THE SOURCES OF EXPERIENCE AND INFORMATION

The three major sources of experience and information are chosen: perception, memory and learning, and dreams as an example of auto-generating processes. The intention is not to provide a comprehensive overview, but to outline an interpretation from the Synthesis perspective.

Perception

Some issues related to perception have been already addressed. The focus here will be only on one essential question: how are nerve signals turned into perception of the world? Psychology and other related disciplines have not and are unlikely to provide a satisfactory answer as long as they operate within the presently dominant paradigm. Eccles writes:

There is a general tendency to overplay the scientific knowledge of the brain, which regretfully, also is done by many brain scientists and scientific writers. We are told that the brain "sees" lines, angles, edges, and simple geometrical forms and that therefore we will soon be able to explain how a whole picture is "seen" as a composite of this elemental "seeing". But this statement is misleading. All that is known to happen in the brain is that neurones of the visual cortex are caused to fire trains of impulses in response to some specific visual input. Neurons responding to various complications of this specific visual input are identified but there is no scientific evidence concerning how these feature-detection neurones can be subjected to the immense synthetic mechanism that leads to a brain process that is "identical" with the perceived picture. (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.225)

 

It is known that retinal processing is involved in detecting intensity and wavelength contrast; early cortical areas in the brain are involved in orientation, curvature, spatial frequencies and movement; and high visual areas (in the parietal and temporal lobe) process sensations about the spatial relationships and the identity of visual objects. This, however, is not sufficient. Sherrington's comment from 1938 is still valid:

A star we perceive. The energy scheme deals with it, describes the passing of radiation thence into the eye, the little light-image of it formed at the bottom of the eye, the ensuing photo-chemical action of the retina, the trains of action potentials travelling along the nerve to the brain, the further electrical disturbance in the brain, the action-potentials streaming thence to the muscles of eye-balls and of the pupil, the contraction of them sharpening under the light-image and placing the seeing part of the retina under it. The ‘seeing'? That is where the energy-scheme forsakes us. It tell us nothing of any ‘seeing'. Much, but not that. (1940, p. 248)

 

In order to tackle this problem the terms sensation and perception need first to be distinguished. Putting it simply, while sensation is about touch, vision and audition, perception is about feeling, seeing and hearing. Perception can be defined as the process of transforming sensations into information or experience. Although the neuronal activity without doubt contributes to perceiving, we are not even aware of such activity - we operate with words, images and feelings, not with neurons.

The first point that needs to be made is that perception ensues from the relation between the subject and the object. If this statement sounds obvious, it should not be forgotten that in the last hundred or so years everything possible has been done (without much result) to find an alternative explanation that would exclude the one who experiences and is aware. So, reinstating the subject, as an essential ingredient that transforms sensations into perception, is necessary. Perceiving sensations as meaningful images, for example, involves, besides electro-chemical processes in the brain, also awareness, intent and the self, without which meaning would not be possible. Thus, in accord with the previous posits, it is proposed that the non-material aspect plays an essential role in the transformation of sensations into perceptions and their interpretation.

It is not controversial that when we perceive something the brain is prompted to produce coherent wave patterns, which are otherwise in a chaotic state. In the 1970s neuroscientist Walter Freeman conducted research on the olfactory perception of rabbits. He established that what distinguishes the response to one smell from another does not depend on which neurons fire or what part of the olfactory bulb (the brain region associated with smell) is affected. Rather, it is determined by the relative amplitude of the response in different parts of the bulb. If no smell is introduced, an irregular, chaotic EEG (measurement of the electrical activity of the brain) through all possible frequencies and local amplitudes can be detected. When the rabbits were exposed to a familiar odour, their EEG patterns immediately move from a chaotic to a coherent state. An unknown smell causes a modification in the collective amplitude pattern of all neurons in the olfactory bulb. Thus, the production of a coherent wave pattern is what matters, not specific neurons. A comparable principle is likely to govern vision and it is even possible that these patterns can form something similar to holograms.

