Dreaming Through a Window

“Certain moments from the dream stand out sharply. The moment the vehicle I was traveling in pulled up to the long row of stone steps leading up to the building and I first saw you. We nearly collided as we embraced. We only spoke briefly when you abruptly went back inside the building, as I walked around the building and ran down a hill to a deserted beach. Turning again toward the building, simply thinking about going inside found me standing in what seemed to be a university office. You were printing out some sort of form as it came up on a computer terminal above your head. One of them was supposed to be for me, and you pointed to a table across the hall, but I was unable to locate the form with my name.

Moments later, I was once again on the steps in front of the building, and when you came out I remembered saying, “God, you’re beautiful.” We spoke of meeting again and I had to return to my vehicle. For some reason I had to climb in the window of the building where I was staying, although I wasn’t sure why.”

– Excerpt from my dream journal

The clarity of the meeting and the startling sensation of familiarity stayed with me for quite a while after waking. It seemed at times that I was directing the action in the dream, although I truly was NOT expecting to see anyone at all when the doors to what may have been a bus opened. My sense of surprise and delight was genuine. The dream seemed more of how I would imagine it to be, rather than how it might actually be. In the context of my research into the nature of consciousness, I am more convinced than ever that the sleeping and dreaming components of neurological functioning, while clearly acted upon and influenced by the physiological changes that take place, are a window into a much wider world that we are only glimpsing presently.

An article in Discover magazine by Robert Sapolsky, Director of the neuroscience lab at Stanford, (“Wild Dreams,” Discover Magazine April 2001) concerning recent studies at the National Institutes for Health raises some interesting questions about much of our conventional wisdom, and puts many of the previously “established” ideas about dreaming into a new light. The experimental premise and positron emission tomography that tracks the blood flow through the brain in the different stages of REM sleep and slow wave sleep, verify the findings in a reasonable fashion, but the metabolic isolation of the regions of the brain that consolidate and retrieve memories was perhaps the most interesting finding of the study. The integration of visual patterns conducted in the subcortical regions are essential to what we “see” in our dreams.

The lessening of activity in the prefrontal cortex, and the increased activity in the complex sensory processing areas where emotions and memories are managed doesn’t explain how images that have never previously occurred in our experience appear. Complex construction of elaborate scenarios that have never taken place, may be partially the result of contributions from our imaginings or daydreams, but dreams like one I experienced recently seem to defy explanation.

“Last night I had an elaborate dream about a huge stone fortress, which had the appearance of Egyptian architecture. It felt as though I was part of a team of individuals investigating the site, spending much of the time in my dream exploring the many rooms and features. After an indeterminate amount of time, I was standing far out in front of the structure speaking with several colleagues when the structure started to tumble; slowly at first, but then like a row of dominoes the rest of it followed in a synchronous manner.

Huge chunks of the fortress came tumbling toward us and we scrambled to avoid them. I saw a ledge of rock above me that might just take me out of harm’s way. I leaped to get on top of it and turned to face the structure as it collapsed, and saw several individuals who were jumping away and may have been lost in the collapse. My leap propelled me high above the scene.

As I was imagining what might have occurred, simply considering what might be taking place below the collapsed section of the fortress, I suddenly found myself in what appeared to be a large chamber within the collapsed area.

For some reason simply my thought of what it might be like transported me there, and my very next thought–that it might be open to the air–sent a rush of fresh air upon me.” – excerpt from dream journal

Dreaming clearly puts me in a state totally dissimilar to my normal waking state, with only periodic moments of mental references that are actually familiar. The context in which even those familiar components appear is quite often anomalous to my waking memory of these reference points, and I am frequently struck by this very idea as I am dreaming, often recognizing that the dream event is taking place in a wholly different context than expected.

Dreaming for me is quite often a strikingly vivid experience, with a degree of sensation and occasional awareness of being in a dream state. As opposed to Sapolsky’s claim that we often have a sense of “reckless abandon,” I quite often seem to refrain from actions in my dreams, just as I might while awake, although still noticing a lessening of inhibition to some degree on occasion.

