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About The World Of Dreams

by Don DeGracia, Ph.D.
October 1996

Hi folks! Its been a while since I've written a Plane-Talk column. What I'd like to do this time around is focus on the question: what is the dream world? For afterall, in our dreams and our lucid dreams (or OBEs or astral projections, or whatever we wish to call them) we really appear to be somewhere. In our dreams we are in places; we move through landscapes - sometimes of a mundane character, sometimes of a bizarre and surrealistic character. Whatever the forms they may take, what is clear is that when we dream we are somewhere. What I'd like to discuss is some of the ideas I've been kicking around about just what this somewhere really is when we talk about being in our dreams.

In Astral Projection/Oobe Class, I put forth the idea that the world of our dreams are the planes of nature described by occultists, particularly of the Theosophical variety such as Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater. In fact, by the end of this article, I hope to illustrate how naive of a viewpoint this is. As you readers of this column know, I have been focusing more and more on scientific explanations of the phenomena of lucid dreaming/OBEs/astral projection, and this way of thinking sees these experiences as being products of our brain. As I have allowed my mind to open up to this scientific, and biological, viewpoint - and the body of evidence that supports such a viewpoint - the question has occurred to me: if indeed our dreams and lucid dreams are products of our brains, then how is it our brains can create the realistic, complex and detailed worlds we move through in our dreams and lucid dreams?

In pursuit of an answer to this question, I have surveyed a fairly large amount of literature about how our brains work. Initially, I was very skeptical that one could explain the environments, landscapes and places of our dreams in terms of how the brain operates. However, after much reading and learning, my initial skepticism has been replaced with some inkling of an understanding of how the brain indeed can create within itself whole worlds through which we, as personalities, move, live and have our being, not only in our dreams, but while we are awake as well.

As with most questions we ask, there is a huge philosophical component to this issue of the nature of the dream world. The philosophical questions revolve around this: we take our waking experience as our point of departure when we talk about our experiences in the dream world. And in our waking experience we move through this physical world, a world which is revealed to our conscious awareness through the agency of our senses. Our senses include seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting, which are the five commonly known senses. But we have other senses in our body too: we can sense temperature, pain, up and down (i.e. gravity), the motion of our bodies and limbs, we can feel vibrations, and pressure and there are many unconscious senses constantly monitoring the internal organs of our bodies. It is through all of these sensory modalities that we know of the world we inhabit while we are awake. And the most important point is that we take all of this very for granted. We simply assume that the world that is revealed to us through our senses exists as an objective world that exists outside of us, and we assume that we perceive this world truly as it is.

Now these really are important philosophical questions that have plagued philosophers throughout the centuries. Philosophers like Kant and Descartes, and many others, have worried about the reliability of our senses for revealing to our minds about the nature of the world, and they have worried about the seeming objectivity of the ideas we create to describe the world in which we find ourselves. What I find of great interest is that asking the question "what is the world of dreams?" has an awful lot to do with these philosophical questions.

Again, we assume the world of waking is real, solid and objective. And we move through this world as we live our lives in time, never giving any thought at all (unless of course you are a brain scientist!) to the marvelous bio-machine in our heads - our brains - that make life as we know it possible. But the fact is, it is because of the properties of our brain that we can perceive the world of our waking experience. It is because of the properties of our brain that there is continuity in time to our waking experience. Even though every day of being awake is interrupted by a night of sleep and of dreams, we wake in the morning and continue on with our waking life, continue the events of yesterday, looking forward to the events of tomorrow. The continuity in time of our waking lives is due to the fact that our brain stores memories of the things it experiences. If our brains did not store memories, then we would not remember what happened to us, nor would we remember the thin gs we were planning on doing and the things we strive to achieve and for which we hope.

In fact, there are types of brain damage that people can suffer where their brain losses the ability to form memories. Such people live constantly in the present. They do not remember yesterday, nor do they remember to plan for tomorrow.

