to understanding the nature of human thought, but also in the scientific understanding of the dreaming process for psychotherapists.  If psychotherapists were able to better understand why dream analysis seems to be effective, they would be better able to refine their therapeutic approaches and discard spiritualistic notions of the psyche and dreams when they are counterproductive.  Currently, there is very little self-criticism in Jungian psychology, and very little detailed discussion about what practices seem to work and why.  Much is taken on faith . . . and although faith is no doubt handy in many healing situations, it can also blind an analyst to his or her own mistakes.  When we are not sure why what we do works, we run the risk of doing harm to patients in the name of our blind dogmas.

Psychotherapy is essential a medical practice.  That being the case, truth is more important than dogma in the profession.  To do no harm requires constantly increasing our understanding.  Our sense of psychotherapy should be much like the dreaming/thinking process.  It needs to be constantly maintained, revised, kept coherent and efficient (especially as new information is added to the system).  This would seem to demand some dedication to increasing one's understanding of the brain and the psyche . . . and that more scientific attitude can run headlong into the the more static or dogmatic thinking of a faith.  I believe Jungians must be more introspective about their faith-based attitudes.  If one is a practicing therapist, is the ignorance of a more scientific approach in any way ethical?

Obviously not, and yet the theoretical thinking of Jungians has been stagnating for a long time.  This stagnation is all the more apparent now that advances in neuroscience and evolutionary biology are throwing light on previously shadowed portions of the psyche and human behavior.  There is value in meeting neuroscience half way . . . just as there is value in neuroscience learning how to dispel its own prejudices and think out of the unscientific box it has trapped itself in.  Both movements toward a center are guided by scientific thinking.

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Re: A neuroscientist blogs about a dream of his
« Reply #2 on: December 11, 2007, 01:11:38 PM »
Excuse me, Matt, but did you just do what I think you just did?  Did you just, on this somewhat obscure thread, elaborate a rationale, a possible/preliminary method, and a radical new hypothesis for understanding the function of dreams and the scientific study of human thought?   :o

I haven't read much about current thinking in dream theory, so correct me if I'm wrong, but this seems to be new.  As in, really something new, not just an interesting little modification or side road for investigation.  Gosh, reminds me of something else . . . hmmm, like your totally "outside the box" thinking about all things Jungian? ;D  Am I alone in feeling blown over by this?  Kafiri?  Sealchan?  Anyone?

Love, Keri

O gather up the brokenness
And bring it to me now . . .

Behold the gates of mercy
In arbitrary space
And none of us deserving
The cruelty or the grace

O solitude of longing
Where love has been confined
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind
  - Leonard Cohen, "Come Healing"

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Re: A neuroscientist blogs about a dream of his
« Reply #3 on: December 12, 2007, 07:42:45 PM »
You are an astute observer.  What you have observed is simply "Classic Matt."  The reason your post is so welcome to me personally is; that I have seen Matt vilified on other forums for his original thinking, insights and perceptions.  Rather than being welcomed, and acknowledged for his originality Matt is usually taken to task for rocking a boat that truly needs to be rocked.  Matt is a dynamist; one who makes not merely changes, but evolves by way of variation, feedback, and adaptation.  The people Matt scares the hell out of are the stasists, those who fall into two camps:  technocrats, those whose central value is control, and reactionaries, whose central value is stability.

"It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out where the strong man stumbled, or where a doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, and who comes up short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause. The man who at best knows the triumph of high achievement and who at worst, if he fails, fails while daring greatly, so that his place will never be with those cold timid souls who never knew victory or defeat."

                                                                                                  ---Teddy Roosevelt
"We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves."
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Re: A neuroscientist blogs about a dream of his
« Reply #4 on: December 12, 2007, 11:21:48 PM »
Excuse me, Matt, but did you just do what I think you just did?  Did you just, on this somewhat obscure thread, elaborate a rationale, a possible/preliminary method, and a radical new hypothesis for understanding the function of dreams and the scientific study of human thought?   


Unfortunately, dream studies while cataloguing dream content still need a leg lift from familiar archetypal ideas.  Positing the definitions of dream characters as anima, animus, shadow, etc...and then noticing the motifs of cyclical (ascending/descending), trials (often in threes) with their common thesis, antithesis, synthesis forms...the constellation of opposites, the metaphors for energy, the repetition of motifs in succeeding dream scenes, etc...all these more complex ideas allow for a major synthesis of dream material into fairly frequent and common forms that should help the scientific dream "botanist" to have a sense of not reproducing an enormous diversity of unrelated facts.

Some words I want to add to your exploration of dreams as products of a complex system...homeostasis.  It seems the neural system just like every other system in the body is organized such that external influences are moderated in order to prevent catastrophic energic events from "crashing" the system.  Seizures are probably examples of the nervous system loosing its homeostatic functionality.  The more I read about how neurons with their excitatory and inhibitory mutual influences are organized the more it seems that nerve impulses occur within a homeostatic context.  Even while instinctually driven neural signals may drive us into cycles of encounters with the Wound, this whole experience is still contained with the greater psychic system if not within the egoic (conscious) system.  We may have significant bursts of affect and undergo possessions of shadow and animi, but these are short-lived and seem to self-correct (until the next disruptive event) allow for ego to take back over and regain its sense of control over the inner landscape.

