The Intermediaries of the Mind

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Written by Dr. Nash Popovic

We will discuss in this part three mental faculties that enable experience and information: perception, memory and learning. We will also address dreaming as an example of auto-generating processes. We hope to demonstrate that these faculties can be better understood if the roles of both material and non-material aspects are recognised.

Some issues related to perception have been already addressed. The focus here will be only on one essential question: how are nerve signals turned into perception of the world? Neuroscience and other related disciplines have not provided a satisfactory answer and are unlikely to do so as long as they operate within the presently dominant paradigm. More than forty years on and Eccles’ comment (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.225) is still relevant:

There is a general tendency to overplay the scientific knowledge of the brain, which regretfully, also is done by many brain scientists and scientific writers. We are told that the brain “sees” lines, angles, edges, and simple geometrical forms and that therefore we will soon be able to explain how a whole picture is “seen” as a composite of this elemental “seeing”. But this statement is misleading. All that is known to happen in the brain is that neurones of the visual cortex are caused to fire trains of impulses in response to some specific visual input. Neurons responding to various complications of this specific visual input are identified but there is no scientific evidence concerning how these feature-detection neurones can be subjected to the immense synthetic mechanism that leads to a brain process that is “identical” with the perceived picture.

It is known that retinal processing is involved in detecting intensity and wavelength contrast; early cortical areas in the brain are involved in orientation, curvature, spatial frequencies and movement; and high visual areas (in the parietal and temporal lobe) process sensations about the spatial relationships and the identity of visual objects. This, however, is not sufficient. As far back as 1938, famous neurophysiologist and Nobel laureate, Charles Sherrington, writes:

A star we perceive. The energy scheme deals with it, describes the passing of radiation thence into the eye, the little light-image of it formed at the bottom of the eye, the ensuing photo-chemical action of the retina, the trains of action potentials travelling along the nerve to the brain, the further electrical disturbance in the brain, the action-potentials streaming thence to the muscles of eye-balls and of the pupil, the contraction of them sharpening under the light-image and placing the seeing part of the retina under it. The ‘seeing’? That is where the energy-scheme forsakes us. It tell us nothing of any ‘seeing’. Much, but not that. (1940, p. 248)

Although neuronal activity without doubt contributes to perceiving, we are not even aware of such activity – we operate with words, images and feelings, not with neurons. This is why we need to draw a distinction between the terms sensation and perception. Putting it simply, while sensation is about touch, vision and audition, perception is about feeling, seeing and hearing. Perception can be defined as the process of transforming sensations into information or experience.

The first point that needs to be made is that perception ensues from the relation between the subject and the object. If this statement sounds obvious, we should remember that in a great part of the history of psychology, everything possible has been done (without much result) to find an alternative explanation that would exclude the one who experiences and is aware. Hence the necessity of reinstating the subject as an essential ingredient that transforms sensations into perception. Perceiving sensations as meaningful images, for example, also involves, in addition to electro-chemical processes in the brain, awareness, intent and the self, without which meaning would not be possible. Thus, consistently with the previous posits, we propose that the non-material aspect plays an essential role in transforming sensations into perceptions – but how does this happen?

It is not controversial to note that when we perceive something, the brain is prompted to produce coherent wave patterns which are otherwise in a chaotic state. In the 1970s, neuroscientist Walter Freeman conducted research on the olfactory perception of rabbits. He established that what distinguishes the response to one smell from another does not depend on which neurons fire or what part of the olfactory bulb (the brain region associated with smell) is affected. Rather, it is determined by the relative amplitude of the response in different parts of the bulb. If no smell is introduced, an irregular, chaotic EEG (measurement of the electrical activity of the brain) through all possible frequencies and local amplitudes can be detected. When the rabbits were exposed to a familiar odour, their EEG patterns immediately move from a chaotic to a coherent state. An unknown smell causes a modification in the collective amplitude pattern of all neurons in the olfactory bulb. Thus, it is the production of a coherent wave pattern that matters, not specific neurons. A comparable principle is likely to govern vision, in which case it is possible that these patterns can form something like holograms. This is, however, only half of the story. As already argued, the wave oscillations produced in the brain need awareness to be perceived as meaningful images (a hologram too needs the interference of two light waves to be created). Perception is also not passive (which is why it is very different from the processes that happen in a camera, computer or TV). This is an active, creative process, involving several interrelated activities that make information and experience out of neuronal excitation.