Likewise, as we take our memories for granted to a large extent in our day to day lives, so too do we take our brains ability to perceive the world of our waking experience for granted. Don't you ever wonder just how it is that you can open your eyes and see the world? Seeing happens quite automatically. You don't have to do anything, it just happens. Nor did you have to learn to see. The ability to see is built into your body; built into your eyes and the nerve connections between your eyes and your brain. You were born with the ability to see - it is a gift that God has given you. Although the how of seeing never enters into our minds as we go about our day-to-day business (again, unless you are a brain scientist who studies vision!), the fact is, there is a very complex set of processes that underlie our ability to see. What I want to do now is explain a little bit about the hidden and unseen (one could even call them "occult") processes that are happening every time we look at the world.

First off, what allows us to see is light. Light exists in the world of our waking experience, and it exists as waves of infinitesimally small particles called photons. These photons/light waves move around through space at massive speeds - the speed of light is the fastest speed of anything we know of - and these photons/light waves bounce off of things that are made of matter. They either bounce off of material things, or they go right through them depending on the frequency of the light waves and the nature of the matter they encounter.

Now, as these light waves bounce off of things, some of the light waves enter our eyes. And inside of our eyeballs, the whole back wall of our eye ball is made of cells that respond to the light waves. These cells make up a region of the eye called the retina. And the cells of the retina that detect light waves are called rods and cones. The rods and cones do not respond to all light waves, but only to a very narrow range of light waves that we call visible light. This range of light waves is visible because we see them, and we see them because the rods and cones can detect them.

To make a very long and complex story short, when visible light enters the retina, the retina sends nerve impulses to the brain. These nerve impulses are not pictures in any sense at all; they are patterns of electricity. So, our retinas convert light waves which have bounced off of, or were emitted from objects around us, to patterns of electricity inside our brains.

So, if the eye sends patterns of electricity into our brains, then how is it we can see? Or what is seeing? Well, frankly, if I could answer this question, I'd be famous. The fact is, no one is quite sure of how the patterns of electricity that leave the eye and enter the brain get converted into this subjective mental phenomena we call "seeing". However, some of the more clever scientists who grapple with these issues have taken an interesting tact to the problem. Instead of wondering how patterns of electricity get converted to the things we actually are seeing in our consciousness, these scientists have dealt with the issue by stating that what we call "seeing" is actually patterns of electricity coursing through our brains, and actually, only through very specific parts of our brains.

And the fact is, there is good evidence to support this viewpoint. You can imagine that if a person's eyes got damaged, then that person would become blind, and indeed this is the case. However, it turns out that people can become blind by having the parts of their brain that are involved with seeing become damaged, even in their eyes are perfectly intact. In this case, the person has brain damage, not eye damage, but they become blind nonetheless. Clearly then, this supports the notion that what we call "seeing" involves patterns of electricity moving through specific parts of the brain; if those parts of the brain get damaged, the person can no longer see - they are blind.

Now, everyone reading this is using a computer. Many of you know that the computer screen you are looking at is composed of small dots of light called "pixels". By combining many pixels together on the surface of the TV tube of your computer monitor, it creates a picture. It turns our that our brain does a similar thing with vision. Our retina is made up of many millions of cells - the rods and cones - and each of these is like a pixel. Now, each pixels on your computer screen has its place on the surface of the computer screen. The pixels form a two-dimensional grid and the location of each pixel is defined by stating its place on this 2-D grid. Likewise, the retina is also a 2-D grid of cells and each cell has a definite place on this grid. And when a particular cell senses light, it - by quite indirect means - sends a little nerve impulse out of the eye. The impulses go to very specific regions of the brain - to a part of the brain called the visual cortex - in such a way that each region of the visual cortex corresponds to a specific location on the retina. Or stated another way, there is a region (actually several of them) in the visual cortex of our brain which is organized the same way the retina of the eye is. What this means is that when a particular region of the retina senses light, this causes patterns of electricity to enter very specific regions of the visual cortex. Therefore, when you see something in the upper left corner of your visual field, this image activates cells in a very specific region of your retina, and in turn, these retinal cells activate very specific regions of your visual cortex which correspond to the upper left part of the space at which you are looking.