Our window into the world of dreams, while slowly revealing layers of involvement with both a physiological and psychological nature, also reveals that there is still much that is not understood about the processes involved in dreaming. The appearance of specific dream events not drawn from conscious memory, and elaborate scenarios conjured in an imaginative frenzy, suggest to me that there may be far more complex interactions that cannot be fully explained by the neurophysiology and metabolic activity in the brain, just as the true nature of consciousness itself and its link to our cognitive systems continues to elude scientists and philosophers alike.

Perception begins early in our development

Life has many strata. Upon conception, we begin the arduous journey to the awakening of consciousness. Gradually, the tissues within the embryo begin to differentiate, and by the end of the third week in the womb, the spinal column and central nervous system begin to form. By the end of six weeks, brain waves are detectable and there are visible convolutions in the burgeoning brain signalling the beginning of a cerebral cortex. After about twelve weeks, the spinal cord, nerves, and the thalamus are all present. Sensation begins.

Around 17 weeks along, the developing child can have REM sleep. Between seven and nine months, four out of five senses, excluding smell, are active in the developing baby, and many of the basic brain functions are available. Perception has a foothold in the living tissues and although the majority of physical attributes have been constructed, there are still many miracles yet to take place.

And yet, holding a newborn child in your arms tells you that they are not yet fully conscious in a meaningful sense, except to say they are open to every possibility; a clean slate in some ways but also genetically inscribed with a variety of inherited traits. All of our basic human conventions, our desire for explanations, our drive to explore and discover, are, in some measure, inherited; essential to our survival.

We awaken slowly to consciousness. It happens not in a day, or a week, or a month, but only after years. It does not spring forth suddenly one day, but rather minutely in microscopic increments, just as our ancient ancestors slowly acquired it over millions of years of evolution. Some experts in the field of neuroscience insist upon the brain as that which “generates” consciousness, and there are important relationships between cognitive functioning and our subjective awareness, but this premise seems far less obvious to me. We clearly depend on the neural mechanisms and chemical features of the brain to interact with the world in a meaningful way, and when there is malfunction in those mechanisms, a chemical imbalance, or significant damage to the brain, access to consciousness is clearly compromised.

It is true that the universe in which we exist appears in many ways different than it is in actuality. Our perceptions of life here on earth are replete with examples of contrasting appearances to the realities we now know are far different than they seem outwardly. Our relationship with space itself is based on a limited knowledge of its true nature, and we have not as yet penetrated that nature very far except within the limitations of our corporeal existence. Our abilities to detect certain aspects through science and technology are limited, but we really haven’t been engaged in the process very long either.

Annie Besant, (1847 – 1933) a prominent speaker and writer of her day, wrote:

“The soul casts a part of itself out…this part is the mind of man–the part of the soul that is working in the brain…it cannot pierce through this thicker veil of matter. All that greatness that we know as the mind is only this struggling part of the soul, working in this brain for purposes of the soul’s growth. As much of the soul as can manifest through that brain is the mind of the person we know…it is only an instrument, only an organ of the soul, manifested for the work it performs.”

A Universe Conscious of Itself

Artistic impression of the universe. Image credit: Pingnews

In his recent book, “The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human,” V.S. Ramachandran makes a substantial argument and goes to great lengths to express what it is that distinguishes human beings from all others. In reviewing the structure of our brains, he notes how each component works in “close cooperation,” and notes specifically “…the upper part of the left temporal lobe contains a patch of cortex known as Wernicke’s area.”

“In humans this area has ballooned to seven times the size of the same area in chimpanzee; it is one of the few brain areas that can be safely declared unique to our species. Its job is nothing less than the comprehension of meaning and the semantic aspects of language–functions that are prime differentiators between human beings and mere apes.”

He also makes an excellent point regarding the difference between human perception and what might be described as a robotic response:

“Even the simplest act of perception involves judgment and interpretation. Perception is an actively formed opinion of the world rather than a passive reaction to sensory input from it.”