  • Engaging (attention, interest, curiosity, exploratory drive, seeking sensations and stimuli) is innate to living organisms. Its importance is highlighted by the experiments with kittens performed by Held and Hein in 1963. They created an apparatus called a ‘kitten carousel’, which allows two kittens to have exactly the same visual experience, but only one of them can initiate movement. When the kittens were tested, it was found that the ‘active’ one could see perfectly well, while the ‘passive’ one behaved as if it was not able to see much, although there was nothing wrong with its eyes or optic nerves. It seems that they could not fully develop a perceptual ability without active participation.
  • Selecting: as already mentioned, selecting from all possible stimuli is an active process, although over time it becomes mostly automatic.
  • Organising: the materials of perception are not just received, but they are also combined and structured. Perceptual organisation groups the smaller units into larger ones. The principal organising tendency is to identify part of the world as the target (the figure) and view the rest as the background. Other organising tendencies include ‘the law of Prägnanz’ (the law of simplicity), good continuation, closure, and the laws of grouping, such as proximity and similarity.
  • Correcting: rather than being perceived mechanically, sensory input is continually interpreted, as demonstrated by perceptual constancy (of brightness, size and shape). It refers to a phenomenon that the perception of invariant object properties remains constant despite changes in proximal stimulation (e.g. we always tend to perceive grass as green, although with decreased brightness at dusk it should be perceived as brown). Brightness constancy appears to be innate, whereas size and shape constancy are largely influenced by experience – the interpretation of reality develops over time and it becomes ubiquitous. This is not to say that we ‘lose touch’ with reality. Our perception normally continues to correspond (in some measure) to something real ‘out there’. After all, a fly, cat or human being may perceive a table leg in different ways, but they all try to avoid bumping into it. In fact, our interpretations often reflect reality better than sensations themselves, as exemplified by shape constancy, a subcategory of the above mentioned perceptual constancy: the shape of an object such as a door, for instance, is perceived as constant, even though the retinal image changes with a change of an angle (e.g. if we look at the door from aside, its rectangular shape becomes trapezoid, but we still perceive it as a rectangle).

The above indicates that perception is a complex process: not only attention but also intention are important ingredients in the alchemy of transforming sensations into perception: they are the properties of life, and life only.

Some possible questions

If we are actually aware of processes in the brain, why does it seem that we are aware of the external reality?
To function efficiently, it is necessary to have an impression that we are aware of the outside world rather than an intermediary. If we were aware of receiving impulses from the brain, we could not identify with the body. This identification is significant because it enables correlating the materials of perception with their real source – the world outside. In other words, it makes possible to distinguish between the external and the internal.

How do we separate what comes from the outside and what comes from inside us?
Identifying with the body is necessary but not sufficient to separate the internal and the external. Distinguishing whether the waves are triggered by sensory input or are auto-generated (as in dreams) is not straightforward. In fact, what is the internal and what is the external is gradually learned and relies on many factors (an ability to exercise intentional control, continuity, relative stability, confirmation by other senses, shared experiences, etc.). Without their support, external reality could be perceived as internal, or even more easily, the internal can be perceived as the external.

Why do we see images, rather than energy configurations?
For reasons of simplification. We perceive a table, for example, in a way we do because any associated energy that is unimportant for physical existence is excluded. Being more condensed, narrower perception is also more stable. Direct perceptions that involve all energy configurations are undoubtedly wider, but it is much harder to make sense out of them.

How do we choose what is the figure and what is the background?
This depends on the characteristics of the information (e.g. the spatial unity that tells us what is in front), the habituated selection procedures that may be biologically or socially conditioned, and intent (as when we are looking for somebody in a crowd, for example).

How does perception relate to mental constructs?
Perception is, of course, essential to mental constructs, but they also greatly influence perception. We tend to project our constructs onto what we perceive and fill in perceptual gaps with them.

