Consciousness and Dreaming

A few years ago, I wrote a book review of David Gelernter’s book, “The Tides of Mind,” which opened new avenues of thought, and in particular, I appreciated his use of the 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, his approach illustrates well the challenges presented by the subject.

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.

Reflecting recently on a particularly vivid dream experience, it was clear that the content was a combination of both objective and subjective components, somehow all meshed together into a collaborative panorama. It seemed at times that I was directing the action in the dream, and at other times I seemed to be casually observing the action. My sense of delight was real enough, but the dream seemed more of how I would imagine such an experience 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.

We now have access to research utilizing positron emission tomography that tracks the blood flow through the brain in the different stages of REM sleep and slow wave sleep, which can verify the findings in sleep studies in a reasonable fashion, but the ability to focus in on the metabolic isolation of the regions of the brain that consolidate and retrieve memories is perhaps the most interesting element of the current state of dream research.

The integration by the brain of visual patterns conducted in the subcortical regions is 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, does contribute in an important way to our understanding of the process which takes place while dreaming, but it doesn’t explain how we are somehow able to conjure images that have never previously occurred in our living experience. 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.

Dream Journal Entry

“I came in to the back of the room. You were at the piano, playing a lively classical piece, unaware of my presence. You were focused on the music. I could feel you; your focus—your radiant inner world—the music always brought it out in you. It was also the one place where we never had any conflict.


As I approached slowly from the back of the room, I imagined us dancing along with the music—a spotlight shining on the middle of the dance floor following us. The diversion to thoughts about the dance only lasted a moment, until I once again resumed my approach slowly.


I was close enough now to see your fingers gliding across the keys. You were lost in the music, and I was lost in a reverie of a scene in which I imagined slipping up close to you, placing my hands gently on your shoulders, without disturbing your performance. For a moment, I was standing behind you, swaying in unison to the undulating rhythm of the music, but quickly snapped back, realizing that I was still behind you approaching slowly, coming around on your blind side.


Barely breathing, deeply engaged in my dream state, you still don’t seem to know, nor do you show any signs of knowing, that I am present. I am hitching a ride—with the harmony, with the sounds, with the beautiful melody. I’m on the very edge of where you might see me if you turn your head slightly, so I stop. I close my eyes, bringing me all the way to the heights…”

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.

Wishing all of the readers here, all the best in the coming year, and look forward to sharing more with you all in 2020.

John H.

2 thoughts on “Consciousness and Dreaming

  1. I have come to the odd stage where I am no longer interested in what the scientists say about consciousness. I favor panpsychism – if I had to choose a philosophy of consciousness that is what i would choose.

    But I am all too well aware that that is a “belief” and that as some may believe in god, I believe in something rather vaguer and more immanent than the traditional view of what makes the universe tick.

    At my stage in life, and probably in yours, perhaps experience of what is out there takes precedence over what people say may be out there.

    I want to “feel” god, or reality, or universal consciousness, and sometimes I believe I get a glimpse. Whether through dreams, waking or otherwise, or quiet and silent thought.

    What a strange universe we live in and how much more wonderful it seems than can be realized by those still trapped in the conventional lines of thought dictated by our materialistic society.

    Pure experience – yes, John. I am with you on that.

    I do not deny the use of reason, but for those of us who have struggled their whole lives with “reason” and the intellect, there comes a time to move on. To experience.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. Your response, as always, leads to further examination and elaboration of the subject at hand, and points directly to several important aspects of my posting.

      Panpsychism enjoys an increasing range of agreement across a number of philosophical positions and spiritual traditions these days, in spite of the general disagreement about how it either requires one to embrace dualism or to disagree with it. The essential thought governing panpsychism is that consciousness is a fundamental feature of reality, and that all matter contains elements or aspects which possess some form of awareness, which, in the case of cognitive creatures like us, results in a subjectively self-aware being. It is a fascinating area of current study in philosophy and is gaining momentum among modern thinkers. The funny thing is, these ideas have been expressed in the writings of philosophers like Plato, Spinoza, Leibniz, and William James for some time already, but are only now receiving more attention. Even more striking, are the similarities of thought between such philosophers and the Eastern philosophy, most prominently in Hinduism, where “Brahman” is described as the universal consciousness you spoke of–the underlying consciousness that is the “foundation of all reality.” Whereas Hinduism is rightly categorized as a “belief,” in the religious sense, the efforts to emphasize “the conventional lines of thought,” utilizing “reason and the intellect,” are viewed as “rational,” but both approaches require acceptance of ineffable aspects within them.

      My guess is that you, and many others also, have already “experienced” such moments, where what you “feel” is this very ubiquitous foundational aspect to our existence as cognitive creatures, to which you did not necessarily ascribe its fundamental nature. Some time ago I wrote about The Way It Feels To Be Human and even though we appear to be making enormous strides in our scientific acumen generally, we still need to catch up with our subjective experience of existence, and to integrate what we “feel” with what we “know.” My efforts here, now beginning my tenth year blogging on the subject, are encouraged greatly by your exclamation of the need to seek more…to experience!

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