Monday, June 05, 2006


I've yet to come across a convincing explanation of dreams. My own dreams sometimes feature big, complex, detailed cities where I've never been, most likely because they don't exist. The amount of compute power to generate a relatively simple static 3D render is pretty high. To create an arbitrary city, populate it and have some peculiar action going on there must be a staggering amount of work, even considering that the brain's hardware is well equipped for symbol processing. What's makes it even more peculiar is that dreaming occurs during our periods of greatest rest, i.e. sleep.

The views of reductionist biologists simply don't wash. The lowest case is that they're caused by responses to random nerve impulses firing in the brain stem. Once you invoke the parsimony of nature, the simplest thing for the brain to do would be to ignore them. I don't think this is completely wrong, however, in that external stimuli can have an effect. At one time my feet used to poke out from under my duvet, and if it was during winter, it would affact my dreams in that the pain of the cold would get interpreted as walking barefoot over broken glass.
Another such speculation was that dreams keep the mind active while an animal's sleeping so that if suddenly woken, it will be able to respond more rapidly. This is obviously tosh; occasionally you wake from a dream to discover the room you're in is quite unlike the one you thought you were in just a moment ago and it can take a little while to re-orient yourself.
A side-effect of memory reorganisation perhaps? This would be a natural guess for many people involved in computing, likening it to, say, an indexed filing system which as more information's added gets ever more higgledy-piggledy and will occasionally have to straighten reorganise its indexes if they're to work at all efficiently. No real evidence that's how the brain works, and wouldn't we find our short-term memory getting ever more confused as the night wore on?

Symbols important to ourselves are getting shuffled around, with people, places aother things of emotional significance featuring large. I can't see anything in what I can remember of my own dreams to justify either Freudian sexual repression or Jungian archetypes. A common item that happens in my own dreams is losing my shoes; no doubt adherents of either of these two schools of thought could perform the mental gymnastics to fit this in with their schemata, but this would involve more absurdities than the manifest content of the dreams themselves.

In one of Werner Herzog's films, a South American tribe claimed that it's dreams that are real and that our waking lives are false. This really hinges on the definition of 'real', I suppose. The fundamental difference between dreams and reality seems to me to be consistency; a door in a dream cannot be relied upon to lead to the same place twice.

The nearest thing to an explanation I can think of is by comparison to the Buddhist conception of the three truths - kutai, ketai and chutai. Kutai relates to unlimited potentialities, everything that could possibly exist, ketai, limited dependent 'hard' reality and the chutai, the middle way, the perfect union of the two. The best quote on this I could find comes from here:
Ichi here is the ultimate entity that embraces everything; it therefore corresponds to chutai, or the Middle Road. Dai tells us that the ultimate law of life and the universe is as extensive and all-inclusive as space; it therefore corresponds to kutai. Ji implies that this law manifests itself in the kaleidoscopic changes of all actual phenomena; it therefore corresponds to ketai. In the final analysis, ichidaiji is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the Law which perfectly incorporates the three truths.
It relates to the Buddhist conception of the cycle of life-and-death, that after death our existence retreats into potentiality where it 'recharges' itself for another bout. Could therefore dreams be a 'little death'? Rather than orgasms, though the latter are quite refreshing too. :)


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