Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Continuity of dreams

In real life I haven’t seen a hundred dollar bill in years, but I saw one in my last dream. I had taken a taxi. All I had in my wallet was this worn, older style hundred, and the driver didn’t have change. But as fortune would have it, there was a Bank of America right there, and I could get 5 twenties for my hundred just like that. I was a little embarrassed that this meant just a dollar tip for the driver, but not all that embarrassed. He hadn’t done anything close to deserving a 21 dollar tip. That’s the breaks.

My dream self is not as clever as my waking self. Now that I’m awake, I know what I would have done in real life, where I’m always thinking ahead toward something like having the perfect change for a tip. I would have gotten different change at the bank to allow for a better tip. I didn’t think of that in my dream. Things just happen in dreamland, even if I’m the one doing them. There’s not much thought involved.

I suppose my dream self doesn’t have the extensive consciousness my waking self has in order to be so clever. I wonder if whole sections of my brain are walled off in REM sleep, cognitive areas no doubt, just as brainstem mechanisms paralyze our muscles during REM sleep to keep us out of trouble. Dreams might work best if we can’t question them as much as some of us do real life. I think I have to be close to waking up to say or think in a dream, “Wait a minute, it doesn’t have to be like this.”

That’s not my biggest neuroscientific observation from this dream, though. What impresses me even more is that I’ve seen that hundred dollar bill before, in a dream an earlier night. There is memory during dreams that I can’t fully access when I’m awake. I remember the part of the dream that’s fresh when I wake up. Before that it’s hazy, even though I can remember some. The dream itself remembers, however. This taxi dream started an earlier night, maybe over more nights than just these two. There were several stops in the trip, which I would guess went up the peninsula to San Francisco, all of which are obscured to me now. But I remember the hundred. It was an earlier night. The hundred in my wallet looked familiar in the dream I last had, where I had the explicit memory from an earlier night. Now I just remember that I remembered during the dream not having any other currency. It’s not the same memory during wakefulness. If there weren’t some overlap I wouldn’t remember my dreams at all, as many people don’t.

Others have written about the state of consciousness in dreams being different than wakefulness. Anyone who wants to explore that can look up what’s written under “state-dependent learning”. When that was the rage, people would have cassette tapes read to them at night hoping they would learn while they were asleep. It’s not that easy.

But there is a memory within dreams that is separate from wakefulness. Maybe if I could suddenly have the sensations of dreamland, the appropriate memories would return with those external cues, but I bet it’s more than that. Psychoanalysts were comfortable calling dreamland “the unconscious”, but I’m not. Where is the unconscious? In Freud’s day there was so much uncharted brain, one could stick the unconscious all sorts of places. That’s not true today. Maybe the unconscious exists as imagination exists, alongside the conscious brain, in parallel. All visions occur in the visual cortex, in theory, in greatest detail when there are sensations from the outside world supporting what we see, but also when we remember, imagine, or dream. When it comes to perception, memory and imagination, we do all of that at once while we’re awake. It’s how we make sense of what we see. Only dreaming is so different, where there is a world that is detailed far beyond our ability either to remember or to imagine. Does dreamland just lie dormant in our cerebral cortex, waiting for REM sleep to return? Is dreamland waiting with its separate memories, separate desires and separate physics?

Whatever the truth is, it’s silly to say that dreams are just a dumping of useless information. They are so much more structured than that, meaningful if only in the symbols that they stir up. My guess is that the parallel world of dreams is more than just giving symbols to our waking self. There are differences that puzzle me. God who has been my constant companion during wakefulness for years is not there in my dreams. He’s not needed. It’s always peaceful in my dreams. I’m never stuck as to what to do in my dreams. Maybe She doesn’t like me, as simple as I am in my dreams. Maybe God just doesn’t reach there. Maybe God is too big to fit there, cut off from everything outside as dreamland is.

There’s also very little sexuality in my dreams. In real life it always hits me viscerally how attractive the prettiest woman in the room is. In dreams that never occurs to me. Dreams are about reliving moments, like all these dreams I have that are nostalgic for medicine, though at the same time there are many strange symbols within them. Dreams are about going places and doing things, if not literally with this taxi ride, then cognitively, like the implications of universal salad dressing. That’s what I dream about. I suppose if I were a sexually repressed 19th-century woman in Vienna, it might be different, but it still wouldn’t be trivial.

Maybe dreams are just an escape from real life, with their own memory and own rules because the brain creates those things easily. Perhaps it’s the brain that holds dreamland and the real world separately, making dreams a playland where even God stays out, but not intentionally, just because the brain can. If it’s something else that is trying to communicate to me beyond what reaches me when I’m awake, I don’t get it. If the message is just live and notice the odd things, I’ve been doing that for some time.

Dreams are what they are. As with God, many people have strong opinions saying they know everything about it. Then where did my hundred dollar bill come from, and where did it go? If it was just flotsam pulled from my memory, why did it stay a while and not just float away?

In the 21st century, we can answer some questions with considerable detail and precision. For others, people just make up answers, as many do about dreams and God. In my real life, I’m very clever about telling the difference. In dreamland, I don’t need to be. Troublemakers don’t get into my dreams somehow, so I don’t need to be clever. I’m glad it’s not up to me to choose one over the other, but it is interesting to see the possibilities.

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