Friday, July 22, 2016

Dream On

A lot of people had suspected that dreams had hidden meanings. They had thought that dreams were God’s way of communicating with lesser beings.

According to Freud, Freud discovered how to suss out those hidden meanings.  He might not have gotten it right— he was almost certainly wrong—but a few gullible souls still believe it.

As Freud had it, your dreams are trying to tell you something. They have encrypted the message to the point where you will never decipher it without the help of a psychoanalyst. And that, my friends, takes a lot of time and a lot of money.

In truth, you will obtain no real benefit, no tangible profit from the exercise, but you will learn- as Wittgenstein remarked when his sister was treated by Freud-- to speak Freudian. It’s a dubious achievement, made more dubious by the fact that no one else speaks the language any more.

Or else, to be more charitable, psychoanalysis will teach you that you can invent a story to explain just about anything. You can invent stories that make sense of the inchoate jumble of your dreams. But you can also invent stories that explain heart disease, cancer, autism, schizophrenia, tropical infections and brain defects.

Psychoanalysis has never been shown to be therapeutically effective for any of it, but, for true believers, it doesn’t matter. Clinical failures are a test of faith.

Freud believed that dreams represented wishes fulfilled. They tell you what you really, really want, which is, to copulate with your mother. Where would we be without Freud?

None of these stories will cure what ails you, but you will end up feeling that you understand. You will not, in fact, understand anything, but you will feel like you belong to a group of superior intellects that knows things that others do not know. And you, like Wittgenstein’s sister, will be able to communicate in a special language. You will end up being a cult follower.

Of course, Freud was theorizing about all of this over a century ago. And he knew nothing of modern neuroscience and biology. We are not surprised to discover that today’s scientists have done better than Freud.

When today’s neuroscientists started looking into dreams they discovered that most dreams are banal. The bizarre rebus-like formulations that Freud worked on are rare, indeed.

Some neuroscientists do not accept that dreams are trying to tell us secrets, like the secrets of your heart’s desire. Jim Davies reports on some of the research:

Once, I dreamed I was at a man’s funeral. According to the deceased’s instructions, each of his toes were to be buried in tiny, individual coffins. When I woke up, I wondered, “What could it mean?”

According to some neuroscience research on dreams, like that of the Harvard psychiatrist Allan Hobson, the coffined toes might mean absolutely nothing. In his view, dreams are essentially narratives that our frontal brain areas piece together from chaotic brain signals originating from the brain stem. I might look back on that dream and derive some meaning from it after the fact, but it’s not like those coffined toes are my brain’s way of telling me something important.

Other neuroscientists have a different perspective. They see dreams as planning exercises, rehearsals for dealing with future dangers. Or better, policy analysis that projects the possible outcomes of different actions.

Davies continues:

Eighty percent of dreams are pretty banal, says Atti Revonsuo, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Skövde, in Sweden. We just think weird ones are relatively common because we are more likely to remember and talk about the weird ones (this is the availability bias in action).

But not all dream researchers agree that dreams are meaningless. Revonsuo argues that the reason we dream is, primarily, to practice how to react to (mostly ancestral) threats such as escaping, fighting, and so on.

It turns out that mental practice has been shown in over 30 sports to be as helpful as physical practice. A now-classic study of mental exercise, for example, shows that golfers who visualized putting a ball into a hole performed 30 percent better than they did on a prior attempt. There’s something about exercising your motor system in an inner, idealized environment that makes you perform better. But if you get too much mental practice you start to get too disconnected from reality. So, according to Revonsuo, dreaming about being chased can help you when you really are being chased because, even if the dream’s scary, it’s a form of “positive imagery.”

Further evidence that dreams are a form of threat simulation: They have a tendency to feature negative emotions—fearful, angry, and anxious dreams are more common than happy ones. And the things we dream about tend to be biased in the direction of ancient dangers rather than more modern ones. We dream about being chased by animals and monsters more than having our credit card defrauded, even though most of us have very little real-life experience of being chased by animals (or monsters).

And also:

So are dreams caused by noise from the brain stem or are they designed a kind of mental rehearsal? It could be that both of these theories could be right. Suppose that random information enters the brain, and our minds makes stories out of them in order to rehearse how to deal with threats. The mind would deal with the brain stem’s information like actors playing an improv game, taking random suggestions from the audience and building a story. Just because the inspiration might be random doesn’t mean that resulting story needs to be meaningless. I did improv on stage for over 15 years, and I know that you can make a scary or happy scene with any suggestions from the audience.