Another word is 'generative' versus 'intentional'.  By this I mean an idea that allows the psyche as dream "generator" to be less complex, even less conscious, than the ego and still generate complex images and experiences that overwhelm the ego with their insight and intelligence.  I may differ in your view that dreams are really less intelligent, less conscious than our waking egos and our social constructions of collective knowledge.  What the unconscious has over us is in the details and in its own highly dynamic need to maintain itself as a homeostatic system in the face of any number of potentially overwhelming energic forces that threaten to unbalance it.  Even our ego's defensive strategies of denial, projection, rejection, etc are homeostatic processes and reflect the physical sub-system that is the brain.  It is the singular value that we give to our dreams to correct our internal imbalances which puts them in a position for high regard from our otherwise helpless egos, I think.  But the dream "generator" is only adaptive within the parameters set by genetics.  But how adaptive that is!

By performing some sort of "garbage collection" or draining excessive neural responses according to some inner, genetically determined bodily-chemical rebalancing cycle dreams reflect in the accumulation of the day and the long-term memories that are heightened or threatened by those newer experiences a seemingly complex and intelligent re-valuation of what our waking ego's might valuate.  But that valuation is not conscious and does not intentionally reflect our higher values except, perhaps, in part.  It still requires our conscious reflection for fullest completion, a collaborative effort.  It could be that through our nightly cycles of neural activity the lack of muscular and sensory engagement with the world "explains" our dreams as "what it is like to be aware without currently sensory or muscular functionality".  The dream is our consciousness as generated mainly by internal processes without input from external processes.  The side-effects of conscious reflection on this is to bring into conscious the need to help the homeostatic process and avoid otherwise unnecessary crises.

The dream is adaptive in that it fulfills the need to maintain the nervous system as a homeostatic system capable of maintaining its chemical cycles given the load placed on it by the other systems of the body and the organism as a whole as it encouners the world as social and physical realities.  Managing stress and physical exhaustion, eating well, maintaining healthy emotional relationships, balancing work and play...all these things impact the psyche on higher and lower levels causing our dreams to move in different directions.  Our psyches, as complex, adaptive systems, are at the center of many other such systems and as such this makes the mind one of the last frontiers of systematic, scientific, human knowledge. 

It is in the context of the, perhaps, reductive idea of homeostasis that dreams derive any sense of intentionality.  I think that the higher spiritual ideas of individuation and whatnot belong as much to a cultural level of understanding as they do to the psyche as connected to physics aspect of mind.  Individuation is, after all, a consciously intended process even if it is not a consciously controlled process.  That our mind-brains may have an impulse towards "wholeness" is debatable in that I think the same natural mechanisms that correct our extremes and conflicts also fuel those extremes and conflicts. 

We must create a society that aids the individual towards individuation (and this is where I see the primary virtue of democracy and a technologically developed free trade marketplace) and allow them to move beyond dealing with basic human needs and towards allowing them to experience living conditions amenible to inner work.  Our values in working for a living, having the freedom to pursue one's feelings and thoughts and share and express them are all treasures obtained by the efforts of past individuals leading the way towards greater capability for individuation through their miraculous efforts of personal transformation brought to light in a way that the community could adopt and thereby use to adapt.  This is why the history of mythology is also archetypally revealing of the history of the individual psyche just as our embryological development is revealing of our genetic history.  Yet again, even as we strive to acheive these basic human rights we do not fully consciously understand them so we must be driven, partly unconsciously, irrationally towards these systemic values.

Perhaps this is the greatest mystery of consciousness...that even as the ego seeks to separate itself from the unconscious as an independent system it is also, simultaneously ever in need of maintaining its connectivity with that system such that whether one consciously prefers the unselfishly conquering hero or the willingly suffering heroine one also needs the other and must realize this in coniunctio of these ultimate opposites.

Of course, another problem with making dreams available to science is the idea of the experiment.  Dream research is culturally born of the harder scientific traditions and as such needs to proceed in that line.  It is from the "softer" science of psychology that the greater phenomenological insights have come cooked up in the labs of Freudian and Jung's own work in the therapeutic environment.  These are still two very different worlds and I think that some measure more of phenomenological understanding may be necessary before we can begin to impact dreams.

Based on one recent example from my own dreams (which I will explicitly cover in future dreamwork) I propose the following as an outlne for an experiment.

1.  In doing associational work on a dream quickly list relevant associations, then omit one in one's further detailing of those associations.  This should produce the subjective experience of neglecting relevant personal experience.

2.  Observe future dreams for that "neglected" but relevant associative content as an explicit content in a dream.

In brief, I have recently had a dream about abandonment that generated a number of associations.  For whatever reason, a significant episode involving an uncontrollable nose bleed occurring when I was very young and my father was not around was left out although I had considered it.  In a more recent dream, not yet posted, I dreamt of a girl with a nosebleed.  This experience, if repeatable in the "laboratory" might demonstrate the value and relationship of associations and dream content potentially suggesting that conscious association to dream images might "bleed" out the affect associated with the experience and remove it from inclusion in future dream contents.  Neglecting of conscious experience when relevant might prime that content for future dreams.