This is, however, only half of the story. As already argued, the wave oscillations produced in the brain need awareness to be perceived as meaningful images or words (a hologram too needs the interference of two light waves to be created). Moreover, perception is not passive, and therefore cannot be identified with the processes that happen in a camera, TV or computer (although there may be some resemblance on a very basic level). This is an active, creative process, involving several interrelated activities that transform sensations into information and experience:

Participating (attention, interest, curiosity, exploratory drive, seeking sensations and stimuli) is an innate drive. Its importance is highlighted by the experiments with kittens performed by Held and Hein in 1963. They created an apparatus called a ‘kitten carousel', which allows two kittens to have exactly the same visual experience, but only one of them can initiate movement. When the kittens were tested, it was found that the ‘active' one could see perfectly well, while the ‘passive' one behaved as if it was not able to see much, although there was nothing wrong with its eyes or optic nerves. So,  the passive kitten could not develop a perceptual ability without active participation.

Selecting - as already discussed, selecting from all possible stimuli is an active process, although over time it becomes mostly automatic.

Organising - the materials of perception are not just received, but they are also combined and structured. Perceptual organisation groups the smaller units into larger ones. The principal organising tendency is to identify part of the world as the target (the figure) and view the rest as the background. Other organising tendencies include ‘the law of Prägnanz' (the law of simplicity), good continuation, closure, and the laws of grouping, such as proximity and similarity.

Interpreting - the sensory input is not perceived mechanically, but it is continually interpreted. One piece of evidence for this is perceptual constancy, related to size, shape and brightness. It refers to a phenomenon that the perception of invariant object properties remains constant despite changes in proximal stimulation (e.g. we always tend to perceive grass as green, although with decreased brightness it becomes, in fact, brown - which can be easily checked at dusk). Brightness constancy appears to be innate, whereas size and shape constancy are largely influenced by experience. So, the interpretation of reality is mostly achieved over time, and it takes over almost completely from un-constructed perception. This does not mean that what is perceived through our senses is not related to reality. Our perception normally corresponds (in some measure) to something real ‘out there'. After all a fly, cat or human being may perceive a table leg in different ways, but they all try to avoid bumping into it. Actually, although our interpretations may be wrong, they often reflect reality better than sensations themselves, as exemplified by shape constancy, a subcategory of the above mentioned perceptual constancy: the shape of an object such as a door, for instance, is perceived as constant, even though the retinal image changes with its movement (a rectangular shape becomes trapezoid).

 

Perception therefore, is not a passive process, the perceived is evaluated, modified to some extent, and interpreted on the basis of previous experience and expectations. This indicates that not only awareness, but also an active involvement (hence intent and the self) are necessary in order to perceive.

 

Some possible questions

Why are we aware of the external reality rather than processes in the brain?

To function efficiently, it is necessary to be aware of the outside world, rather than an intermediary. If we were aware of receiving impulses from the brain, we could not identify with the body. This identification is important because it enables correlating the materials of perception to its real source - the world outside, which makes distinguishing between the external and the internal possible.

 

Why do we see images, rather than energy configurations?

For the reason of simplification. We perceive a table, for example, as solid and constant, because we have learned to disregard any fluctuations that are unimportant. Narrower perception is more condensed and therefore more stable. Mystical experience, for example, can be wider, but it is hard to make sense out of it.

 

How do we separate what comes from the outside and what comes from the inside?

As already mentioned, identifying with the body is a necessary condition to separate the internal and external, but it is not sufficient. Distinguishing whether the waves are triggered by nerves or our own constructs (e.g. dreams) is not straightforward. In fact, what is the internal and what is the external is gradually learned, and this process relies on many factors (an ability to exercise intentional control, continuity, relative stability, confirmation by other senses, shared experiences, etc.). Without them external reality could be perceived as internal, or more often, the internal is perceived as the external.

 

How do we choose what is the figure and what is the background?

This depends on the characteristics of the information (e.g. the spatial unity that tells us what is in front), the habituated selection procedures that may be biologically or socially conditioned, and intent (as when we are looking for somebody, for example).

