Contemplating David Gelernter’s new book, “The Tides of Mind,” for weeks now hasn’t helped me much with my own “struggles of mind,” but it has opened new avenues of thought, which is always a welcome development. In particular, his imagery of a “spectrum of consciousness,” with descending and ascending layers from being wide awake and alert to dreams and unconsciousness, although interesting as a means of describing the aspects of our mental machinery, illustrates well the challenges presented by the subject. He seems to bend over backwards to frame the question of consciousness as having everything to do with “mind” and not much to do with anything else. His background as a computer scientist and A.I. authority do provide a formidable foundation for dissecting the human mind, but I am often left unsatisfied as I work my way through his elaborate treatments of each layer in the spectrum.
What he does well is lead us through what we experience subjectively in a more comprehensive framework for appreciating and understanding the complexity and subtlety of that experience as a cognitive creature. I enjoyed reading along as he guides us step-by-step through the gradually descending lower end of the spectrum, characterizing each layer in great detail and illustrating his points with passages from literature. It’s a unique approach that serves him well for the most part. Some of his references are not as familiar to the general reader, but this is easily resolved by simply looking up the passages which are well documented with footnotes for the curious reader.
Visually striking metaphors are occasionally employed and he sometimes wanders into unconventional and unscientific territory to good effect. As we drop down into his “spectrum,” where there is far less empirical data regarding what exactly is taking place, he deftly navigates his way through these vagaries and treats us to a no-nonsense description which invariably seems plausible, although less definitive. In the section entitled, “Dreaming is Remembering,” he calls the dream state “the inner field of consciousness,” where imagination and memory combine to “feed” consciousness, and where he concedes that we have only a small degree of “control” to determine which thoughts enter and which are turned away. He straddles the two worlds of conscious thought and dreaming reality with the confidence of a computer scientist, but with less imagination or intuition regarding how it is that our subjective experience of each reality might possibly arise within each layer.
It’s interesting to consider his idea that our memory of our experience of emotion is the catalyst for the spectacle of dreams, in spite of the fact that dream content may or may not relate specifically to the actual memory itself. The emotions we ignore or suppress in our waking life, according to the author, is once again presented to us in an imaginary vision, conjured as best as possible from whatever our memory and imagination can provide, which may seem completely unlike the original experience. Since the mind is “unconstrained” by our normal waking sensibilities, we cannot control how our thoughts manifest as we might while awake, and we must confront them in a way that we might never consider doing while conscious. Even in these scenarios, Gelernter acknowledges that “we never surrender completely” to these thoughts. We “feel” the memories, but still keep them from becoming “conscious” most of the time, only occasionally letting some “slip through.”
His description of dreams as something “we all know are hallucinations,” struck me as dismissive of any other possible explanation, and while we all may recognize that while we are asleep in our beds, our physical bodies are not fully participating in our dream scenario, anyone who has has any vivid dream of any sort can attest to the occasional physiological response that our bodies can produce in response to dream experiences. So little is known definitively about this area of subjective experience, that it seems a bit presumptuous to me to eliminate any other possible interaction by declaring that everyone knows dreams are hallucinations. Whatever dreams might be from a scientific perspective, it may well be that as we evolve as a species, we may yet discover some as-yet-undetected link to capacities which may reveal a transcendent or non-physical aspect to dreaming which does not require our bodies to participate.
In an interesting sidebar, David pointed out that even as cognitive creatures known for our capacity to reason, we also “…long for our minds to be flooded with powerful emotion, so that we can only feel and can’t think, so that we can’t reason.” In the middle of all that, he points to one of the most human longings we possess–one that is central to my own dilemma–“…we long for pure experience.” I’m not as sure as David seems to be that this implies we “only” want to feel, and in a way that prevents us from thinking and reasoning. Cognition, in its most essential human form, is an acknowledgement of what we are feeling, and memory seems to me to be more a recollection of how we once “felt,” in a particular moment.
Our all-too-human longings, if we are able to acknowledge them, and to contemplate the connection we have to them–the “why” of our obsession with them–informs us about our nature as human beings in the broadest sense, but more specifically as an individual spirit in the world. Residing in our innermost personal world, our longings take on a much greater meaning–one that can only be understood well when considered as an image composed of the events of our lives–the moment-to-moment record of our innermost life as it unfolds in our daily lives and in our dreams…
—–more to come—–