Sunday, November 01, 2009

New Look at Dream Interpretation

I had a waking up dream that involved an assemblage of musical notations: black quarter notes, in three dimensions. They were intertwined as the twigs in a bird’s nest to make structures such as a straight-backed wooden chair.

I realized I had seen these things before including the chair-like structure. It had been the previous night during a falling asleep dream, while listening to quiet jazz on the radio. I did not hear music, but in the dream I examined the note structures as if they were perfectly reasonable objects that one might study scientifically.

This sequence of two dreams reveals some interesting points about the nature of dreams and their interpretation:

1. Usually when you recall a dream, the things you dreamed about are bizarre, and you realize your thought processes were bizarre because you accepted the bizarre goings-on of the dream as a real reality.

In a lucid dream (in which you are aware that you are dreaming), you might think, “How odd, horses normally cannot fly,” but you accept that this dream horse can. So your consciousness, though more lucid, is still delusional.

If you recalled a dream that was completely reasonable, you would not call it a dream, you would call it a thought. You would just be remembering a thought that you had.

2. Dreams cannot be turned on and off like imagination. Once you are “awake” in reality mode, that is the grounding for other variations in mental state. But if you return to dreaming, you must give up your wakeful reality testing. You can’t voluntarily suspend all reality-testing and remain awake. Dreams and wakefulness are thus as incompatible as oil and water.

3. Dreams are identified in retrospect, from the point of view of awake consciousness, and from which all conversation and communication flow. In a dream, the dream is the reality. There is no other point of view from which to critique that reality.

I am not worried that I might actually be a butterfly dreaming I am a person because wakeful consciousness is known to itself. Dream consciousness is not. (In lucid dreaming, only the lucid consciousness is known to itself.)

Within a dream, there is no question about the reality status of the experience, because literally that question does not come up. Reality testing is only a question that can be raised from the point of view of lucid consciousness. So if you dream you are a butterfly, you are a butterfly within the context of that dream, because there is no other context from which to question that reality. Only later, when awake and lucid, can you say, “Man, that was crazy!”

I had a dream of a straight-backed chair made out of giant, three-dimensional quarter notes. Within the dream, that was real, by definition. But in what way was it real?

4. What if dream images corresponded to activation of certain brain structures? A quarter note has a shape not entirely dissimilar from that of a neuron. A networked cluster of quarter notes would not be too different from a cluster of neurons. If the dream images were in some way shadows of actual brain structures, that could be one sense in which the dream structures were real.

But what kind of a “shadow” of the brain could the dream structures be? There is no known or even imagined causal linkage between brain physiology and mentality. We know there is a correlation, but we have no idea what kind of relationship it is. From the Penfield and Roberts (1959) studies we learned that electrical stimulation of the cerebral cortex in a live, conscious human was followed by spontaneous reports of episodic memories of extraordinary vividness, but we cannot explain that association.

There is no way, according to the laws of physics, for a change in a brain neuron to cause a mental experience. If that were to happen, it would violate the law of conservation of energy because memory is non-physical. Memory cannot be measured in space and time. It has no no width, no mass, no volume; it conducts no electricity and absorbs no light. Memory does not meet criteria for physicality.

To insist that memory is actually a physical circuit in the brain, is to say that electrical stimulation of one part of the brain causes neurological activity in another part of the brain. We would then have no use for the term “memory” since it would not refer to anything. So if we are going to use the term “memory”, it refers to the nonphysical mental phenomenon. How a brain circuit is related to a memory, exactly, is an unsolved mystery.

5. What are we aware of when we have a toothache? We experience a mental state we have learned to call “pain.” I hypothesize that the mental state is correlated to activation of a network of brain cells that include some neurons in the somatosensory cortex, which is what enables us to locate the pain in the mouth and not the toes, for example. If true, we can say that the mental experience of toothache is a “reading” of a certain brain state, in the same way that the mental experience of having a full bladder is a “reading” of a different neurological condition of the body.

In a similar way then, the dream of the quarter-note chair was a mental reading of a certain brain condition, albeit not one that is readily interpreted as some condition of the body.

Under this interpretation, one can speculate that the quarter note chair might have been a mental conceptualization of activity in the right temporal cortex, which is active when we hear music. Since I was listening to music before the first dream, that is a plausible assumption. The dream could have been my mental “reading” of residual brain activity.

6. In a typical dream, in which horses fly and rivers flow with melted cheese, it is difficult to speculate how the mental images might be readings of brain activity. However, if one wakes up from a dream with a full bladder, it is often the case that the dream images involved water, swimming, and the like, so there is a plausible relationship between the dream image and the “reading” of the bodily state.

Physicians and brain physiologists should have dream images that are more easily associated with bodily conditions than would be true for other people, because they have more detailed, ready-made social-linguistic conceptualizations of those bodily conditions to draw upon.

7. It also follows from this line of thinking that Freud’s method of dream interpretation by free-association has nothing to do with the meaning of dreams. Of course it is possible to free-associate to the ideas and images in a dream report, just as it is possible to free-associate to something that happened yesterday. The dream report is just a kind of short story, no different in principle from one plucked from a published anthology.

Free-associating to its elements may be a fruitful way to start a conversation about previously unconceptualized feelings and ideas, but it is no way an “interpretation” of that dream. The correct interpretation of any dream is that it is a mental conceptualization of brain events occurring during Phase I REM sleep.

8. In the future there will be a downloadable iPod application that will allow real-time fMRI monitoring of brain activity so you can see what your brain is doing while you type, eat, walk, fantasize, and listen to music.

Over time people will learn to conceptualize and control the brain’s activity as well as athletes do their muscular activity today. Most dreams then would cease to be bizarre and would be more like descriptions because the correlation between brain activity and socio-linguistic conceptualization would be stronger.

People will inevitably communicate by reference to commonly identified brain images, the way we now maintain the social fabric by reference to commonly understood activities, as in, “How ‘bout them Yankees?”

In the future people will refer to numbered and idealized fMRI sequences correlated to common experience. They will talk about a fMRI 42a followed by a 197-3 then ask, “What do you think of that?”

Too bad I’ll miss it.