 

What is the difference between transpersonal experiences and seeing things as they are (behind their physical and social constructs)?

These experiences are different - the first one requires going beyond the constructs, while the second one requires going ‘below' them. Consequently, they require different methods: the first one is the result of applying transpersonal methods, the second one may be achieved by using phenomenological reduction.

Memory

Memory is also a very complex phenomenon. Although psychology has made substantial progress, it is still poorly understood and some fundamental questions remain unanswered. Three processes related to memory will be addressed: encoding (memorising), storing, and retrieval (recalling, remembering).

 

Encoding

There is no doubt that the brain plays a crucial role in the encoding process. A still quite popular view is that each encoded information or experience creates a specific ‘groove' along neuronal paths, implying that every new piece of information is encoded locally. There is, however, ample evidence against this possibility (see, for example, John, 1972). It is more likely that encoding is an analogue, a distributed but integrated process, akin to a field modifying activity (which fits well with the corresponding interpretation of perception). Such an encoding may be more conducive to an interface with awareness, but intentional awareness does not seem to be always essential. Encoding can be automatic - we remember many things that we have never attempted to remember. Such an encoding (which, perhaps, can be paralleled to the ‘memory' of  the immune system, for example) is likely to rely mostly on the brain. To be encoded, a stimulus needs to reach a memory threshold, which can be achieved by sufficient intensity or repetition.

Deliberate encoding, on the other hand, is qualitatively different. While the automatic one is difficult to influence, deliberate encoding is controlled to some extent by the learner. Attention (which cannot be simply reduced to brain functioning) plays a significant role in this case. Not only can convergent awareness reinforce an encoding pattern, but it can also involve remembering relations or principles (understanding), besides isolated pieces of information, so it has a greater degree of generality. The contributing factors include interest, effort and meaning. Meaningful features lead to an easier organisation - and hence a better memory. Intent seems to be important too. For example, an infant can make many unsuccessful attempts to catch a ball, but remembers the successful one. This is because such an attempt leads to a decrease of the tension created by intent, so it is repeated and retained[1]. Therefore, at least in some cases, encoding involves more that just mechanical brain activity.

 

Storing

Despite extensive research, the issue of where memories are stored is still surrounded with uncertainty. In order to address this question, it is necessary to postulate the two aspects of memory: implicit[2] and contextual, that can be paralleled to the previously discussed content and form. This can be justified even in relation to simple, conditioned memories. Based on his experiments with rats, Karl Lashley established two principles: memories are non-locally distributed (there is no memory storage in the brain)[3] and cortical regions are interchangeable in respect to memory. If different parts of the brain can be used to execute a learned activity, a ‘blueprint' for that activity is unlikely to be in the brain, although the brain can be used to situate and exercise it within a particular context. Thus, it is proposed that implicit memory is stored as energy structures in the non-material aspect associated with mental life, while contextual memories rely on their neuro-correlates. This could explain how the same neurons can be used for different memories (despite their huge number, there are not enough neurons to individually store all the bits of information throughout a life-span), and why they do not get mixed up. It can also account for re-creating memories after brain injures (although, of course, association plays a role too). A weak and unstable memory blueprint that is in the soul can activate open modules in the brain.

The above does not mean that the brain is not very important, especially regarding short term and contextual memory. Through synaptic connections neurons can establish configurations and create a network that reinforces energy patterns. Non-material energy is more fluid, so although a form, such as an image, can be (re)created, stabilising it is difficult. Thus, the soul has only a limited ability to maintain the form without the support of the brain. Brain injuries and amnesia indicate that especially those elements of the mind that relate to interaction with material reality (language ability, face recognition etc.) are heavily dependent on the brain, which is to be expected. Many pieces of information do not have a lasting value - there is no need for the soul to remember the names of streets or politicians, for example. This bifurcation of the two above mentioned aspects of memory happens spontaneously, because the form (a material aspect) of information or experience is too ‘heavy' to be preserved as such in the soul.

