The World of Dreams
by Geoff Olson
As a comic whose name escapes me once observed, the human brain is a wonderful thing. It starts working the moment you wake up and doesn’t stop until you arrive at work. We are all intimately acquainted with our many shades of awareness: from wide awake and alert to day-dreamy to dead-tired. Yet, in spite of this familiarity, we’re often silent witnesses to the unfathomable ways of the psyche: the Freudian slip, the emotional jag, the nightmare or even the black dog of depression.
In his investigation of the mind’s mercurial ways, former CBC producer Jeff Warren has penned a vivid hybrid of philosophical treatise, science journalism and first-person report. The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness examines our daily cycle of awareness, from the delta-wave swells of deep sleep to the alpha-wave “zone” sought by athletes and artists. With its many practical tips for exploring the brain’s capabilities, you could call it the missing manual to the hardware in your head.
I met with the mid-thirties author at a coffee shop in downtown Vancouver to discuss grey matters. Warren turns out to be a fast-talking, hyperarticulate carnival barker for the latest findings in neuroscience. In the service of CBC Radio’s Ideas – and a subsequent book contract – the author has clambered aboard his own wheel of consciousness like a kid on a fairground ride. He’s been wired up in sleep labs, serially hypnotized, outfitted in a lucid-dreaming device and underwent a three-week, midwinter stint in a cabin in Northern Ontario, with little more than candlelight for company, to investigate how his sleep patterns would entrain to Earth’s natural cycles.
As a kid, Warren used to lie in bed waiting for the exact moment that sleep set in. Night after night, the act of observation eluded him. He’s been fascinated with sleep, and the mind, ever since. “The whole idea for the wheel of consciousness, and indeed this book, came as I was drifting off to sleep at night,” said Warren, sipping a cup of green tea. He experienced a classic “hypnagogic” state, notable for the parade of seemingly random images and thoughts that preface sleep. If someone’s lucky like Warren, this may include creative solutions to daytime problems.
The author’s reverie-inspired book concept echoes one of the more famous hypnagogic episodes in history, experienced by the nineteenth century German chemist Friedrich Kekule. One night, on the edge of sleep in front of his fireplace, Kekule had a vision of a snake swallowing its tail. He later realized he had the solution to the molecular structure of the benzene molecule: an enclosed hydrocarbon ring. It turned out to be a milestone discovery in organic chemistry.
It’s often said that answers come to us when we “sleep on it.” As Warren notes in his book, Brahms, Puccini, Wagner, Poe, Twain, Stevenson, Tolstoy, Klee, Dali, Dickens and Goethe “… are all said to have been hypnagogically inspired at one time or another.” It would be nice company to keep, but I for one have never had any fragments of inspiration while dropping off to sleep.
I’ve had better luck with lucid dreaming, those terrific REM-sleep adventures in which you realize that you’re the dreamweaver – with the option to behave like a power-mad film director. “The lucid dream is the equivalent of mindfulness in waking,” Warren tells me. “So when you look around in waking, then you’ll really notice the texture of everything, the shapes, the colours, the sounds. In a lucid dream, you really clue into that. The insane thing is, it’s a model of the world every bit as real as this one here. I didn’t know that until it happened to me.”
What happened, as Warren describes in his book, is that he encountered a dream world indistinguishable from the waking world. “The dream was nothing like ones I remembered from the past – everything was preternaturally vivid, full of supercharged detail and colour. I felt as if I had atomic vision and that I could see particles twining in the air like dust motes. I kneeled down and ran my index finger along the cobble-stoned street. Each stone was smooth on top with grit collected in the grooves between the stones.
“I thought I knew what dreaming was, but it turned out I’d been watching scratchy Super-8 home movies on the bottom corner of an eight-storey, 15,000 watt Xenon-bulb IMAX screen.”
I tell Warren I once had a dream in which I parked my car in a lot full of old vehicles, all Sputnik-era tailfins and big, gleaming bumpers. Sometime later that evening, I was wandering around in my dream in a car lot, but all the vehicles looked modern. It occurred to me that I had parked my car not in this dream, but in another dream, earlier that night.