We can see that perception is an indispensable process of the mind, but it is not sufficient. In order to accumulate information and experience, other mental faculties such as memory and learning are needed.

Memory is another important and complex phenomenon. Although psychology and neuroscience have made substantial progress, memory is still poorly understood and some important questions remain dubious. We will attempt to address them by examining three components of memory: encoding (memorising), storing, and retrieval (recalling, remembering).


There is no doubt that the brain plays a crucial role in the encoding process. A still quite popular view is that each encoded item of information or experience creates a specific ‘groove’ along neuronal paths, implying that every new piece of information is encoded locally. There is, however, ample evidence against this possibility (see, John, 1972, as one of the earliest accounts). It is more likely that encoding is an analogue, distributed but integrated process, akin to a field modifying activity (which fits well with the corresponding interpretation of perception). Such an encoding is conducive to an interface with awareness. However, intentional awareness does not always seem to be essential. Encoding can be mostly automatic – we remember many things that we have never attempted to remember. This encoding (which, perhaps, can be paralleled to the ‘memory’ of the immune system, for example) is likely to rely mostly on the brain. To be encoded, a stimulus needs to reach a memory threshold, which can be achieved by sufficient intensity (of stimuli or our reaction to stimuli) or repetition.

Deliberate encoding is qualitatively different. While the automatic one is difficult to influence, deliberate encoding is controlled to some extent by the subject. Attention (which cannot be simply reduced to brain functioning) plays a significant role in this case. This convergent awareness can enforce an encoding pattern and can also help us to see connections and relations rather than isolated pieces of information. The contributing factors to maintaining attention and encoding include interest, effort and meaning. Meaningful features lead to an easier organisation – and hence a better memory (it is much easier to remember a meaningful sentence than a meaningless one, for example). Intent seems to be important too. For example, an infant can make many unsuccessful attempts to catch a ball, but remembers the successful one. This is because such an attempt leads to a decrease of the tension created by intent, so it is retained[1]. Therefore, at least in some cases, encoding involves more than just mechanical brain activity. Encoding is, of course, only the first step. The next one is storing.


Despite extensive research, the issue of where memories are stored is still surrounded with uncertainty. In order to address this question, it is necessary to postulate two aspects of memory: implicit[2] and contextual, that can be linked to the previously discussed content and form. This applies to even simple, conditioned memories. Based on his experiments with rats, Karl Lashley established two principles: memories are non-locally distributed (no part of the brain is the memory storage – not only that memories are stored in different parts of the brain, but neuronal correlates of every memory are distributed). The other is that cortical regions are interchangeable with respect to memory. However, if different parts of the brain can be used to execute a learned activity, a ‘blueprint’ for that activity is unlikely to be in the brain, although the brain can be used to situate and exercise it within a particular context. Thus, we propose that implicit memory is stored as energy structures in the non-material aspect associated with mental life, while contextual memories rely on their neural correlates. This would account for the same neurons being used for different memories (despite their huge number, there are not enough neurons for the separate storage of all the bits of information throughout a life-span), and why they do not get mixed up. It can also explain re-creating memories after brain injures (although, in this case, association plays a role too) – a weak and unstable memory blueprint in the rings can activate modules in the brain open to it.

The above does not mean that the brain is not essential, especially regarding short term and contextual memory. Through synaptic connections, neurons create a network that can help establish and reinforce energy patterns. The soul has only a limited ability to maintain the form without the support of the brain; non-material energy is more fluid, so stabilising a form such as an image is difficult. Brain injuries and amnesia indicate that especially those elements of the mind that relate to interaction with material reality (language ability, face recognition, etc.) are heavily dependent on the brain, which is to be expected. Such pieces of information do not have a lasting value – there is no need for the soul to remember the names of streets or politicians, for example. This bifurcation of the explicit and implicit aspects of memory happens spontaneously, because the form (a material aspect) of information or experience is too ‘heavy’ to be preserved as such in the soul[3].



Retrieval can be understood as the process of reconstructing mental configurations that have already been laid down. The brain, mind and self/intent seem to all be involved in this process. Let’s start with the brain.