 Some empirical support and the further details of storing process (that include the role of the rings, for example) can be found in the chapter ‘The form and the content' (p. 173-174).

 

Retrieval

Retrieval can be understood as the process of reconstructing a mental configurations that have already existed. This process also depends on the subject:

The very essence of memory is subjective, not mechanical reproduction; and essential to that subjective psychology is that every remembered image of a person, place, idea, or object inevitably contains, whether explicitly or implicitly, a basic reference to the person who is remembering. (Rosenfield, 1995, p.42)

If the non-material aspect (that is associated with subjectivity) plays a role in retrieval, it can be expected that the formation of specific wave patterns is crucial, rather than the activity of individual neurons. This is supported by empirical research.:

...when a specific memory is retrieved, a temporal pattern of electrical activity peculiar to that memory is released in numerous regions of the brain. To that released set of wave-shapes corresponds the average firing pattern of ensembles of neurons diffusely distributed throughtout these widespread anatomical domains. Individual neurons within these ensembles display different momentary discharge patterns but the individual average firing patterns converge to the ensemble mean. (John, 1972, p.862)

It is true that, as perception is not always deliberate, some events from memory can appear in awareness spontaneously. When the connection is established in awareness, various elements, an image, sentence, thought or feeling, remain ‘entangled' and one can recall the others (the strength of these connections depends on the underlying principles that govern in a particular situation). A recall may be based on an association that can be between images, words, or feelings, so an initial trigger can be sensory, abstract, and affective. For instance, an energy configuration (that can be felt) or the activation of a particular brain region can recall an image, and conversely an image can recall a feeling or activate a brain region. Any cue can trigger one of these elements, which in turn can bring about the others (it happens more often as a burst rather than a chain). Here is one familiar example: we may not remember a dream we had until we hear or see one detail that is connected to that dream, and then the whole dream suddenly comes back. These cues can enter our awareness accidentally as a part of a different context (like two train-tracks that cross at a certain point, which enables a train to pass from one track to another). The context, therefore, can affect a recall positively (association) and inhibitively (it is difficult to remember a dream when awake because it is out of context). This is why it is easier to remember something if we are in the same environment, mood or mental state as when we learnt it. Body imbalance or energy imbalance in the soul can also trigger memories, as well as habit (repetition).

It is now accepted that the brain does not work linearly and it is suggested that parallel processes take place, forming neural networks. Even this, however, is limiting. It may be more accurate to suppose that the brain works in a systemic way, following the principles of fields (created by impulses travelling through synaptic connections). This could account for the plasticity of the brain and why remembering one element illuminates surrounding elements. It can also explain flash-bulb memory - one strong stimulus increasing the clarity of a memory and of all other elements present at that moment. Eccles postulates that

...the self-conscious mind scans this modular array, being able to receive from and give to only those modules that have some degree of openness. However by this action on open modules, it can influence closed modules by means of impulse discharges along the association fibres from the open modules... and may in this manner cause the opening of closed modules.  (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.367)

The hippocampus (a part of the limbic system) clearly has a significant role in learning and memory - especially regarding transition from short term to long term memory. Patients with a removed hippocampus find it difficult to recall events after the removal (ibid., p.391). This does not mean that they cannot have experiences, but they cannot put them in a spacio-temporal context (time for them does not exist, and also relating the experience to a specific spatial framework is hard). Apparently, amnesiacs can have dreams that refer to events or persons forgotten in the awake state and some of them have galvanic skin reactions when shown photographs of people that they had known but cannot remember. So, the hippocampus seems to be merely an instrument (a relay station) responsible for the laying down of the memory trace or engram, which is presumably largely located in the appropriate areas of the cerebral cortex (ibid., p.392). This means that in the case of a brain injury, the experience is not lost, but a reference, an ability to recall, verbalise or recognise the experience. In other words, connectivity (between the content and form) is missing, which typically causes frustration in people whose brain is not fully-functional[4].

