Decoding consciousness: What can dreams tell us about how our minds work while awake?

Everyone dreams, every night, entering a strange, semi-conscious state where we experience a world created by our own minds, but our judgement, language, and senses are impaired.  No one knows where dreams come from or why.  That doesn’t mean they can’t tell us a lot about the inner workings of the mind and consciousness itself.

We have no idea precisely why we dream or even what mechanism in our minds produces dreams.  Some believe dreams are a byproduct of the process that converts short term memory to long term, others believe they are simply an accident of the sleeping mind.  Only one thing is for sure:  We do dream, a lot.  In fact, we dream every night, and our brains are specifically wired for it, paralyzing our muscles to prevent us from acting out what is happening in our sleeping minds.  This clearly suggests a purpose even if we are unsure what it is.

Of course, we’re not supposed to be conscious when we sleep, but we are conscious in our dreams, sort of.  The dreaming state is not the same as our waking state because parts of our brain are shut down or not properly functioning, resulting in some stranger version of our waking selves.  The frontal cortex, often considered the seat of consciousness, helps us determine what is real or not, crafting a consistent narrative to make sense of the world.  The frontal cortex isn’t active when we dream, however, allowing our minds to create worlds that don’t make logical sense, combining practically random thoughts together, and weaving wildly inconsistent narratives.  If these things happened while awake, we would know something was wrong, but while sleeping we usually don’t notice anything usual at the time.  In addition, the language centers of our brain are impaired; in most cases it can be difficult to speak, almost impossible to read.

At the same time, dreams, specifically those we remember, are clearly experiences.  We see, we act, we feel, even if we aren’t quite ourselves or we behave differently than we would in the waking world.  This means dreams have qualia and, therefore, should be considered conscious experiences, even if it is not the same as what we enjoy during the day.  The question before us now:  What, if anything, can this strangely altered conscious state tell us about how we think and feel when we’re awake?  We might not know where dreams come from or their precise purpose, but their existence and our existence in them can still be helpful in understanding how our minds assemble our conscious selves.

First, I think we can say with certainty that the unity of our conscious experience is an illusion.  When the frontal lobe is impaired and other areas of the brain are shut down, consciousness doesn’t break apart into differing threads or cease to function entirely.  It remains a coherent whole and we rarely notice the difference.  At the same time, the fact that there are differences based on brain function means that consciousness has constituent parts.  Even if we fail to perceive them as separate, language processing and our accompanying inner monologue, for example, both seem to be an intrinsic, irremovable part of our waking selves. In reality it’s a region of the brain that either works or doesn’t.  Incredibly, our conscious self isn’t necessarily aware either way.  There is no check engine light that shows a potential error; consciousness persists regardless and makes due with more limited function, not even informing us that there is limited function.

The impairment of the frontal lobe is also intriguing to consider.  We take for granted that consciousness gives us the ability to weigh alternatives, separate fact from fiction, make judgements, and direct attention, but in dreams consciousness continues with only very limited capacity in those regards and, the same as we saw with language, we aren’t even aware of it.  Therefore, you can be conscious without judgement, attention, and language, and not even know it.  This strongly suggests both constituent parts that evolved individually, the likely presence of consciousness in animals that lack these higher brain functions, and the idea consciousness itself is somehow achieved via a process that unifies data from different sources into a coherent, or more accurately, seeming coherent whole.  The coherence itself is critical.  If the brain processes language or decision-making like a computer, and any subsystem responsible for these tasks went down, the entire application would fail.  Consciousness doesn’t work that way, however, somehow it binds whatever is present, unaware of what’s not present.

This appears to be a defining feature, likely critical to understanding how consciousness works on a fundamental level.  Dreams also show us that “whatever is present” applies even to things that aren’t present.  In the “ghost in the machine” view of the world, consciousness is some process that sits above our unconscious selves, watching and manipulating the product of our senses, like a gnome watching a movie.  This makes some sense while awake, it really does feel like we are watching the world from inside our minds, but dreams belie this simplistic, bifurcated view.  The dreamworld is not assembled from our senses like the waking world.  It is assembled entirely within our own minds, and, yet, in the moment itself, we cannot differentiate reality from fantasy:  Our consciousness doesn’t know the difference between inside and out.

This is especially striking when you consider that we don’t experience dreams with the richness of our waking senses.  Scientists estimate that about two thirds of our experience while dreaming is visual, but only about a third of all dreams are in color.  A smaller percentage of dreams include sound, taste, and smell.  While dreaming, however, we fail to notice the difference, accepting the environment our mind creates as if it were real.  This is a pretty odd state of affairs:  If you were to turn on your TV and it was suddenly in black and white or the audio wasn’t working properly, you would know it at an instant, but similar to our lack of judgement and the impairment of the language, consciousness itself doesn’t have access to any kind of “error” message.  Instead, it continues as if the limited information was all there is.

Ultimately, I believe this strongly supports the notion that consciousness doesn’t distinguish between inside and outside, though of course we feel that it does.  Instead, it’s all inside and inside is all there is.  As I have written previously:  From the perspective of the self, we know nothing of the outside world, only our internal representation of it, which can certainly be wrong if you are mentally ill or hallucinating.  The same way it is difficult to know you are dreaming while dreaming, or science fiction authors imagine we are actually in a simulation, we only experience the outside world from inside our brains and nervous systems.  Our brains themselves set up an inside and outside dichotomy for (largely) obvious reasons, but it is only an illusion.

