Dreams and Vision
Anil Mitra, © March 2014, © Latest Revision January 2015
There are many theories of what dreams are and what are their functions and these are often taken to be the same though they are not even though they are related.
We give a different status to the question ‘what are dreams’ than we do to ‘what are thoughts’ as though the latter is perspicuous while the former is not. However, though we question ‘the function’ of dreams (as though there must a function but don’t know what it is) while there is a certain if misleading obviousness to the function of thought. However, a clue to functions of dreams is provided by ‘what they are’ and a clue to the latter is to see all thought and imagery on a continuum whether waking or not and whether perception or imagination. There are of course differences and the most obvious ones seem to be that (a) dreams occur without external stimuli, (b) dreams occur while sleeping, (c) dreams seem real but are not, and (d) we do not directly act on dreams. These are tendencies rather than necessities for (a) some dreams are clearly stimulus driven, (b) visions and hallucinations have similarities to dreams and occur while awake, and (c) visions and hallucinations and vivid imagination may seem real when they are not, and (d) we may act directly on dreams and we do not always act on the outcome of a thought even when it indicates action.
A theory of dream constitution is a theory of what dreams are and may be expressed in physiological terms or in terms of dream content. Many theories of dream—or vision—constitution focus on differences between dreams and waking mental content. There are obvious content related and physiological differences but there are also obvious similarities. Particularly, even tautologically, they are all experiential and all physiological. Yes, this is obvious, but it is often clarifying to begin with what seems too obvious to state. There may also be commonality in origins which may be coeval or sequential and date to a time when waking thought had not evolved to a point where it some of it was under control as much as it is at the present stage of evolution. The simplest approach to understanding (to begin with call it a hypothesis) is that of common origin and that while there are obvious differences dream and waking content lies on a continuum. The latter (the continuum) is almost tautologous but making the distinctions on that continuum will not be. The approach starts with a necessary logic that is container for the real differences and therefore natures of dream and waking content.
Waking mental processes and other physiological activity is wearing; for example it requires attention to environment and to itself for focus—and thus adaptivity of awareness of awareness; and thus waking mental processes and perhaps all mental processes occasion rest. Sleep is rest; deep sleep is the deepest rest. In deep sleep the brain is so at rest that there may be insufficient activity to stimulate imagery (or its recording). Dreams (as is known) occur between wake and deep sleep. Dreams therefore, according to the hypothesis, are a transitional phenomena between waking mind and deep sleep mind. Naturally their topography is different with ‘functions’ being shut on or off or enhanced or attenuated at different stages and rates (and the shutting off of one ‘function’ may liberate another). Attention to reality is undoubtedly shut off early (thus a sometimes sense of freedom just after waking); and such shut-off is naturally parallel to the usual shut-off of motor control. However, it is not necessary to explain the differences. It is enough to understand that this explanation / hypothesis (in addition to being parsimonious) explains that and why there should be differences (and the origins of the different differences can be investigated experimentally and ‘theoretically’ in terms of the understood functions of the different parts of the brains). Of course there is some evolutionary origin. But is there a separate origin of dreams? Perhaps in the beginning some aspects of waking thought were dream-like. Then, later, control (e.g. to focus on the real) emerged so that there may have been no explicit origin to dreaming. In this scenario dreams are neither by product nor, nor of separate origin, nor vestige. Mind evolved. But the transition between wake and sleep is more like original mind than the evolved mind awake.
Thus dreams as dreams may have no particular origin or original or even essential function.
Given this understanding of dreams, there is no one thing that dreams are (repressed desires etc.) and no one function (lessons for action, sources of creativity, discharge of excess information). The ‘thing that they are and their function’ can be manifold and can even be chosen. Animals dream, humans dream. But if dreams do confer something to conscious life and if this confers some advantage which may then be selected for as an adaptation and further adaptively selected and which we may then recognize—or hypothesize—and describe as a significant function. And the selection may be physiologically based via adaptive changes; andor it may have been found to be a source of imaginative creation and realism in some cultures (which may perhaps be the base of cultural selection).
Thus dreams and visions (including the culture of the vision quest) and their use and power. For the ‘rationally minded’ it may be recognized that since we have dreams we can always subject what they suggest or what we interpret to rational criteria just as in rational action imagination is necessary but may also be subjected to rational (and experimental) criteria.