The hippocampus (a part of the limbic system) clearly plays a significant role in learning and memory. Patients with a removed hippocampus find it difficult to recall events after the removal (ibid., p.391). However, this is not to say that the hippocampi are the seat of retrieval. It is more like a relay station that helps short term memory transition into long term memory that is largely located in the various areas of the cerebral cortex (ibid., p.392). It is interesting in this respect that the memory of events preceding the hippocampal destruction shows a continued recovery. Moreover, those who have trouble with the recall can apparently have dreams that refer to events or persons forgotten in the awake state, and some of them have galvanic skin reactions when shown photographs of people that they had known but cannot remember. This indicates that experiences are not consolidated, rather than memory traces being completely lost – what is lost is a reference, an ability to verbalise, recognise or put these experiences into contexts. In other words, connectivity between the content and form is missing. This may be the main reason for the seemingly irrational frustration that those with brain injuries experience when they are exposed to retrieval tasks[4].

The same is also evident in ordinary retrieval attempts, as for example, when we search for a word. We have the pre-verbal sense of meaning (the content), but we are looking for an expression (a form). When found, the word is immediately recognised as the correct one. Eccles writes:

We have a kind of diagrammatic representation of the thing we wish to find before we try to find it… when we really find it, we are usually quite certain that we have reached what we were looking for. (ibid., p.505)

It is possible that we have the sense of what we are looking for because the content, as a particular energy configuration without a form, already exists. Intent leads to a match between the meaning of what we want to say and a corresponding word (that, of course, requires neuronal correlates). This notion is further supported by the feeling-of-knowing phenomenon: even when we fail to recall the actual memory, we still may have a ‘feeling’ about it (e.g. we can predict accurately whether we will be able to recognise this information). Recognition, therefore, is not based on image matching, but matching the content and the form. For example, we may not be able to describe or imagine a person that we have met before, but when they appear we still recognise them. Experimental work that analysed the wave patterns produced by the brain seems to concur on the importance of meaning:

…the differences in readout wave-shapes seem to depend upon… the specific meaning of the signal. (John, 1972, p.859)

But what enables this connection in the first place?

It is now well known that the brain does not work linearly and it is widely accepted that parallel processes take place, forming neural networks. We may have to go even further, though. Perhaps it would be more accurate to suppose that the brain works in a systemic way, following the principles of fields (created by impulses travelling through synaptic connections). This could account for the relative plasticity of the brain and why remembering one element illuminates surrounding elements. It can also explain flash-bulb memory – one strong stimulus increasing the clarity of a memory and of all other elements present at that moment. Eccles postulates that:

…the self-conscious mind scans this modular array, being able to receive from and give to only those modules that have some degree of openness. However by this action on open modules, it can influence closed modules by means of impulse discharges along the association fibres from the open modules… and may in this manner cause the opening of closed modules. (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.367)

If the non-material aspect plays a role in retrieval, it can be expected that the formation of specific wave patterns is crucial, rather than the activity of individual neurons. This too is supported by empirical research.:

…when a specific memory is retrieved, a temporal pattern of electrical activity peculiar to that memory is released in numerous regions of the brain. To that released set of wave-shapes corresponds the average firing pattern of ensembles of neurons diffusely distributed throughout these widespread anatomical domains. Individual neurons within these ensembles display different momentary discharge patterns but the individual average firing patterns converge to the ensemble mean. (John, 1972, p.862)

When the connection is established in awareness, various elements such as an image, sentence, thought or feeling, remain ‘entangled’ and one element can recall the others (the strength of these connections depends on the underlying principles that govern in a particular situation). A recall may be based on an association between images, words, or feelings, so an initial trigger can be sensory, abstract and affective. For instance, a feeling can recall an image, and conversely an image can recall a feeling. Any cue can trigger one of these elements, which in turn can bring about the others (this happens though more often as a burst rather than a chain). Here is one familiar example: we may not remember a dream we had until we hear or see a detail that is related to that dream, and then the whole dream suddenly comes back. These cues can enter our awareness accidentally as a part of a different context (like two train-tracks that cross at a certain point, which enables a train to pass from one track to another). The context, therefore, can affect a recall positively (via associations), but a change of context can be inhibitive (it is difficult to remember a dream when awake because it is out of context). This is why it is easier to recall something if we are in the same environment, mood or mental state as when we learnt it. It is interesting that new experiences, changing perspective or different moods can modify some elements of a memory, or even create new ones. Memories are not only retrieved but also to some extent created. There is no doubt that this process depends much on the subject and the first person perspective:

The very essence of memory is subjective, not mechanical reproduction; and essential to that subjective psychology is that every remembered image of a person, place, idea, or object inevitably contains, whether explicitly or implicitly, a basic reference to the person who is remembering. (Rosenfield, 1995, p.42)

Retrieval is, of course, not always deliberate – some events from memory can appear in awareness spontaneously, but there is a curious difference between intentional and unintentional retrieval. The electrical stimulation of brain regions of patients under local anaesthesia (when intent is not present) can trigger only ‘passive’ memories, in which the patient is an observer not a participator (e.g. watching or hearing the actions or speech of others). The memories that would require an active or intimately experiential involvement of the self (making decisions, carrying out skilled acts, speaking, writing, tasting food, sexual or painful experiences) are conspicuously absent (Penfield and Perot, 1963). This implies that the self and intent play an important proactive role at least in some instances of retrieval. Eccles writes:

In retrieving the self-conscious mind is continuously searching to recover memories of words, phrases, pictures by an action which is not just a mere scanning over the modular array, but it is probing into the modular array in order to evoke responses from it and in order to try to discover the preferred modules, the ones which are related to the memory by their patterned organisation. In that way the self-conscious mind is, as it were, taking a very active role in recovering memories which it regards as being desirable at that time. (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p. 504)

In summary, retrieval involves the material and non-material component of a living organism as well as that amphibian – the mind. However, each of them is dominant at different stages of the process. While the intent is dominant in a search or generation stage, the mind dominates at the identification stage[5]. The brain is indispensable for situating the memory in context. Let’s now turn to a very special kind of remembering: learning and knowledge.

[1] Later in life though, it is quite common that a failure is perceived more intensely and as more important, so it is remembered better – and is likely to recur.
[2] The term implicit memory is sometimes used in psychological literature differently, to refer to alleged unconscious, non-deliberate memory. For the reasons why this is inadequate, see Butler & Berry, 2001.
[3] Some empirical support and further details of this dual nature of mental events can be found in the segment ‘The form and the content’.
[4] See Rosenfield (quoting Kurt Goldstein), 1995, p.26
[5] For further clarification of these two stages, see Zechmeister & Nyberg, 1982.

Learning is the process of acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviours, skills, values, or preferences. The ability to learn is possessed by humans, animals, and as some suggest even plants (via a calcium based signalling network). It is also common nowadays to say that machines or computers learn, but this is a misnomer. Computers are not aware and are completely passive; meta-algorithms may be used to streamline their output, which may resemble in appearance the simplest forms of learning, such as conditioning, but, as we will see shortly, this does not amount to learning. As already argued, learning is not possible without awareness. We can know only what we have been aware of (the claim that one can learn a foreign language while sleeping is by and large unfounded). But this is not all.

The major difference between learning and retrieval/remembering is that the former is a more active process. For example, you may encode a scenery or event while on a holiday spontaneously – without much effort or intent to do so. On the other hand, knowledge acquisition usually requires at least some degree of purposeful activity. If no active effort is made, hardly any learning can take place. Experiments with animals (e.g. the ‘kitten carousel’ mentioned earlier, p.183) and some observations in education show that the more proactive learning is, the better. In fact, we can distinguish several ‘gradients’ of learning on that basis.