He laughs at the anecdote and I relate another nocturnal adventure of such astounding clarity and detail that I recalled thinking during the dream, “Wait till I tell my friends about this!” Yet the feeling of hyper-reality was already fading in the morning light. Could it be, I ask the author, that the “scratchy, Super-8” quality to dream recollection has less to do with the dreams themselves than some function of the mind that retroactively dims them down? Is there some neural tweak that preserves our ability to make the distinction between daytime and nocturnal worlds, perhaps to ensure our sanity?
“That’s a great question,” Warren says with enthusiasm, pausing. “Do you remember what you had for breakfast yesterday?”
“Do you remember where you had it?”
“I do, but only because I usually have it in the same place.”
The washed out quality of dreams is a function of fragmentary recollection more than anything else, says the author. “When I think back, I’m not in there,” Warren explains. “It’s the difference between memory and immediate experience.” On top of that, he says, short-term memory doesn’t function as well during sleep. “When we think of our dreams, we imagine them as these washed out, grainy things, but that’s only our memory of it.”
The most appealing aspect of lucid dreams is that there are simple exercises to coax them into being, although success varies from person to person. Warren travelled with his girlfriend to a lucid dreaming seminar in Hawaii, held by sleep researcher Stephen LaBerge, where would-be lucid dreamers were given a straightforward, if metaphysical, rule of thumb. Throughout the day, they were to ask themselves if they were actually dreaming rather than awake. The theory is that if you get into the habit of asking yourself this in the waking state, the habit will carry over into the dream world. And if you reach lucidity, it doesn’t take long to prove to yourself it’s a dream, and not back in the waking world asking weird questions. (Digital clocks are supposedly difficult to make out in lucid dreams, as is text in books and newspapers. Also, light switches don’t seem to work for some reason.)
Once you’ve done a few tests and know you’re dreaming, the sky’s the limit. You can fly, dispatch large predators with a wave of a hand, storm the heavily fortified temple of French stewardesses, whatever.
The Head Trip relates some fascinating laboratory research into lucid dreaming. In his research at Stanford University, Laberge’s subjects were hooked up with sensors to record their rapid eye movements (REM), indicative of their eyes tracking dream objects. When the sleeping subjects became lucid in their dreams, they followed previously given instructions, signalling their awareness by a precise pattern of left-right, left-right eye movements. They use a different pattern of eye movements to signal their moment of awakening back in the lab. On a few occasions, some experienced lucid dreamers weren’t actually waking; instead, they were “waking up” in a dream-lab indistinguishable from the “real” one.
“One of the core insights of cognitive neuroscientists is that all we ever experience of reality are simulations created by our brains, Warren writes in The Head Trip. Our nervous systems build a model of the world based on the two streams of data. The first stream is the obvious one: sensory data. This comes in, all broken up, through the eyes and other sense organs, and then it gets routed by the thalamus up to higher levels of the cortex for model assembly. Thus, the world we see out there is more accurately a model that gets built in here. But this is where it gets tricky: this sensory data isn’t just assembled, it’s also interpreted. And that interpretation relies on a second stream of data: not what we see, but what we expect to see, and sometimes even what we want to see.”
Laberge and other sleep scientists believe this commingling of internal and external worlds leads to an extraordinary conclusion. We are always dreaming, by definition: our expectations and projections play a larger role in the waking world than we’d probably like to think. It’s eyes wide shut, 24/7. This notion is either liberating or unsettling, depending on your point of view. For Warren, it brings to mind a short story by the Argentinean master of magical realism, Jorge Luis Borges. In The Circular Ruins, an old sorcerer slowly dreams another man into existence and releases him into the world. At the end of the story, the sorcerer “… relaxes with relief, with humiliation, with terror… that he, too, was but appearance, that another man was dreaming him.”
There is much of sleep and dreaming we still don’t understand. Even the “normal” eight-hour, unbroken period of sleep turns out to be more of a cultural standard than a pre-wired necessity. The fast-talking author explains, sipping his tea: “I think the eight-hour crunch of sleep is one kind of an expression of a larger kind of cultural need, of championing a certain kind of rational waking activity that gets things done. It’s part of our culture running helter-skelter through the world.
“Other cultures have different kinds of attitudes and their sleep patterns seem to reflect that,” he says, pointing out the Mediterranean habit of siesta. In his book, Warren notes that eight hours of consolidated sleep is really one option among many, adding, “We likely do ourselves a disservice when we insist on its universality.” And therein lies a fascinating scientific discovery.
