Mystery of Consciousness, Memory and Dreams

Mystery of Consciousness

Dreamer: Debbie, 28 North American

I read somewhere that dreams at night are just processing the conscious information of my day. Is that true?

Mr. Hagen's Reply:

Neuroscientific Research of Dreams and Dreaming

Neuroscience is and needs to be interested in the "great mystery" of how memory works. All other processes such as language, cognition, consciousness and dreaming seem to be derivatives of memory processes. From a pragmatic viewpoint, it's hoped that research in memory will one day solve the problem of Alzheimer's as well as a multitude of other neuropsychological problems.

Understanding dreams provides a better understanding of models of human memory. The dream's primary function is the ongoing consolidation of memory and adaptation.

The first major neuro-scientific breakthrough came in 1953, when Eugene Aserinsky and Nathaniel Kleitman discovered a psycho-physiological state which occurs periodically (in 90 minute cycles) throughout sleep. This state is characterized by heightened brain activity, bursts of rapid eye movement (REM), increased breathing and heart rate, genital engorgement and paralysis of bodily movement, etc.

After this discovery the dreaming brain appeared to be a scientifically measurable natural phenomenon. All that remains to be done is to lay bare the underlying brain mechanisms that produced these psycho-physiological dream states and explain how and why the brain produces dreams. (Mark Solms)

1. Hippocrates: Biological Model

The Greek physician Hippocrates (4th century B.C.) believed that the pictorial symbolism in dreams was derived from internal sensations.

Hippocrates reportedly used dreams as a tool for diagnosis and treatment of illness.

In 1861 R. A. Scherner made the first scientific attempt to prove this idea. These ideas were further developed by Freud in his "Interpretation of Dreams." Freud's "Leibreiz" (body stimulation) theory identifies the body as the primary metaphor which creates the human ability to construct an archive/memory. Paul Schilder would formulate the most complete psychoanalytic statement about leib-reiz (body-ego) theory.

2. John Hughlings Jackson: Waste Disposal Model

The computer scientist Christopher Evans subscribes to the idea that dreaming provides a housecleaning function. Dreams serve to consolidate memory rejecting the redundant and reinforcing the significant. This idea of the "memory waste disposal" function of dreams was proposed well over 100 years ago by the British neurologist John Hughlings Jackson.

3. Sigmund Freud: Biological Unconscious Model

"The way the memory behaves in dreams is undoubtedly of the greatest importance for any theory of memory in general." - Sigmund Freud, "Interpretation of Dreams"

Freud had overreached in his attempt to create a neuropsychology of memory in his "Project for a Scientific Psychology"; however he finally realized that his dream of a neuroscience in 1895 was still in a primitive and premature state. The response to this failure, was to create psychoanalysis.

Freud believed the dream to be a diagnostic ("endoscopic") tool of insight for therapeutic use in the treatment of the "organic symptoms" that were without an organic cause.

His work "Studies in Hysteria" started with "hysterics" whom Freud believed to be suffering from repressed and unverbalized "rememberances". Freud had postulated that the primary input of the dream originated from the individual's "day residues" and not random neural firings (see Hobson below).

Freud believed that in memorializing one's life, language played an important role. Freud rejected a simple waste disposal model most likely because of his work prior to his discovery of the unconscious and psychoanalysis. He was very interested in the neurological problems of language. The word "aphasia" was actually coined by Freud and is a commonly-recognized malady today. In various works Freud developed his "talking cure" therapy which he hoped would find its neurological foundations in the future.

Freud's topographic theory of the mind provided the basis for understanding human memory or archive as place where trains of thoughts form circuits of nodes and pathways in the neural net. The words in a text of any dream were the nodal points of numerous trains of thought. He believed that "A key phrase serves as a port of entry though which the whole (mnemonic/memory) network is simultaneously in a state of excitation".

For Freud the dream was viewed as a rebus, a picture puzzle of words and images. Freud believed that humans' lives both ancient and modern were dominated by the question the Sphinx puts to Oedipus (ancient Greek myth by Sophocles): "What goes on four when the sun rises, what goes on two when the sun is at it's meridian and what goes on three when the sun sets?" .... (Oedipus's answer to the Sphinx was "Man")

4. Allan Hobson: Activation-Synthesis Model

J. Allan Hobson first published his "activation-synthesis" model of dreaming in a 1977 paper "The brain as a dream-state generator: An activation-synthesis hypothesis". (American Journal of Psychiatry, 134. p1335-1348.) He followed up with a book of his views in 1988 "The Dreaming Brain".