Associative learning (i.e. reflex and instrumental conditioning) is a simple form of learning. For example, if you ring a bell every time when a dog gets food, eventually it will start salivating on hearing a bell even in the absence of food. However, it seems that even this type of learning is not just a blind reflex. So the term reflex conditioning has a somewhat misleading connotation – animals or humans are not completely passive in this process, as these words imply. It is experimentally proven that at least the initial stages of conditioning involve cortical activity, indicating that any response is a purposeful act probably motivated by goal attainment. Thus, it is more plausible to assume, in line with Popper and Eccles’ reasoning (1977, 503), that the stimuli incite particular expectations (perhaps in the form of an image such as food) that then trigger a certain response. Of course, once an associative link is established, the process will become automatic. But, as the aforementioned neurosurgeon Penfield points out, ‘every learned reaction that becomes automatic was first carried out within the light of conscious attention and in accordance with understanding of the mind’ (1975, p.59). This is consistent with the notion that a reward actually contributes to motivation rather than learning, as ‘latent learning’ experiments confirm. Animals (and humans) learn even if they do not have any incentive to do so, as a result of innate drives to explore and form cognitive maps.

Memorising is a more complex form of learning that involves a deliberate strengthening of some synaptic connections through repetition. It can be cognitive (memorising certain information) and kinaesthetic (learning new skills through instructions, trial and error, or imitating others). The role of awareness and intent are greater in this type of learning than in conditioning. Although we may spontaneously remember some isolated pieces of information, memorising generally requires active participation (investing an effort, attention and concentration).

Insight learning is yet another type. After a period of sustained effort, it seems that we get an insight in an instant, with a sudden grasp of a concept that has been previously eluding us. Something clicks when we discover a new, central connection that reveals a larger picture or other possibilities and links, like a piece of a jigsaw that reveals where the other parts fit. These insights enable the integration of new information in a meaningful way. They can be understood as a product of the cumulative pressure that a sustained intent creates and often require a period of incubation (seeming inactivity). Certain mental faculties (such as imagination and creativity) or certain procedural methods such as experimentation may facilitate such learning, but essentially this is quite an indefinable process – and not reserved for humans only. It is observed that some primates are also capable of learning in this way (see, for example, Köhler, 1925). Insight learning also has its kinaesthetic equivalent. For example, when we learn to swim or ride a bike, we try for a while and at some point is suddenly clicks – we just get it. There is no doubt though that at least the first phase of this type of learning requires proactive involvement of the self.

Understanding is the most complex and arguably the most intriguing type of learning. Interestingly, understanding also aids memorising – it is much easier to remember a text if we understand it. Understanding, though, cannot be reduced to conditioning or memorising. For example, an infant puts her hand in a fire, gets burned and ‘learns’ not to do it anymore. Scientists at the beginning of the 20th century carried pieces of radioactive material in their pockets because they glowed, got leukaemia, and ‘learned’ not to do it anymore. This is, however, very different from understanding why fire burns skin, and why a radioactive material kills. We learn meanings, or the relations of one piece of information or stimulus to another – this is what differentiates understanding from memorising. Such learning often involves extrapolations – awareness of principles behind the specific events, procedures or tasks, which again requires an active self. Understanding is a big leap in knowledge acquisition because it allows transferability, and therefore multiple applications (e.g. once you understand a language, you may use it in, for all practical purposes, an infinite number of conversations).

The Dialectic of Learning

The result of learning is knowledge. Learning creates a network, it is a process of constructing information and experience (the materials of awareness) by selecting, separating, linking, sorting, generalising and storing information on the basis of formal or heuristic principles. Knowledge is this network. Knowledge acquisition starts from setting boundaries to possibilities in order to open new ones on a different level. In this way, learning at first limits, but then expands one’s freedom. For instance, learning to ride a bike narrows the possible ways of riding a bike (excluding all the ‘bad’ ones), but knowing how to do it well enables a greater freedom of movement. Learning chess rules limits the number of possible moves, but it allows the freedom to play chess in a meaningful way and endless combinations within the given boundaries. This of course does not refer only to practical skills, but to empirical and theoretical knowledge too. For example, learning and understanding how physical forces work limits the number of possible interpretations, but this enables the knowledge to be applied much more widely, which in turn opens further possibilities.