Centuries ago, Western sleep cycles were pretty much set by sunrise and sunset. Candlelight and fireplaces allowed our ancestors to play a bit on the margins, and the low light intensity didn’t interfere with the production of melatonin, the sleep-initiating hormone produced by the pineal gland. But the introduction of electric light represented a radical break from the past, and it did more than turn our evenings into dreamlike fantasias of burning filaments. It turbocharged capitalism, with work hours and leisure time compressing sleep into unbroken eight-hour blocks.
When sleep researchers in Maryland introduced their subjects to the normal, midwinter light conditions in the Northern Hemisphere, free from artificial sources of light, they discovered an interesting thing. Initially, the subjects would fall asleep earlier in the evening, but sleep for up to 14 hours. After paying off their “sleep deficit,” their sleep would return to an eight-hour stretch, but it was now in two parts, punctuated by a lengthy period of waking, of approximately three to five hours. The researchers discovered this period of nocturnal awareness had its own unique neurochemical signature. The high levels of prolactin in the blood accompanied a dreamy, relaxed state of mind in which hours passed by like minutes. It’s not a place we moderns go often.
The sheer thought of it terrified Warren. “If I had to sit and stare at the ceiling for six hours every night, my mind would tear through the inside of my skull like the Tasmanian Devil,” he predicted. But when he put himself to the test, occupying a cabin for a three-week stint up north, he began to fall asleep earlier and found himself awakening in the wee hours into this sanguine state of mind for the first time in his life.
Sleep researchers have discovered this is the answer to the puzzling references in medieval literature to a “first sleep” and “second sleep” – the evenings of ancient Europeans were once divided into portions, and they would frequently rise at night to talk with family or sit and muse under the stars.
Warren quotes sleep researcher Thomas Wehr, who mused of ancestral people waking from their dreams and pondering their significance in the dark: “It is tempting to speculate that, in prehistoric times, this arrangement provided a channel between dreams and waking life that has gradually been closed off as humans have compressed and consolidated their sleep. If so, then this alternation might provide a psychological explanation for the observation that modern humans seem to have lost touch with the wellspring of myths and fantasies.”
In his research, Wehr found that people entrained to natural cycles vary at the time they awake at night. He speculates that this is an adaptation that allowed tribal people to function as a collective of eyes, with unbroken awareness throughout the night. Does this also mean that they can also salvage dream material with greater facility than we do? Warren suspects this is so, citing his own experience of voluntary isolation in a cabin up north as personal confirmation. “You’re able to go back online and think about the things that happened in the dream and bring them back into the dream,” he says. “There’s sort of like this dialogue between the two states. You can think about the kind of cognitive flexibility it gives you.
“Indigenous cultures often have rooms full of people, with perhaps a fire going and several animals around,” Warren notes. In his book, he quotes anthropologist Carol Worthman, who disparages the Western bed as a “machine” for sleeping. “You’ve got a steel frame that comes up from the floor, a bottom mattress that looks totally machine-like, and all these heavily padded surfaces – duvets and pillows and sheets.” It’s arid and controlled, defined by a “decontextualized person.” Although we are not without contact in our hi-tech sleep machines, it “… has been partially mitigated for Americans by the evolution of bed size, from twin, to double, to queen, to king.”
There is much more in Warren’s book on other states of consciousness – the daydream, hypnosis, the “zone” of athletes and artists and the “pure conscious event” of meditators. The author is not big on genetic determinism; the idea that we’re trying to run advanced cultural software on brains that stopped evolving 40 thousand years ago. To counter this persistent notion, he champions “neuroplasticity,” a term favoured by brain researchers who are discovering the innate potential of the human brain to alter its own state.
In the early twentieth century, the human brain was compared to a telephone switchboard. Over time, it’s been seen as an “enchanted loom,” a computer and even a hologram. Yet when it comes to states of consciousness, we’re trafficking in metaphors for largely unknown territory. We have plenty of maps, but as semioticians famously remind us, the map is not the territory. And although it sometimes seems like the big-brained, hairless ape was a bad evolutionary bet, The Head Trip argues convincingly that we have barely begun to explore the gelatinous gift inside our skulls.