He also makes a surprising appraisal of how our atoms were “forged in the hearts of countless, far-flung stars billions of years ago,” and how those atoms now form our brains…a brain that can:

“…not only ponder the very stars that gave it birth but can also think about its own ability to think and wonder about its own ability to wonder. With the arrival of humans, it has been said, the universe has suddenly become conscious of itself.”

Recent contemplation of all these thoughts has made me wonder a bit as well. The new science of the cosmos, which includes theories about “dark matter,” and “dark energy,” one holding everything together and one pushing everything apart, seems appropriate to the opposing forces of those who believe that this marvelous brain of ours is all we need for consciousness and those who believe consciousness is fundamental to the universe and that some additional component must be added to achieve a comprehensive theory.

The polar opposites of our temporal existence, which appear so often in our experiential awareness–hot and cold, darkness and light, good and evil, fast and slow, black and white, life and death, even male and female, on the surface, they all appear to define the opposing forces in each instance, even though many times there are whole ranges of gradient degrees of each which muddle the descriptive term we sometimes apply–“opposites.” Depending on the circumstances, one or the other in the dichotomy may dominate or tip the balance in one direction or another, and the outcome of the imbalance may represent either an advantage or a liability. In other situations, the degree of separation may allow for compromise to create a balance or mitigate the imbalance. There are even those who feel strongly that what we VIEW as opposites may actually instead be complementary (like male and female).

I once stood at the very front of a long platform at a train station in Europe, and when a train on a different track appeared in the distance, I viewed the train as coming towards me, but as it rushed by me, even though there were others at the “opposite end” of the same station, it now appeared to be going away from me, even as it was still approaching those at the other end of the station. Anyone who ever observed the dawn of a new day, starting off in total darkness, would only slowly perceive the introduction of light, and another person, looking out their window before it was notably light in the sky might consider what they saw as still being darkness.

Even only a hundred years ago, scientists believed that our galaxy was all there was to see in the cosmic ether, but now we know there are millions of galaxies in a web of super-clusters expanding billions of light years in every direction. Just how many of those galaxies have the potential for the development of sentient life may never be known, as it appears that all the galaxies we can observe are, for the most part, accelerating away from us and will eventually disappear from our view completely.

When we ponder these mysteries, they make us look more closely at our own consciousness and what connection there might be to everything else in the universe.

Here is a brief description of this interesting project from Nour Foundation website:

“The Human Consciousness Project is an international consortium of multidisciplinary scientists and physicians who have joined forces to research the nature of consciousness and its relationship with the brain, as well as the neuronal processes that mediate and correspond to different facets of consciousness. The Human Consciousness Project will conduct the world’s first large-scale scientific study of what happens when we die and the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death. The diverse expertise of the team ranges from cardiac arrest, near-death experiences, and neuroscience to neuroimaging, critical care, emergency medicine, immunology, molecular biology, mental health, and psychiatry.

These studies appear to suggest that the human mind and consciousness may in fact function at a time when the clinical criteria of death are fully present and the brain has ceased functioning. If these smaller studies can be replicated and verified through the definitive, large-scale studies of the Human Consciousness Project, they may not only revolutionize the medical care of critically ill patients and the scientific study of the mind and brain, but may also bear profound universal implications for our social understanding of death and the dying process.”


Transcendence and Awareness

Image of the night sky above Paranal on 21 July 2007, taken by ESO astronomer Yuri Beletsky

We humans exist as sentient temporal beings in the physical universe, in a galaxy that is one of innumerable others, any number of which, should they have formed with the same optimal developmental and life-sustaining advantages currently enjoyed by those of us in this Milky Way galaxy, might also be harboring some variation of living sentient creatures. While there has been no definitive evidence discovered as yet of any such extraterrestrial civilization or society of intelligent beings, it seems completely within the realm of possibility that others may exist, who might have achieved a similar level of developmental cognition to support an adequate degree of intelligence, provided by some sort of fertile cognitive apparatus, leading them to also wonder about their own evolution, purpose, and future. Such beings might even be presently casting their gaze beyond their own galaxy, searching as we are for some evidence of the existence of intelligence outside of their own sphere in whatever distant region of the universe they may be.