The Purpose

Understanding – arguably the most advanced form of learning – does not in fact have a significant survival value in evolutionary terms. All other species on this planet have survived without it, so early humans would probably have survived too. However, this type of learning is indispensable for the development of the mind[6]. In turn, the mind enables much faster social and individual processes to take over biological evolution. We argued that learning is not possible without awareness, but knowledge in turn affects awareness. Without connecting information in a network, only awareness of confusion and noise would increase. In addition to this organising quality, learning is cumulative and has the capacity to make a whole. This also contributes to the expansion of awareness. Polanyi points out that ‘when we recognize a whole, we see its parts differently from the way we see them in isolation’ (1969, p.140). Furthermore, knowledge influences intent by, for example, providing routes to its realisation. Thus, learning contributes to the development of both awareness and intent, and is one of the principal ways of configuring the energy of the soul.

So far, we have considered mental processes that are to a large extent the result of an interaction with the environment. However, there is another kind of mental process that an organism itself creates. They can be called auto-generating processes. Fantasies, imaginations and dreams belong to that category. Let’s consider dreams as a representative example.

[6] If understanding is epiphenomenal to physical survival, perhaps physical survival serves the development of mind – rather than the other way around.

Dreaming is chosen to represent auto-generating processes because it is a fundamental faculty common to humans and most animals, and because it is quite unique. Dreaming is so unusual that its better understanding can shed light on the working of the mind as a whole. Let’s start first by comparing dreaming and being awake.

The Difference Between the Dream State and the Awake State

In a dream everything seems real, so we may wonder what the difference is between dreaming and being awake. The basic distinction is, of course, that the self identifies with the physical body when awake, while in a dream it identifies only with an image (motor, perceptual and the volitional functions are partly inhibited). This has several consequences.

Imparity – the images in ordinary 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). In contrast, when awake we are aware of dreaming and can often recall some of our dreams. Even if a dreamer remembers the awake state while dreaming (as in lucid dreams, see below), awake reality is never perceived as a subset of the dream. This indicates that the awake state and dreams operate on different levels of organisation.

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). Moreover, in the awake state there is a sense of continuity even after interruptions such as sleep – which is lacking in dreams.

Reduced self-control – with some exceptions, volition is also usually weaker in dreams – we are 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). Eccles’ statement may be an exaggeration, but it still rings a bell:

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 – being governed by fixed, unchangeable laws, the awake state is more stable and consequently more predictable than a dream. On the other hand, dreams are neither anchored by perception nor constrained by physical laws. As a result, experiences are less filtered, range more widely, and are more direct and engaging. Dreams are richer, but also highly unstable and fluid. Without an external input, we only rely on ourselves for the content, so dreams might reflect better who and what we really 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 dreams such a distance does not exist. They are characterised by motion rather than rest, events are too fleeting to give us time to reflect. Dreams don’t have pauses, and we are never bored. When nothing happens, we just sleep. This engagement narrows awareness to the extent that we take it all for real while it lasts. This is akin to the state of flow (being fully emerged in an immediate experience), or to watching something so engaging that we forget the world around us. In other words, we are hypnotised by the inner reality, and consequently we are normally oblivious to awake reality while dreaming.

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 the mental scaffoldings that support our constructs on all levels when we are awake are not fully operational. In dreams, we do not have a sense of time, we 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 – concentrating in dreams is very difficult, which also affects our cognitive processes.

How dreams are generated

The above summarises many differences between the awake state and dreams, but this is not to say that dreams are inferior to the awake state. They are just different, that’s all. In fact, dreams can be understood as a complement to reality. While in reality our experiences affect our state of mind, in dreams our mental states create experiences (it is interesting that the same brain regions are activated by mental events in dreams and corresponding external stimuli). Dreams are a product of a complex pattern of energy oscillations. We will see shortly that these oscillations can be initiated purely by neuronal activity, by oscillations that are the result of an interface between the material and the non-material, and also by oscillations in the non-material aspect of the person. They may involve transpersonal experiences too, but these are not ordinary dreams, which is our focus here.

The purpose of dreams

Dreams can contribute, in their unique way, to all three dimensions of the mind discussed earlier: information, experience and agency.

