Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dreams on Awakening

Here I defend something people consider mildly wacky: the writing down and analysis of dreams.

A disclaimer: first of all, I don't attach any metaphysical importance to dreams. My best theory of them runs as follows: during the various cycles of sleep, the human (and more generally, chordate) nervous system undergoes a series of what I can metaphorically approach with words like "tune-ups", "reboots", "defragmentations". It's hard to speculate in this, because a satisfying theory of sleep is generally terra incognita for neuroscience. A few tantalizing hints are contained in the fact that sleep is essential for learning, and a few computer scientists have attempted to construct neural networks that learn in an unsupervised manner guided by the sleep metaphor. But that's only a start.

So what? Well, any process of "defragmentation" is going to stir a lot of shit up, essentially sending neurochemical discharges down pathways in the brain they weren't "meant" to go down. You can think of this stirring up process as essentially random. But what is decidedly not random is the way these low-level random discharges get taken up into the fragmentary state of consciousness that characterizes REM-stage sleep. The boiling cauldron of neural discharges gets taken up into awareness in a way that's framed by all sorts of ontogenetic, phylogenetic and idiosyncratic characteristics of the person undergoing this "defragmentation". You can think of it as massive sampling bias.

Now, I find it interesting that most of our self-construction projects in everyday life involve taking things up, filtered through our various layers of interest. So in conscious, waking life, we read a book, a poem, a movie, and discuss it, and think about it, only if it resonates with our particular preoccupations. But the problem in the project of self-construction comes, of course, from the mediacy of the materials. The book/poem/movie weren't made for your growth; they were made out of a matrix of personal, economic, social, and political circumstances. So any given material for self-construction that comes from others will have a large signal-to-noise ratio.

Same with your own dreams. A lot of what goes on is garbage, or easily traceable to some external influence in the near past. ("A dream is a low-budget play, put on with the props and costumes cribbed from the previous few days," said a very wise gentle giant biker once.) But the things that resonate with you from your dreams, though not some metaphysical bolt of salvation, are excellent self-construction materials precisely because they (generally) lack the mediacy of external media.

Now, there's still a question of interpretation, and in that way, even dreams, even one's own waking experience is mediate in some respect. But what did you expect? A reason to live to be handed to you effortlessly? You can run free association on your dream images--an epistemic technique which, in other contexts, really is bullshit--and can be reasonably sure that it indicates some personal preoccupation because it was generated by a filter that is you. In that way, you can act as the lens that sees its own biases, preoccupations, developments.

Thus ends my (half-baked) attempt to give naturalistic coherence to something that people either dismiss or take up as "magic". I hate magic with a passion. Mind you, not real magic--i.e. sleight of hand. I hate "real"--i.e. metaphysically interpreted--magic.

Consider: "If children's prayers were answered, there wouldn't be a single teacher alive."


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