When you step back and think about it for a moment, it is truly incredible that our minds can craft entire worlds effortlessly, even if they aren’t as rich as the waking world, and we aren’t even aware of it.  Further, these worlds can have emotional and physical effects, just like the real one.  You can experience fear and elation in dreams.  You can even achieve an orgasm during a nocturnal emission.  This is also likely critical to understanding how consciousness works on a fundamental level.  First, consciousness doesn’t appear to require an actual input.  The input can come from within.  This implies that the mechanism that passes sensory experience from the outside world into the brain to ultimately extract information must be largely unconscious.  If perception were a conscious mechanism, we should be able to determine an internal or external source.  Instead, we don’t know where what we are looking at originates.

Consider how a computer works:  The operating system “knows” whether you’re watching a video coming in from a camera or played back from internal storage.  The mechanism to handle either scenario is distinct.  If the camera is off or broken, the computer cannot be “tricked” into thinking a previously recorded file is a real-time stream, unless you are a hacker, of course.  Consciousness, however, cannot tell the difference.  How can this be so?  Of course, there are the obvious unitary implications, consciousness feels whole regardless of whether or not it is, but on a deeper level this suggests to me that the connection between conscious and unconscious isn’t nearly as bright a line as we would like to believe.  Further, our brain uses sensory apparatus for purposes other than accessing information about the outside world:  When we visualize something in our minds, we’re using the centers of our brain that process sight.

The result is that conscious and unconscious are intimately blended together, and the two can’t be nicely separated by calling consciousness a privileged state.  We see this in the nature of language, where we don’t consciously choose each word or know where the majority of our day to day language choices even come from, and we see this in qualia, where information from our senses is enriched with emotional content.  In my opinion, this is a relic of how evolutionary processes built up ever more complicated decision-making systems.  If you were to design a decision making process from scratch, you might create an architecture where sensory input is completely segregated from analysis and action, but evolution doesn’t work that way.  Early organisms with very basic nervous systems, even single-celled organisms with no nervous systems at all, still make decisions about their behavior.

If the available range of behavior is narrow, there is no need for layers of complexity.  For example, an insect’s decision making can be as simple as, detect light, seek it.  The input light directly causes the output behavior, similar to how we instantly remove our hand from a hot stove or turn to something in the corner of our eye.  There is no thought as we would normally conceive it, only reflex and instinct.  At the same time, the reflex and the instinct is precisely why sensory apparatus evolved in the first place.  We don’t have eyes, ears, noses, etc. as an experiment in sensory perception or to enjoy art thousands of years later.  Animals are equipped with them purely to react to the world; the action and the input has always been one.  The same way there is no inside or outside, there is no sense without response in the earliest stages of the evolution of the nervous system.

As behavior becomes more complicated, however, organisms need more and more sophisticated systems to choose between various options, but the unconscious systems and the stimulus-response loops are already in place. Evolution has no mechanism to scrap them and start over.  Instead, it builds upon them.  Qualia, by fusing sensory input with emotional response as a unit of experience, is critical to making this work and likely exists in all of what we would consider “higher” animals, mammals and birds primarily, but perhaps even others.  Emotions are, of course, unconscious and instinctual, but they are also essential to complex decision making because they are highly contextual and motivational.  We don’t say we were “seized” or “overcome” by an emotion because we experience it like a repetitive turn signal in a car.  It’s powerful and consuming.  Qualia provides the discrete context, compelling an organism to act based on what the organism both sees and feels.  It is the mechanism that enables organisms to evaluate stimuli and respond, plus because they can be stored in memory, learn from experience.

Consciousness in humans, of course requires more than qualia, but again evolution can’t simply start from scratch.  Instead, it already has qualia to work with as the unit of perception and, as our brains evolved additional capacity like speech and abstract problem solving, they necessarily worked on the qualia themselves.  In other words, there was no mechanism to go back to the raw data from our visual nerves.  The brain was stuck with qualia, a unit that already binds different data types including detail and emotional response.  Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that this binding continues up the chain, until human consciousness itself is a binding of what we are thinking, feeling, and experiencing, all at the same time, and that it’s impossible for the conscious state to truly distinguish between the constituent parts.  Dreams demonstrate this conclusively where we are conscious, while what we would normally consider important aspects of consciousness aren’t functioning at all.

Further, all of this is happening in our own minds with no external input, and we don’t realize that either.  How could that be possible if consciousness were some privileged, rational state?

This fact is made even more apparent when you consider the phenomenon of lucid dreams.  In a lucid dream, the dreamer becomes aware they’re dreaming while still in the middle of a dream.  On a side note, anyone can train themselves to have lucid dreams.  Simply ask yourself, am I dreaming now, several times a day while awake.  At some point, you will ask yourself that question while dreaming.  If you answer yes, your dream becomes lucid.  Interestingly, this increased awareness does not end the dream.  Instead, the dreamer remains asleep and the dream itself continues, but our conscious awareness is increased.

We regain the ability to separate reality from fantasy and at times can actually control our own dreams.  The experience of the dream itself remains the same, however.  We don’t suddenly discover “holes” in our perception, or realize we are only seeing in back and white or don’t have our full senses, meaning consciousness remains a coherent, unitary construct even as we become aware what we are seeing isn’t real and instead the product of our own minds.  Nor do we have a conscious ability to deconstruct the illusion; even knowing everything is in our head, we still see and experience exactly as if it wasn’t.  Again, how could that be possible if consciousness were some privileged, rational state, or if consciousness and unconsciousness were not bound tightly together in the first place?

It would be one thing if the brain was simply tricked by dreaming and didn’t know any wiser, but the trick persists even after we know the truth.  This isn’t the suspension of disbelief that happens when you immerse yourself in a video game or other entertainment.  Instead, it’s baked into consciousness somehow, likely because there is no inside or outside, there is only our conscious perception of the whole.  Dreams reveal this and a whole lot more of how the brain works while we’re awake. Keep on dreaming and thinking…


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