What this means is that you really do not "see" the thing in the upper left corner of your visual field until the cells in the visual cortex of your brain become active. It is the activation of these cells in your brain that causes you to "see", not the activation of the cells in the retina.

Again, this all happens totally automatically. It does not matter whether or not we know that all this is going on because it goes on anyway. It has been the cleverness and ingenuity of brain scientists that they have figured out that all this stuff is going on "behind the scenes" when we perform the simple act of looking at something. And there is much more going on as well, but because this is not an essay dedicated to visual processing, I will not go into any more of the details.

The important idea at this point is that there is literally a MAP of visual space inside a particular part of your brain. And when this map of visual space gets activated it creates in us the conscious experience of seeing. What this idea means is that if you could somehow artificially stimulate these parts of the brain with electricity, it would cause the person to see something that is not truly there (which is the definition of a hallucination).

Now, these ideas apply to all of our sensory modalities. Hence, you have an audio map of space in your brain, and when it gets activated, you experience the subjective sensation of hearing. You have a tactile (touch) map of your body in your brain, and when it gets activated, you experience the subjective sensation of touch on the surface of your body. You have maps in your brain of all your sensory modalities, and when these maps get activated, it creates in your conscious awareness, a perception of that sensory modality - be it touch, hearing, balance, temperature, pain, etc. etc.

For you clever readers out there, it should be quite obvious where my argument is going. All that I have discussed above can only mean one thing: the world you perceive to be "out there" is not "out there" at all. It is, in fact inside your brain. The world that is seemingly outside of us is not outside of us at all: it is inside our brains. That the world "out there" seems to be outside of us is an illusion created by our brains. Our brains CREATE the world that we perceive and of which we are aware, and this means that "out there" is actually inside our heads.

And this gets back to the philosophical stuff I mentioned at the start of the article. Months ago, when my curiosity lead me to the question "how does the brain create the world of our dreams?" I was assuming that our brain constructed the world of our dreams, but did not construct the world of our waking experience. I naively assumed that the waking world was totally objective in some sense independent from the action of the brain. However, what I realized as I learned more and more about how the brain works is that the brain actually CREATES the world of our WAKING experience. Again, the world we perceive to be outside of our bodies is NOT outside of our bodies at all. The outside world of waking is inside our brains. ALL OF OUR PERCEPTIONS OCCUR IN OUR BRAINS.

However, these ideas do not imply that the world is a construct of our imaginations as the ancient Greek Sophist philosophers believed. There is an objective world that exists outside of us and within which we live, move and have our being. However, what I am saying is that ALL WE CAN KNOW OF THIS WORLD IS THE REPRESENTATION OF IT CREATED BY OUR BRAIN. I'll elaborate on this point ahead.

So, let's get back to the story of how the brain works. The key idea is that the brain creates REPRESENTATIONS of the world within itself. That is the function of our brains: to create representations of reality. So, naturally enough, the question arises: how come the representations created by the brain seem to so accurately mirror the reality that is outside of us? Well, the answer is simple: because of our senses. The easiest way to think about it is that our senses are like cookie cutters. Cookie cutters MOLD cookie dough into specific shapes. Likewise, our senses - when they are active - MOLD our brain's ability to represent reality into specific "shapes". The senses are MOLDS or TEMPLATES that determine the shape of perceptions that the brain will generate in our awareness.

Now, so far, all I have said applies to the case when we are awake. And again, the irony is that the waking world we know in our awareness is actually patterns of electricity in our brain, which are shaped by our senses.

However, what happens when we sleep?

Again, to make a long and complex story short, when we sleep, the ability of our senses to mold our brain's ability to represent reality within it are turned way down.

If you will recall, there are two main phases to sleep: the nonREM phase and the REM phase. It is now known and well established that we dream during the REM phase of sleep. Dreams sometimes occur during nonREM sleep but are much less frequent than during REM sleep. So, it would seem that during nonREM sleep, the ability of the brain to generate representations is itself turned down.