The physical universe, from all we have been able to discern over the centuries as earthbound cognitive creatures, is governed by physical laws that are necessary in order for everything we see in the universe to exist in the first place. We should not then be surprised, especially as physical constructs in that same universe, that we exist physically and possess physical systems that sustain us within our bodies, as a result of those same laws. However, regardless of the character and nature of the laws governing physical existence, as necessary as they are, given that we could not exist temporally without them, in no way eliminates other potential layers of existence that may have contributed to and continue to give some degree of form and substance to our existence as we currently experience it on our planet.

The stationary state |531> of the hydrogen atom. This image shows an isosurface of the position probability density. The colors describe the complex phases of the wave function according to the standard color map. Created with QuantumGL © 2004 B.Thaller

With the help of modern physics and following the discoveries in the field of quantum theory, we have recently uncovered serious indications that our physical universe is composed of matter and energy that is not only essential and ubiquitous, but also invisible and mysterious. Since this matter neither emits nor absorbs light, we call it “dark matter,” and since the influence of the energy that supports it is clearly discernible, but curiously inexplicable, we call it “dark energy,” but what the names indicate more than anything is that we simply don’t know how to describe and do not fully comprehend the exact nature of the universe.

As a consequence of our evolutionary and biological inheritance, and as a result of our steady progress over millennia as cognitively self-aware creatures, we are able to debate the many implications of that progress, and also to speculate regarding what might account for our existence, beyond what might be explicable within the context of our current level of understanding. It’s completely reasonable to suppose that much of what we may eventually come to understand as the true nature of temporal existence will be explained by what we observe or determine through empirical means, even in the realm of “dark matter and energy,” in spite of how they are currently beyond our ability to perceive directly.

Is it possible that we exist not simply as a consequence of our cosmic and human evolution, but also by virtue of an underlying non-physical existence? Since we must acknowledge that much of our temporal reality remains outside of our comprehension currently, what would make any of us inclined to investigate, contemplate, and attempt to articulate the concept of a “transcendent reality,” when the physical universe itself still remains a mystery?

“For human beings transcendence is part of our experience of the world. In the course of… compassionate behavior…you encounter another transcendent reality.”

– Karen Armstrong, a former nun, and teaches Christianity at Leo Baeck College

My own inclinations seem to have begun to form during my early childhood, beginning with my earliest recollections of existing in the physical world. The character of my very first memories, before I had been introduced to the rigors of formal religious training, and before being indoctrinated by “social norms” during the years of my formal education, I fully accepted the notion of a transcendent reality, although I could neither fully comprehend it nor express it as such at the time. In retrospect, what I was able to acknowledge and accept as “normal,” before I fully grasped what I was experiencing, was a temporal reality that included an awareness of some part of my existence that originated from beyond the limits of my senses, and I did not question the validity of my experiences in this regard until I was well into the formal religious and educational process–a process that diverted me from engaging those aspects of my awareness for many years afterwards.

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“There is a second phase that Jung called the transcendental function. This function has the capacity to unify the opposite tendencies of the personality.The goal of transcendence is the realization of all aspects of the personality as they were originally concealed in the one’s center, and the development of the potential unity. The transcendence is the means to realize the unity of the archetype of the Self.” – The Hero’s Journey on http://www.psychoideology.com/

Even as we acknowledge our current limitations regarding our comprehension of the temporal and the transcendent, our awareness of a transcendent reality, particularly as it relates to our existence in the first place, can be experienced subjectively in a state of “transcendent awareness.” As Carl Jung suggested by his idea of the “transcendent function,” consciousness is the catalyst for the manifestation of our understanding and perception–the juxtaposition of each component in the equation–leading to an awareness of the transcendent source of all things.