The same is evident in ordinary retrievals, as for example, when we search for a word. We have the pre-verbal sense of meaning (the content), but we are looking for an expression (a form). When found, the word is immediately recognised as the correct one. Eccles writes:

We have a kind of diagrammatic representation of the thing we wish to find before we try to find it... when we really find it, we are usually quite certain that we have reached what we were looking for. (ibid., p.505)

It is proposed that we have the sense of what we are looking for because the content, as a particular vibration without a form, already exists in the soul. Intent leads to a match between the meaning of what we want to say and a corresponding word that requires a neuro-correlate. This notion is further supported by the feeling-of-knowing phenomenon: even when we fail to recall the actual memory, we still may have a ‘feeling' about it (e.g. we can predict accurately whether we will be able to recognise this information). Recognition, therefore, is not based on image matching, but matching the content and the form. This is why, even if we cannot describe or imagine a person that we have met before, if s/he appears, we immediately recognise shim. Experimental work that analysed the wave patterns produced by the brain seems to concur on the importance of meaning:

...the differences in readout wave-shapes seem to depend upon... the specific meaning of the signal. (John, 1972, p.859)

To summarise, remembering involves a three stage process, although not all of them are always present (recognition, for example, does not always require the first stage): a search or generation process (utilising intent), followed by identification[5] (that is a mind process) and finally, situating the memory in context (for which a functioning brain is necessary).

Memories are not only retrieved but also created to some extent, by filling in the existing gaps. New experiences, changing perspective or different moods can modify some elements of a memory or even create new ones. Obviously, the self and intent play an important proactive role in retrieval (possibly to avoid the taboo term self, cognitive psychology coined the phrase central executive). Eccles writes:

In retrieving the self-conscious mind is continuously searching to recover memories of words, phrases, pictures by an action which is not just a mere scanning over the modular array, but it is probing into the modular array in order to evoke responses from it and in order to try to discover the preferred modules, the ones which are related to the memory by their patterned organisation. In that way the self-conscious mind is, as it were, taking a very active role in recovering memories which it regards as being desirable at that time. (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p. 504)

It is interesting, in this respect, that the electrical stimulation of brain regions of patients under local anaesthesia can trigger only ‘passive' memories, in which the patient is an observer not a participator (e.g. watching or hearing the action or speech of others). The memories that would require an active or intimately experiential involvement of the self (making decisions, carrying out skilled acts, speaking, writing, tasting food, sexual or painful experiences) are conspicuously absent (Penfield and Perot, 1963).

  • [1]. Later in life though, it is quite common that a failure is subjectively perceived as more important (and therefore more intense), so it is remembered better and is likely to recur.
  • [2]. The term implicit memory is sometimes used in psychological literature differently, to refer to alleged unconscious, non-deliberate memory. For the reasons why it is inadequate see Butler & Berry, 2001.
  • [3]. This does not mean only that different memories are stored in different parts of the brain, but more strongly, that neuronal correlates of every memory are distributed.
  • [4]. See Rosenfield (quoting Kurt Goldstein), 1995, p.26.
  • [5]. For the further clarification of these two stages see Zechmeister & Nyberg, 1982.

Learning and knowledge

Learning is an essential mental process (not only for human beings) and deserves a special attention. Psychology has extensively studied this subject and made a significant contributions to its understanding. In fact, several ‘gradients' of learning can be distinguished.

 

1. The simplest form of learning, but by no means simple, is often referred to as reflex conditioning (or its variant instrumental conditioning). For example, if you ring a bell every time when a dog gets food, eventually it will start salivating on hearing a bell even in the absence of food. The term reflex conditioning, though, has somewhat misleading connotation. Animals or humans are not completely passive in this process, as these words suggest. It is experimentally proven that at least the initial stages of conditioning involve cortical activity, indicating that any response is a purposeful act motivated by goal attainment. Penfield points out that ‘every learned reaction that becomes automatic was first carried out within the light of conscious attention and in accordance with understanding of the mind' (Penfield, 1975, p.59). Thus, it is more plausible to assume, in line with Popper and Eccles' reasoning (1977, 503), that the stimuli incite particular expectations (perhaps in the form of an image such as food) that then trigger a certain response. Of course, if such a response produces desirable results, in time it will become automatic. This is concurrent with the notion that a reward contributes to motivation rather than learning, as ‘latent learning' experiments confirm. Animals (and humans) learn even if they do not have any incentive to do so, probably as a result of innate drives to explore and form cognitive maps.

