I have never considered dreams – my own or anyone else’s – worth recording or trying to analyze in any serious way, but I have always maintained an interest in the various manifestations of consciousness and the functioning – and malfunctioning – of the brain. Doing some sorting recently, I came across some scribbled notes which I made a while ago and which got me thinking again about dreams, perceptions and peculiar waking experiences.
Dreams have a special fascination, of course. Operating outside the normal imperatives of waking life, the brain takes on a (sometimes disturbing) life of its own.
Various kinds of waking experience also give us insights into the workings of our brains. Especially under stressful conditions, unexpected things happen: hallucinations, visions, so-called mystical experiences, devastating waves of fear or dread, unexplained convictions.
With respect to peculiar waking experiences, my own have been (mercifully) few and far between. One such experience was utterly terrifying and occurred in early adolescence. No drugs were involved. I may write about it another time.
A far less harrowing episode occurred a couple of years earlier. It involved a failure of visual processing. Three spatial dimensions collapsed into two. The scene before me decomposed and I could no longer distinguish form, just colour, a kaleidoscope of colour. Quite beautiful actually. Even (in the context) strangely liberating. Again, no drugs were involved.
As a child, I did not know much about the brain, but this experience gave me a sense of the precariousness and the general nature of the visual system. There were obviously all sorts of complex mechanisms in play, and this brief failure of the system had allowed me to look behind the curtain, as it were, to get a glimpse of the not exactly raw but non-integrated data that lay behind the finished product which the visual system normally presents us with. What was normally integrated had, for a time, disintegrated, revealing not only the precariousness of the system but something of its distributed, layered and constructive nature.
Dreams and delusions involve not only visual processing but also a more central feature of the brain, its narrative-generating function. In dreams, the narrative-generating function is given free rein, being largely detached from sensory input and the constraints and imperatives, both physical and logical, that moving around in the real world necessarily entail. In this respect dreams have parallels with hallucinations (where sensory input is overridden or is processed in anomalous ways) as well as with other kinds of delusion.
The stories we tell ourselves in our waking hours to orientate ourselves within the social world derive largely from stored information but real-time sensory input is also important. As we all know, there is a tendency for these stories to become detached from physical and social realities. Such tendencies are exacerbated by processing failures in individual brains, brought on by stress, disease, aging, etc..
Take the following example. Late one night my mother was in hospital recovering from major surgery. I got a call from the hospital asking me to come in because she was upset and they thought I might be able to calm her down. It turned out she was sleep-deprived and showing signs of paranoia. She was convinced that the nursing staff were not humans. They were aliens from another planet. But, being a very level-headed and intelligent woman, she was also aware of the silliness of this conviction and in fact embarrassed about it. So it wasn’t too hard for me to reassure her.
Capgras syndrome involves integration failures in respect of the various brain processes associated with the recognition of and responses to known individuals. The sufferer will recognize the face and body in question but, because the usual emotional responses associated with this recognition do not kick in, he or she will have a strong sense that this is not really the person normally associated with that body. In this manner, loved ones may be perceived (for brief or extended periods of time) as hostile intruders. I have had the experience of having to deal with transient episodes of this syndrome in aged relatives. It’s quite common, I believe.
As I indicated above, what got me thinking again about these topics was coming across some scribbled notes from the past. One document related to a dream which my mother had – and told me about – twelve years ago. I quote verbatim from my notes…
Last night’s dream involved the disruption of a church service. In the dream she was a school-aged child, though an adult friend whom she had not known in childhood appeared in the dream and spoke to her. The church in question was specified by name. It was not one she had known as a child but was the church she was married in.
In the dream she sought out and gathered together the noisiest things she could find: tin cans and “a strange kind of metallic vessel” – she wasn’t sure what it was but she was “pretty sure it would make a noise.”
“I tied all these things together and crept up towards the altar where the priest was moving to and fro. The array of objects made a very disruptive noise and the priest swung around and here’s this girl shaking [the objects] madly to make as much noise as possible. There was nothing anyone could do, it was such a surprise. I wanted to irritate him, to stop him doing all the things I hated, worshipping this God who wasn’t there.”
“I walked out [of the church via] the side aisle. People looked the other way. They would see what I was doing as wrong and I knew I was doing wrong – but I had to do it, to try and stop them. I threw the noise-making contraption onto the ground outside the church…”
I am not saying that this dream has any great significance but it is amusing in its way. It also bears witness, I think, to longstanding frustrations and to an independent spirit adamantly opposed to (what was perceived as) obfuscation and mystification.
[This is an abridged and revised version of a piece which appeared recently at The Electric Agora.]