Dreaming is chosen to represent auto-generating processes because it is a fundamental faculty common to humans and most animals, and because it can provide both experience and information. Dreaming is also so unusual that its better understanding can provide insights about reality itself.
The difference between a dream and the awake state
In a dream everything seems real, so the question may be raised what the difference between a dream and the awake state is and how we know that the awake state is not just another dream. Some thinkers have concluded that we cannot know, but this seems premature. The basic difference is, of course, that the self identifies with the physical body when awake, while in a dream it identifies only with an image (motor, perceptive and the volitional functions are partly inhibited). This has several consequences.
Exclusiveness - the images in dreams mostly originate from or are related to the experiences of the awake state. Yet, in dreams we are normally not aware of daily life (not only do we not experience it, but it does not exist for us), while when awake we are aware that dreaming exists. Even if a dreamer remembers the awake state while dreaming (as in lucid dreams, see below) it is never perceived as a subset of the dream. This indicates that the awake state includes dreams and therefore is more fundamental.
Inconsistency - although the perception of the world is to some extent a construct, it is more objectively consistent than a dream. A dream environment cannot prove us wrong, while waking reality can (if we believe that we can walk through the wall, we will, but only in a dream). Also, in the awake state there is a sense of continuity that is lacking in dreams, even after interruptions such as sleep.
Diminished self-control - with some exceptions, volition is also usually weaker in dreams. We are inertive and reactive rather than proactive. Although we can potentially use all the mental abilities as when awake, we usually behave instinctively (‘here and now' reactions are far more common than elaborate decisions). As Eccles writes:
A characteristic feature of most dreams is that the subject of the dream feels a most disturbing impotence. He is immersed in the dream experience, but feels a frustrating inability to take any desired action. Of course he is acting in the dream, but with the experience that in doing so he is a puppet. (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.374)
Instability - the awake state is more stable and consequently more predictable than a dream (it is governed by fixed, unchangeable laws - no miracles). On the other hand, dreams are not anchored by perception and constrained by physical laws. As a consequence, experiences are less filtered, range more widely, and are more direct and engaging. Dreams are richer, but also highly unstable and fluid (in this way they resemble non-material reality). Without an external support we rely on ourselves more, so it could be said that in dreams we are really what we are.
Attachment - when awake, the support of stable external structures makes distancing from the immediate experience easier (if we stop to think, the world is not going to change or disappear). The self has a chance to detach, which allows a person to become aware of the past, reflect, think about the future and remember dreams too. In a dream such a distance does not exist, which is why we do not remember awake reality while dreaming. This is similar to watching a programme that can be so engaging that we forget the world around us. Dreams are characterised by motion rather than rest, events are too flitting to give us time to reflect. They don't have pauses, and we are never bored. When nothing happens, we sleep. The dream state is akin to flow, being fully emerged in an immediate experience. This attracts the self and narrows awareness to the extent that we take it all for real (as long as it lasts). In other words, we are hypnotised by the inner reality.
Selective cognition - what is really puzzling is not that strange things happen in dreams, but how easily they are accepted as something normal. This indicates that not only the physical level is removed but also, at least partly, the other ways we construct reality. In dreams we do not have a sense of time, do not normally operate with abstract concepts and systems, and are less self-reflective. Memory in a dream is not suspended, but is highly selective, we remember only information that is relevant to the dream. We are also unable to sustain attention. In other words, we are more aware when awake than in dreams (from this perspective, dreams are a step backward, rather than forward). This, of course, is not to say that dreams are not an extremely valuable source of experience and information. To highlight this point, the purpose of dreams will be discussed next.