 

2. A more complex form is cognitive learning. There are a number of learning types in this category.

  • The basic one is memorising. As already discussed, although we may spontaneously remember some isolated pieces of information, memorising usually requires active participation (investing an effort, concentration).
  • Observational learning (imitating or mimicking others) belongs to this category too. This learning is not straightforward either. It is a sort of experimentation or a role-play, testing what outcomes particular behaviour produces.
  • Insight learning is yet another type. Sometimes, the solution to a problem for example, is found in an instant, with a sudden grasp of the concept. Something clicks when we discover a new, central connection that reveals a larger picture or other possibilities and connections, like a piece of a jigsaw that reveals where the other parts fit. These insights enable the integration of new information in a meaningful way. They can be understood as a product of the accumulative pressure that a sustained intent creates, which usually requires a period of incubation (seeming passivity). Certain techniques or faculties (e.g. intuition) may facilitate this process, but this does not mean that such insights are reserved for humans. It is observed that some primates are also capable of learning in this way (see, for example, Köhler, 1925).

 

3. The most interesting and complex type of learning is learning that besides memorising also involves understanding (that can be tacit, as in the process of learning new skills). The term learning, in fact, commonly refers to this type. We learn meanings, or the relations of one stimulus to another, which is what makes it different from just memorising. Such learning involves extrapolations - awareness of principles behind the specific events, procedures or tasks, and thus requires an active self. As any good teacher knows, proper learning needs understanding, and understanding implies attention. If no active effort is made, no learning of this type occurs. Experiments with animals (e.g. the ‘kitten carousel' mentioned earlier, p183) and some educational methods (e.g. learning though discovery) show that the more proactive learning is, the better it is. Real learning, therefore, is a dynamic process that cannot be reduced to conditioned responses or training. For example, an infant puts shis hand in a fire, gets burned and ‘learns' not to do it any more. Scientists at the beginning of the 20th century carry pieces of radioactive material in their pockets because they glow, get leukaemia, and ‘learn' not to do it anymore. However, this is very different from understanding why fire burns skin, and why a radioactive material kills. Hence, this type of learning deserves a category of its own.

 

The result of learning is knowledge. Learning creates a network, it is a process of constructing information and experience (the materials of awareness) by selecting, separating, linking, sorting, generalising and storing information on the basis of formal or tacit principles. Knowledge is this network. Knowledge acquisition starts from setting boundaries to possibilities in order to open new ones on a different level. So, learning at first limits, but then expands one's freedom. For instance, learning to ride a bike narrows the possible ways of riding a bike (excluding all the ‘bad' ones), but knowing how to do it well enables a greater freedom of movement. Learning and accepting chess rules limits the number of possible moves, but it allows the freedom to play chess in a meaningful way and endless combinations within the given boundaries. This of course does not refer only to practical skills, but to empirical and theoretical knowledge too. Learning and understanding how physical forces work, for example, limits the number of possible interpretations, but then using that knowledge allows operating within a larger perspective, which opens further possibilities.

 

The relationship between awareness and learning

Awareness and learning are closely related, but they are not the same (they are qualitatively different mediums). Unlike awareness, learning constructs the materials, but it does not have a focus (constructs have no focus). Moreover, although awareness can be, it is not necessarily accumulative, while learning always is (characterised by ‘becoming' rather than ‘being').

Dreaming

Dreaming is chosen to represent auto-generating processes because it is a fundamental faculty common to humans and most animals, and because it can provide both experience and information. Dreaming is also so unusual that its better understanding can provide insights about reality itself.