The activation-synthesis model differs from the psychoanalytic (i.e. Freudian model) in that Hobson believes that dreams are largely a product of "random" stimuli originating in the brain stem (activation) and that in themselves they have little ideational, volitional or emotional content. As the incoming stimuli from the brain stem reach the cortex of the brain they are integrated by especially the forebrain part of the cortex (synthesis). "It is here that psychological significance is acquired." Hobson does not deny that the Rorschach test (projective testing) may provide psychological insight by analyzing the ways an individual dreamer "synthesizes" the incoming stimuli. However, Hobson maintains that "no original information can be retrieved or restored."

Freud's dream theory is essentially dismissed, swept aside and debunked by Hobson as a "half baked neuropsychology."

5. Francis Crick Model: Reverse Learning Model

The Nobel laureate Sir Francis Crick provides an alternative to Hobson's model of dreaming. Crick & Graeme Mitchison's paper "The function of dream sleep" (Nature, 304, p111-114) proposes their "reverse-learning" model which believes that during sleep we unlearn and unwire pathways for processing information in the brain. By the daily rewiring of the neural nets in our brain we remain adaptive to environmental contingencies.

6. Biotopographic Model of Dreaming

Freud, Hobson, Crick and Jackson all provide neurological models of dreams and dreaming each with various merits, however dreams have a narrative structure, and until there is a scientifically adequate neurological theory as to why that narrative structure exists the theories surrounding dreams will be incomplete.

It is necessary to understand that the "unconscious" is structured like a language (this is a Lacanian perspective, see Jacques Lacan's "Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis"). As well, Roman Jacobson's theories in "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbance" about the nature of language disorders are significant and support Freudian as well as Jungian theories surrounding metaphors. Jacobson believed language began with gestures and metaphors. Language acquisition which is believed to be genetically hardwired into the brain seems to shape the ways individuals consolidate memory.

The Neural Darwinistic theory of Gerald M. Edelman has been used by Paul John Eakin ("How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves"). This neurological model can be used to understand the unconscious and seems to better explain dreams and dreaming brains' adaptive functions. As may be noted from the IIDR website dreams reinforce the narratives and stories one acquires (through memory) in one's lifetime.

I call my psychology "Biotopographic Psychology". The reason for biotopographic as versus just biographic is that there usually is a "topos" of the dream. This means we live (bios) in a place and time (topos) of which we write (graphos) about, to others and ourselves, making it (life) meaningful or meaningless.

The case of Helen Keller is a good example of what I am trying to impart. I believe in her autobiography she states the when she connected the movement of the fingers (by her teacher Anne Sullivan) in her hand to the word "water" she was admitted entrance to "our" symbolic universe and was able to begin to understand and communicate. Until then she lived in a jumble of impressions that seemed to have no order, no rhyme or reason.

Just as PET and CAT scans are increasingly showing how the brain operates, it stands to reason that neurographic scans presented as science fiction in the TV and film series Star Trek The Next Generation, will be invented by someone, somewhere and most likely become a reality sometime in the future. Machines able to see down to the neuronal and neurochemical levels will provide the answers to the mysteries of consciousness, memory and dreaming.

Till then, the mystery will remain a mystery.

Some literature and web-info of interest includes:

  • Mark Solms, "Interpretation of Dreams and the Neurosciences"
  • Frank Heynick, "Language and its Disturbances in Dreams"
  • Gerald M. Edelman, "The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness"
  • Karl Pribram, "Languages of the Brain: Experimental paradoxes and principles in neuropsychology"
  • Paul Schilder, "The Image and the Appearance of the Human Body: Studies in the Constructive Energies of the Psyche"
  • Mary Warnock, "Memory"
  • Elizabeth Bruss, "Autobiographical Acts"
  • Helen Keller, "The Story of My Life"
  • Elizabeth Lenk, "Die Unbewussste Gesellschaft (The Unconscious Society)"
  • Otto Rank, "Art and the Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development"
  • Jean Piaget, "Play, Dreams and Imitation"
  • Shagra Zim, "Cognitive Development of Children's Dreams" (PhD Thesis)
  • Kelly Bulkeley, "An Introduction to the Psychology of Dreaming"
  • David Foulkes, "Children's Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness"
  • Owen Flanagan, "Dreaming Souls: Sleep, dreams, and the evolution of the conscious mind"
  • Michel Jouvet, "The Paradox of Sleep"

Hope these thoughts are of help and provide some insight,
Mark H.

All material Copyright 2006 International Institute for Dream Research. All rights reserved.