You can see that I have shifted the emphasis. I have discarded the trendy notion that life is a narrative. I know, as many of them do not, that the idea does not come to us from science. It comes from Plato’s Republic.

We do best, if we wish to be rigorous, not to confuse storytelling with game planning. Since I prefer to see life in terms of a game, with a plan and implementation, I have become slightly allergic to this emphasis on storytelling.

The difference is: if you are creating a story you might want to discover what is motivating the characters, what their true wishes are. But you will also be buying into the notion that life is a story, written out in advance. You will want to see how the story turns out.

If you are playing a game your moves and your actions will strongly influence the outcome. In the first you are a spectator; in the second you are actively participating.

When you are preparing yourself to face a potential threat, you are not entertaining yourself with a charming narrative. You are making a plan, one that you might need to execute.

If you are facing down a tiger or a flood without having planned for it, you will be totally at a loss. The moment the danger appears is not the moment you want first to have thought of how you will confront it. If it is, your chances of survival will be largely diminished.

Davies continues, pointing out that dreams are game plans for more ancient threats, threats that our brains learned how to address:

Further evidence that dreams are a form of threat simulation: They have a tendency to feature negative emotions—fearful, angry, and anxious dreams are more common than happy ones. And the things we dream about tend to be biased in the direction of ancient dangers rather than more modern ones. We dream about being chased by animals and monsters more than having our credit card defrauded, even though most of us have very little real-life experience of being chased by animals (or monsters).

And one might add that since people have at times been ruined by good fortune—think lottery winners—they have also developed the ability to plan for any kind of disruption, even the kind that represents an unexpected and unearned windfall. The same applies to changes in our circumstances, disruptions in our lives, from going away to school to getting married.

1 comment:

Ares Olympus said...

Dreams surely represent many things, and obviously have an evolutionary prehistory, for any animal that sleep. Its sensible to consider there are primal benefits that arose first, and later on other benefits arose, especially as our brains became more complex.

I don't know how deeply we can compare human dreams to other primates or mammals, but at least by brain scans, and things like REM, we can observe such states externally.

Wikipedia mentioned Freud's dream interpretations:

Myself, I always find Jung more interesting and he diverged from Freud:
Although not dismissing Freud's model of dream interpretation wholesale, Carl Jung believed Freud's notion of dreams as representations of unfulfilled wishes to be limited. Jung argued that Freud's procedure of collecting associations to a dream would bring insights into the dreamer's mental complex—a person's associations to anything will reveal the mental complexes, as Jung had shown experimentally—but not necessarily closer to the meaning of the dream.

Jung believed that archetypes such as the animus, the anima, the shadow and others manifested themselves in dreams, as dream symbols or figures. Such figures could take the form of an old man, a young maiden or a giant spider as the case may be. Each represents an unconscious attitude that is largely hidden to the conscious mind.

Jung believed that material repressed by the conscious mind, postulated by Freud to comprise the unconscious, was similar to his own concept of the shadow, which in itself is only a small part of the unconscious.

So if you think archetypes are "real", then a narrative approach would seem essential, like a real person you have to get to know. You can see archetypes as sort of higher level instincts that have autonomous existence within our unconscious and can make us aware of different parts of ourselves at different times, and these archetypes can in ways "fight it out" in our dreams when there are divergent demands upon us in our waking lives.

One strange fact is I don't often dream about people I'm closest to in the moment, although maybe more I'll dream about people in my life I have conflicts with, and to me it shows that I've internalized a part of myself in them, and my disagreements continue into the night, looking for the common ground between us.

Anyway, perhaps the "unconscious" is something like global warming, an imaginary creation of people trying to get money out of you, right?

But you have to wonder how we develop at all, unless there is a rather huge unknown part of ourselves doing work we can only barely see, yes, including simple things like learning how to bowl a perfect game, but also everything about how we see the world and our place in it, and how we can have "free will" when we have so many hidden inflences, inside, and outside of us.

Or E.F. Schumacher talks about self-awareness as the primary difference between humans and animals, but its a messy concept. In computing there's the idea of the Turing Machine, and its completely deterministic, even if you make Turing machines that can make Turing machines to run new programs, but imagine a Turing machine reprogramming itself, being aware of its own state, and other possible states, and writing itself to change its own states.

And self-awareness can become self-consciousness in an instant, and whatever process there can freeze, so whatever the unconscious is, it makes sense it would hides itself on purpose, like a microphone trying to avoid a squeeky feedback loop.

Its easy to dismiss any simplistic idea, and probably dreams can take care of themselves, but if you're in a time of transition, how can it hurt you to pay attention to lots of things. I only admit I'd hate almost all definitive intepretations.