 

The difference between a dream and the awake state

In a dream everything seems real, so the question may be raised what the difference between a dream and the awake state is and how we know that the awake state is not just another dream. Some thinkers have concluded that we cannot know, but this seems premature. The basic difference is, of course, that the self identifies with the physical body when awake, while in a dream it identifies only with an image (motor, perceptive and the volitional functions are partly inhibited). This has several consequences.

 

Exclusiveness - the images in dreams mostly originate from or are related to the experiences of the awake state. Yet, in dreams we are normally not aware of daily life (not only do we not experience it, but it does not exist for us), while when awake we are aware that dreaming exists. Even if a dreamer remembers the awake state while dreaming (as in lucid dreams, see below) it is never perceived as a subset of the dream. This indicates that the awake state includes dreams and therefore is more fundamental.

 

Inconsistency - although the perception of the world is to some extent a construct, it is more objectively consistent than a dream. A dream environment cannot prove us wrong, while waking reality can (if we believe that we can walk through the wall, we will, but only in a dream). Also, in the awake state there is a sense of continuity that is lacking in dreams, even after interruptions such as sleep.

 

Diminished self-control - with some exceptions, volition is also usually weaker in dreams. We are inertive and reactive rather than proactive. Although we can potentially use all the mental abilities as when awake, we usually behave instinctively (‘here and now' reactions are far more common than elaborate decisions). As Eccles writes:

A characteristic feature of most dreams is that the subject of the dream feels a most disturbing impotence. He is immersed in the dream experience, but feels a frustrating inability to take any desired action. Of course he is acting in the dream, but with the experience that in doing so he is a puppet. (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.374)

 

Instability - the awake state is more stable and consequently more predictable than a dream (it is governed by fixed, unchangeable laws - no miracles). On the other hand, dreams are not anchored by perception and constrained by physical laws. As a consequence, experiences are less filtered, range more widely, and are more direct and engaging. Dreams are richer, but also highly unstable and fluid (in this way they resemble non-material reality). Without an external support we rely on ourselves more, so it could be said that in dreams we are really what we are.

 

Attachment - when awake, the support of stable external structures makes distancing from the immediate experience easier (if we stop to think, the world is not going to change or disappear). The self has a chance to detach, which allows a person to become aware of the past, reflect, think about the future and remember dreams too. In a dream such a distance does not exist, which is why we do not remember awake reality while dreaming. This is similar to watching a programme that can be so engaging that we forget the world around us. Dreams are characterised by motion rather than rest, events are too flitting to give us time to reflect. They don't have pauses, and we are never bored. When nothing happens, we sleep. The dream state is akin to flow, being fully emerged in an immediate experience. This attracts the self and narrows awareness to the extent that we take it all for real (as long as it lasts). In other words, we are hypnotised by the inner reality.

 

Selective cognition - what is really puzzling is not that strange things happen in dreams, but how easily they are accepted as something normal. This indicates that not only the physical level is removed but also, at least partly, the other ways we construct reality. In dreams we do not have a sense of time, do not normally operate with abstract concepts and systems, and are less self-reflective. Memory in a dream is not suspended, but is highly selective, we remember only information that is relevant to the dream. We are also unable to sustain attention. In other words, we are more aware when awake than in dreams (from this perspective, dreams are a step backward, rather than forward). This, of course, is not to say that dreams are not an extremely valuable source of  experience and information. To highlight this point, the purpose of dreams will be discussed next.

 

