A tedious and dumbed-down documentary in the BBC’s science series Horizon asked “Why Do We Dream?” It presented a lot of old hat as new, and missed the big story…
Well, I thought much of it was old hat. It’s hard for me to say whether studying psychology and having an interest in this kind of thing over the years gives me a different perspective.
But it’s typical of science journalism that the sense of progression in science is so often left out. Everything is presented as new, and as fact. The reality of science is that it progresses from theory to theory via disagreements over a long period of time. Different scientists have different opinions, and they argue with each other constantly. Gradually, experimental evidence demolishes some theories and science moves on. The journalists rarely seem to get this…or they imagine that the rest of us are too thick to understand it.
The big story
Anyway, about 3½ hours (or so it seemed) into the programme there was a hint about the big story, when Finnish professor Antti Revonsuo remarked:
The relationship between dreams and consciousness is: I think that we could actually say that we are dreaming all of the time. It’s just that during wakefulness our dreams are shaped by stimulus information that’s coming through our senses. Whereas during [sleeping] dreaming this same consciousness within our brains is not shaped by any external information, but it’s generated internally. So I think that, well, life is a dream which is guided by the senses.
This turns commonplace thinking about dreams inside out. Instead of dreaming being something special, dreaming is purely and simply what our minds do, whether asleep or awake.
So this is not a theory about dreaming at all. It’s a theory about consciousness.
Dr. Revonsuo has developed this idea by comparing consciousness with computer-generated virtual reality. In a 1999 book, Toward a Science of Consciousness III, he contributed a chapter in which he described (original italics) how the brain:
…is actually creating the experience that I am directly present in a world outside my brain although the experience itself is brought about by neural systems buried inside the brain. The brain is essentially creating an “Out-of-the-Brain-Experience”: the sense of presence in and the full immersion into a seemingly real world outside the brain. This is immediately obvious when we consider dreaming: there we are, in the middle of a strange dream world, but it never occurs to us to conceptualize it in any other terms than as a world or a place where we find ourselves in. Almost all dream reports begin by specifying the place in which the subject has found himself in the dream. We never come to think about the dream world as showing us how our own brain looks from the inside, although we know quite certainly that that’s where all the fun is really taking place.
So the connection between the real world and consciousness is that the conscious mind creates a virtual reality based on what it knows and senses about the real world. We live our lives inside that virtual reality:
In everyday thinking we rarely realize that what we directly experience is merely a clever simulation or model of the world, provided by the brain, not the world itself. In order to be an effective simulation, we are supposed to take it as the real thing, and that is exactly what we do even during dreaming.
Paraphrasing, the brain has a general-purpose virtual reality generator that can generate worlds. Connect it to the external world via senses and memory, and it generates a simulation that’s close enough to the real world to allow us to interact with the real world in useful ways. Disconnect it, and it creates all kinds of other worlds. Whichever world your virtual reality generator is generating at any particular moment is the world you are in — and that applies whether you are asleep or awake.
Another strand that was represented somewhat better in the documentary is that dreaming has a purpose and is useful in itself. Erica R. Harris, of the Evolutionary Neurobehaviour Laboratory in Boston, Massachusetts, described the value of dreams like this, near the end of the programme:
I think that their value lies in what a different mode of thought they are. They’re so much more intuitive and visual a mode of thinking, and in our culture we spend so much time in this very logical, linear mode of thinking that their main benefit lies in presenting such a different point of view to how we are usually approaching things.
Even nightmares have their uses. Here’s Antti Revonsuo again:
Bad dreams and nightmares are a good thing. They force us to be prepared for similar events in the waking world. Without nightmares and bad dreams there is a good chance that humanity wouldn’t be here.
So to some extent, at least, dreams and even nightmares are a problem-solving mechanism that literally allows us to “think outside the box” (the box being the constraints of external reality) and to prepare for the challenges of real life. In particular, bad dreams allow us to rehearse our responses to threat.
This way of understanding consciousness creates a different understanding of mental illness.
In mental illness, just as in dreams, there are mental events and mental states that do not seem to correspond to reality in the usual way. Whether it’s someone who feels depressed “for no apparent reason,” someone who hears voices “that are not really there,” or someone who is “compelled” to behave in certain ways, the symptoms of mental illness have something in common with nightmares.
Effective therapists sense this, even if they are not aware of the theory of consciousness that explains it. For example, in the case of a patient who hears voices, the therapist is not concerned by the voices as such, because the therapist knows that in a sense everyone hears voices all the time. It’s how we solve problems of relationships. We have mental models of other people, generated by our virtual reality generator, and we can run simulations to see how other people are likely to respond to us.
If you have to tell your mother something and you’re worried about how she’ll react, you automatically go into a dream-like state in which you rehearse different ways of putting it — together with her reactions. Of course unless you have psychosis you don’t actually hear your simulated mother’s voice replying, but it’s a very fine line. The point is that having virtual-reality simulations of other people in your head is completely normal. It’s what heads are for.
The theory underlying CBT is based on the idea that the states of mind found in mental illness, just like the states of mind found in bad dreams, are problem-solving techniques. Our minds go into these states in order to work out appropriate responses to threatening situations in real life.
So the CBT therapist’s job is to work backwards. The patient’s state of mind exists to solve a problem. But the state of mind has persisted. That means the problem mustn’t be solved yet. So what was the problem in the first place? When the problem has been identified, the therapist can join in with the patient to give the problem a shove, or a good kicking, or whatever it takes to shift it. Then the state of mind simply vanishes, because it’s not needed any more.
Patients are often astonished by this, saying, in a puzzled tone, of the mental state that once defined their illness, perhaps for many years, “Oh that, it just went away.” And having gone away, it’s difficult to remember it exactly, in the same way that it’s difficult to remember a dream. The virtual reality generator has discarded it, and it’s working on new problems.