The purpose of dreams
Experiential - dreams are usually the result of re-balancing energy, so they can be understood as a complement to reality. While in reality our experiences affect our states of mind, in dreams a state of mind creates an experience. This interplay can be understood in the following way: our daily experiences sometimes create energy imbalances. They are not always dealt with or processed immediately, but placed in a ‘buffer' and left for later, when the input decreases. However, the conscious mind often forgets or is not inclined to recall them from the buffer, so they return into awareness when the control of the mind is not so strong and when the bombardment of external information is drastically reduced. In other words, either pleasant (e.g. sexual desire) or unpleasant (e.g. fear) internal experiences that have not been fully acknowledged and assimilated and need to be addressed, are brought to awareness. They produce images and can generate brain activity, as sensations do while awake (in fact, the same brain regions are activated by external stimuli and corresponding mental events in dreams). Considering, though, that an energy imbalance that triggers a dream is not attached to a specific form any more, the dream content does not necessarily corresponds to whatever has caused this imbalance. Dream images and events are usually chosen because they are readily available (from memory) and do not cause much resistance. In any case, dreaming enables us to safely deal with and integrate an experience and in that way achieve better balance. Although our agency may be somewhat limited, this process requires active responses (otherwise we would not need to be aware of our dreams). Resolution, therefore, happens in a dream, rather than in its interpretation.
Informational (or interpretative) - there is much disagreement about the meaning of dreams. On the one side of the spectrum is the view that dreams are meaningless images generated by random activity of neurons in the brain. This is unlikely to be the case: however bizarre, a dream is rarely totally fragmented (which is what can be expected if the above explanation is correct); they have a linked if not always coherent narrative, and even more importantly, a unifying perspective - the self (as in the awake state). On the other side of the spectrum is the view that dreams are messages from some hidden part of ourselves with universal symbols and syntax (found in psychodynamic approaches, and also in many popular books on dream interpretations). This is also not very plausible. Even Freud acknowledged that ‘a cigar in a dream is sometimes just a cigar'. It is more likely that dreams are idiosyncratic expressions of our states of mind (emotions, desires, worries, and other drives). They can be meaningful, but their meaning is specific to the person involved, rather than universal. Dreams do not follow a fixed logical structure though, but a chain of associations, which is why they are often confusing and difficult to interpret. In any case, a dream is an experience, not just a surrogate for life. Therefore, dreams are not necessarily meaningful, just as events in an awake state do not seem always to have an underlying meaning. This is not to say that the content of dreams is irrelevant. After all, they are products of one's own mind. However, the ways the person relates and reacts to dream events and the ways s/he connects them to other experiences is what provides valuable insights. If a dream is triggered by day-time experiences but can create a different scenario, a dream's actual content is clearly not intrinsically related to these experiences. So, we again have here an explicit side of a dream (images and events) and its implicit side (relations and ideas that they represent): the latter contributes to the understanding of meaning more.
Types of dreams
The above mainly relates to balancing dreams that are the most frequent. However, there are other types of dreams. Inertive dreams are a prolongation of the awake state (for example, if one plays chess all day, s/he may dream chequered surfaces). They are caused by the continuous firing of neurons that were already active and have not calmed down yet. There are also inspirational dreams in which an intent generated while awake is manifested (e.g. the dreams that have led to some scientific discoveries mentioned in the first part). Revelatory dreams involve tapping into or receiving information from external sources (strictly speaking, these experiences are not dreams at all, but they usually, although not always, happen while asleep because it is easier to get through then). It is also possible to become fully aware and take control over one's dream. This happens when the dreamer realises that s/he is dreaming (the self becomes aware that it is identifying only with an image). These are called lucid dreams. Lucid dreams can be very beneficial. They are, in a way, a training in direct self-control, without the reliance on the outside structures. On the other hand, they may prevent spontaneous experiences that are also important. Day dreaming or fantasising is another type of auto-generating process that creates images and experiences. They are similar to dreams, except that they happen while awake and are, therefore, much weaker (intense fantasies or hallucinations usually indicate a mental disorder). Fantasies create images that correspond to an internal state (e.g. the feeling of longing may trigger an image of home). These images make internal states more concrete and are a pre-verbal way to direct one's actions, but they may decrease motivation.
All the elements described in this part (The Mind) and in the previous part (The Being) are, of course, subject to dynamic processes. The most important ones are biological evolution, individual development, and social development. No account can be complete without addressing them, so the final part will focus on these subjects.
- . Activation-synthesis hypothesis, for example, leans in this direction (see Hobson & McCarley, 1977).