The purpose of dreams

Experiential - dreams are usually the result of re-balancing energy, so they can be understood as a complement to reality. While in reality our experiences affect our states of mind, in dreams a state of mind creates an experience. This interplay can be understood in the following way: our daily experiences sometimes create energy imbalances. They are not always dealt with or processed immediately, but placed in a ‘buffer' and left for later, when the input decreases. However, the conscious mind often forgets or is not inclined to recall them from the buffer, so they return into awareness when the control of the mind is not so strong and when the bombardment of external information is drastically reduced. In other words, either pleasant (e.g. sexual desire) or unpleasant (e.g. fear) internal experiences that have not been fully acknowledged and assimilated and need to be addressed, are brought to awareness. They produce images and can generate brain activity, as sensations do while awake (in fact, the same brain regions are activated by external stimuli and corresponding mental events in dreams). Considering, though, that an energy imbalance that triggers a dream is not attached to a specific form any more, the dream content does not necessarily corresponds to whatever has caused this imbalance. Dream images and events are usually chosen because they are readily available (from memory) and do not cause much resistance. In any case, dreaming enables us to safely deal with and integrate an experience and in that way achieve better balance. Although our agency may be somewhat limited, this process requires active responses (otherwise we would not need to be aware of our dreams). Resolution, therefore, happens in a dream, rather than in its interpretation.

 

Informational (or interpretative) - there is much disagreement about the meaning of dreams. On the one side of the spectrum is the view that dreams are meaningless images generated by random activity of neurons in the brain[7]. This is unlikely to be the case: however bizarre, a dream is rarely totally fragmented (which is what can be expected if the above explanation is correct); they have a linked if not always coherent narrative, and even more importantly, a unifying perspective - the self (as in the awake state). On the other side of the spectrum is the view that dreams are messages from some hidden part of ourselves with universal symbols and syntax (found in psychodynamic approaches, and also in many popular books on dream interpretations). This is also not very plausible. Even Freud acknowledged that ‘a cigar in a dream is sometimes just a cigar'. It is more likely that dreams are idiosyncratic expressions of our states of mind (emotions, desires, worries, and other drives). They can be meaningful, but their meaning is specific to the person involved, rather than universal. Dreams do not follow a fixed logical structure though, but a chain of associations, which is why they are often confusing and difficult to interpret. In any case, a dream is an experience, not just a surrogate for life. Therefore, dreams are not necessarily meaningful, just as events in an awake state do not seem always to have an underlying meaning. This is not to say that the content of dreams is irrelevant. After all, they are products of one's own mind. However, the ways the person relates and reacts to dream events and the ways s/he connects them to other experiences is what provides valuable insights. If a dream is triggered by day-time experiences but can create a different scenario, a dream's actual content is clearly not intrinsically related to these experiences. So, we again have here an explicit side of a dream (images and events) and its implicit side (relations and ideas that they represent): the latter contributes to the understanding of meaning more.

 

Types of dreams

The above mainly relates to balancing dreams that are the most frequent. However, there are other types of dreams. Inertive dreams are a prolongation of the awake state (for example, if one plays chess all day, s/he may dream chequered surfaces). They are caused by the continuous firing of neurons that were already active and have not calmed down yet. There are also inspirational dreams in which an intent generated while awake is manifested (e.g. the dreams that have led to some scientific discoveries mentioned in the first part). Revelatory dreams involve tapping into or receiving information from external sources (strictly speaking, these experiences are not dreams at all, but they usually, although not always, happen while asleep because it is easier to get through then). It is also possible to become fully aware and take control over one's dream. This happens when the dreamer realises that s/he is dreaming (the self becomes aware that it is identifying only with an image). These are called lucid dreams. Lucid dreams can be very beneficial. They are, in a way, a training in direct self-control, without the reliance on the outside structures. On the other hand, they may prevent spontaneous experiences that are also important. Day dreaming or fantasising is another type of auto-generating process that creates images and experiences. They are similar to dreams, except that they happen while awake and are, therefore, much weaker (intense fantasies or hallucinations usually indicate a mental disorder). Fantasies create images that correspond to an internal state (e.g. the feeling of longing may trigger an image of home). These images make internal states more concrete and are a pre-verbal way to direct one's actions, but they may decrease motivation.

 

All the elements described in this part (The Mind) and in the previous part (The Being) are, of course, subject to dynamic processes. The most important ones are biological evolution, individual development, and social development. No account can be complete without addressing them, so the final part will focus on these subjects.

  • [7]. Activation-synthesis hypothesis, for example, leans in this direction (see Hobson & McCarley, 1977).