What all this leads too is this conclusion: DREAMS ARE THE BRAIN GENERATING REPRESENTATIONS OF REALITY DURING REM SLEEP, WHEN THE ABILITY OF THE SENSES TO "MOLD" THE BRAIN'S REPRESENTATIONAL ACTIVITY IS TURNED DOWN.

In other words, dreams are patterns of electricity being generated by the brain during REM sleep that result in conscious perceptions in exactly the same fashion that occurs during waking.

Now, there are many differences between waking perceptions and dream perceptions. The most important is that our senses are turned on when we are awake, but turned off when we dream and this has important consequences. When the senses are on, they MOLD the representational function of the brain. When the senses are off, as in REM sleep, the brain generates perceptual representations of reality that are NOT molded by sensory input.

Are there other factors in the brain that help mold the representations generated during dreams? Yes, absolutely. The most important is probably our motivational state: our wishes, drives, desires, and other similar emotional factors. Our memories are also important determinants in forming our dreams. And there are probably unconscious factors that help mold what we consciously perceive during dream states. However, right now I am not going to dwell on this topic of what molds the contents of our dreams - this I will save for another column.

The function of our memories is also different between being awake and being in a dream. We all know that we don't remember dreams as well as we remember our waking experiences. This points to a big difference in the function of the brain between waking and dreaming. However, what is the same between waking and dreaming is that the brain is generating representations of reality that enter our consciousness as perceptions of a world "out there".

So, we come back to the main question of this article: what is the dream world? Well, according to all I said above, the dream world is in fact patterns of electricity within our brain, in those regions of the brain that create our perceptions of sensations. The world of dreams are worlds - actually, perceptions of worlds - generated by the brain in the ABSENCE of the senses molding the brain's ability to generate perceptions.

So, is this all mundane? Does this destroy the old occult views of the planes of nature? What the ideas I've presented above force us to do is not be so naive in our thinking. The idea that dreams are patterns of electricity in the brain does destroy any simplistic and naive notions that the planes of nature exist as objective worlds analogous to an objective physical world. If you understood what I said above, you now appreciate that even the world of our waking experience is NOT objective in any simple sense. The world of our waking experience is a REPRESENTATION inside our brains - one that is MOLDED by the action of the senses. Hence, the whole idea of objectivity becomes hopelessly naive from this point of view. If objectivity exists, it must be a notion that includes the fact that what we perceive is only a REPRESENTATION - a bunch of patterns of electricity - INSIDE THE BRAIN. So, not only are the old occult notions destroyed, but so are many nonoccult notions. What is destroyed is a simplistic and naive assumption that what we perceive can be taken at face value. We now know enough about the hidden and invisible (i.e. occult) process that underlie our ability to perceive that we can no longer take what we perceive at face value.

So what else is there if we cannot take our perceptions at face value? What this all points to is an extremely subtle interplay between our conscious thoughts and the automatic ability of the brain to generate representations of reality. It is, afterall, our conscious mind - and the ideas and habit it contains - that gives meaning to the perceptions generated by the brain. Thus, the Sophists (who believed that reality is created by the mind) were half right: our ideas give meaning to the perceptions generated by the brain and so in this very indirect way "create" reality. Just as the brain will generate representations of reality in our conscious awareness in spite of what we think and believe (i.e. culture), contrawise, we will give whatever meaning we give to our perceptions whether it is "intrinsically correct" or not.

So, this all points to something much deeper than the standard fair of traditional science, philosophy or occultism. But its not a depth with no precedence. Again, we are lead back to the mystical insights of the ages that point to transcendence of the mundane and the discovery of a transcedendal essence behind mere appearances.

Next time, we'll get into this topic some more and look a little more closely at the factors that mold the contents of our dreams, whether they be lucid or not. For now, the take home message is that the world of dreams are patterns of electricity in our brains, but just the same, so is the waking world. In some future column, we'll dwell on the ramifications of these ideas.