Informational dimension: there is much disagreement about the value of dreams in this respect. On the one side of the spectrum is the view that dreams are generated by random activity of neurons in the brain and are not, therefore, telling us anything useful[7]. 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 a coherent narrative, and even more importantly, a unifying perspective – the self (as in the awake state). Besides, if dreams don’t have any informational value, why would we tend to remember them? 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 not very plausible either. It is more likely that dreams are idiosyncratic expressions of our states of mind. This is to say, their meaning is specific to the person involved, rather than universal. And, just as it is sometimes difficult to cognitively grasp events when awake, it can also be hard to tease out this kind of meaning from dreams. This is because dreams do not follow a fixed logical structure, but a chain of associations, which often makes them confusing and difficult to interpret if we stay on the dream’s surface. The meaning of a dream is usually shared with some day-time experiences, even if its form (scenario) can be very different. Hence, the form of a dream is not intrinsically related to its real content (to its meaning). This is another example of a mental event having an explicit side (dream images and events) and its implicit side (relations and ideas that they represent): meaning is found in the latter. In other words, to understand a dream, we should not focus on its form but on what it represents. The ways we make connections are what provides valuable insights. An ‘Aha!’ moment comes from making a link – what sort of link and how it is done is individual. There are, however, some special kinds of dreams that can have much greater informational value. Inspirational dreams in which an intent generated while awake is manifested; such dreams 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 are not dreams, but they usually, although not always, happen while asleep because it is easier to get through then). There are many accounts of such dreams, especially in spiritual traditions, but they are generally quite rare. Experiential and agency dimensions may be more prominent in dreams.

Experiential dimension: dreams are without doubt experiences in their own right, but these experiences can come from various sources:

  • The brain-body – dreams can be caused by the continuing firing of neurons that were overactive while awake (e.g. if you play chess all day, you may dream chequered surfaces). The bodily needs can be also reflected in dreams (e.g. thirst, hunger, cold, sexual urge).
  • The mind – dreams can be a product of psychological imbalances created by daily experiences and our responses to them. These imbalances are not always processed straight away and are left in a sort of mind ‘buffer’ to deal with them later. However, the conscious mind often forgets or is not inclined to recall them from the buffer, so they return into awareness when its control is weaker and the bombardment of external stimuli is drastically reduced. In other words, whatever is not fully acknowledged and processed is brought to awareness and acted out in dreams.
  • The soul – dream experiences may also be triggered by the realignments of energy in the non-material aspects of the person.

In summary, it is all about harmonising energy on different levels. However, the energy fluctuations that generate dreams are not attached to a specific form, so the dream images and events do not necessarily correspond to whatever has triggered them. Whatever first comes to mind by association and does not cause much resistance is used to give a form to a dream. Regarding this dimension, dreams are meaningful if they feel meaningful.

Agency dimension: we mentioned above that our self-control or will is somewhat reduced in dreams. However, intent may be more easily exercised as it is less restricted by physical reality and other factors that influence agency when awake. In our dreams, our intentions can instantly become realisations. Every dream is, in fact, an opportunity to exercise one’s intent. So what’s happening in dreams can be an indicator of the extent to which we are in charge of our mental life. This is particularly apparent when we become fully aware and take control over our dream, which happens when the dreamer realises that they are dreaming and still stays in the dream. These are called lucid dreams. Lucid dreams can be quite beneficial. They are, in a way, a training in direct self-control without the reliance on an external support. We should not forget though that conscious control and intent are not the same. You may exercise intent in dreams that are not lucid, and you may let other drives (such as your immediate desires) take over intent in lucid dreams. The bottom line is that what matters is not so much what happens in your dreams, but how you respond to it.

We can see that dreams can have multiple functions, but arguably the most important one is that they provide a stage for and give us a glimpse about life without the support of material reality, the physical body and the senses.

[7] Activation-synthesis hypothesis is an example (see Hobson & McCarley, 1977).

In this part, we have sketched how various mental processes can be understood from the perspective that they arise from an interplay between the material and non-material aspects of the living organism. Furthermore, the mind appears to be the principal vehicle for actualising the meaning of life – which can be summarised as the development of souls. That journey starts with biological evolution and continues through social and individual development. The final part will focus on these topics, and also on possible future trajectories.