This is a post I created for reddit /r/dreams which you can read here: What Are Dreams?
Nearly every mammalian lifeform dreams and quite possibly every lifeform engages in a type of dreaming similar to how it experiences it’s own reality. Dreams are an important function of our sleep and even though we may not remember all of our dreams, sleep research suggests based on EEG and fMRI research into the 5 stages of sleep: REM and 4 Non-Rem [NREM] that the brain is quite active in producing dream content.
Why we don’t remember is a neurological problem that is observed again in dream research where the content of our dreams often takes place only in the short-term memory centers of the brain. The long term memory center, the hippocampus is observed active but in only allowing information to flow out and not into our long-term memory stores.
Other problems occur in the prefrontal cortex which is involved with our logical and analytical faculties. When this slows down during sleep, our dream content often takes on an illogical and abstract stream of experiences. fMRI scans of lucid dreamers show that instead of being inactive, the prefrontal cortex is quite active indicating that the person while in a lucid dream is now using these critical cognitive functions involving our logic and reason. This is also why dream content during a lucid dream often is more vivid and clear and the quality of the dream content can be more literal rather than being symbolic. Lucid dreaming is always the better focus state to have if you want to gain more control over your dream content and have a more fulfilling experience through dreaming.
When we enter sleep, the changes in brain function invokes a type of sleep induced amnesia where our waking mind is not functioning in a conscious state, rather it functions in an unconscious state during these types of amnesiac dreams. This problem with amnesia doesn’t stop at our initial dreams during sleep. When we wake up, if the short-term memory is not transferred into long-term memory the dream content collapses and we quickly forget what we dreamed about. I call this problem, “Waking induced amnesia”.
Over coming amnesia is part of our challenge as dreamers. By making an effort to record our dreams in a journal, or even just reviewing our dream content when we wake up; we build a stronger bridge in the memory relationship. After all, what good is dreaming is all you do is forget you dreamt at all?
So what is a dream? We know we have them and they become very vivid content rich experiences that represent another type of reality experience. Dreams have similar qualities to our waking reality. Dreams are often in a third-dimensional first-person point of view. Like waking reality, dreams have a duration of time were sequences of events flow from one dream frame to the next. The space we see in dreams allows us to move around and explore the dream world as if it was a functioning reality for the time we are focused in that state. How do dreams create space/time relationships in the dream content? How does the mind produce this effect during sleep?
The first fact about what dreams are can be found in what the dream content is composed of. Unlike physical reality where we have sub-atomic particles forming atoms that produce molecules and larger objects which become tangible to touch. Dreams lack any physical properties that we have come to know from the objective world. The building blocks of dreams from a physical viewpoint is non-relational. Where physical matter reality uses sub-atomic particles to describe the content of physicality, dreams use something completely different to achieve this.
The physics of dreaming derives itself from thought. Dreams are Plato’s idealism in every respect of the term as dreams use “thought-forms” by which to describe the objects, surrounding and events of the dream. So the light that we see in a dream, the colors, the textures, the sounds are all derived from a highly evolved thought process where we think in these archetypes.
Dreams simulate reality by using thought as a type of programming language which is then rendered into our first-person view so that we have this simulated dream reality. Dreams themselves are working examples of how the brain can simulate reality using thought in a very profound and incredible way. Nature has somehow evolved the perfect “virtual reality simulator” and dreams are a living example of this mechanic at work.
You can see how thoughts can take on the properties of sensory information in self-evident examples such as listening to the inner monologue of your voice as it reads this text. The faint audible sound of your voice is actually a type of thought simulating sound. If you close your eyes and visually imagine an apple. The apple that faintly appears in your mind is thought simulating visual information.
These mechanics of thought are even more self-evident if you actively participate in falling asleep with the intent to remain awake and conscious. When we use our sensory apparatus to observe the external world, during sleep something that I call, “The Inversion of the Senses” takes place where our sensory focus moves from external information to start perceiving dream information in a self-similar sensory way.
How often have you fallen asleep to start to see images appear, or even hear sounds such as music or talking as the onset of dreaming starts to take place. Perhaps you’ve noticed that these sensory thought forms are something you are invoking, and that they are your thoughts changing from a simple verbal exchange of ideas, into this more complex language of dreaming.
It is through this higher-order of sensory thought that we are able to change dream content when we sleep. Anyone proficient in lucid dreaming where they think about what they want to dream during an actual lucid dream will find the dream canvas change suddenly to reflect this new content. Thought is a fundamental part of the fabric of dreaming.
The other interesting aspect of dreaming also borrows itself from how we perceive the outside world. In order for us to have a meaningful relationship with sensory information, the mind must take in sensory data, and through information processing by the brain, the mind must then render that information into a view.
Our perception of reality in all actuality is another example of how nature has evolved the ability to take information, process that information and then render that information into a view. It is similar to how a computer takes digital information and processes that information to produce a final rendering of that data on a computer screen so a user can have a meaningful user-interface with that data rather than seeing a string of binary 0001110011 which the visual representation replaces.
Unlike a computer, the human brain does not have a computer screen to render sensory information on. It does something much more amazing in that it has to virtualize the computer screen that allows us to have our experience of reality.
This means the output of our sensory perception takes place on a virtual canvas of the mind. This canvas has been called the Cartesian Theater inspired by Rene Descartes “Seat of the Soul” where by a little man he called the Homunculus sat to observe the sensory renderings of the mind. It has been called the Bohmian IMAX by consciousness researcher Anthony Peake. Plato touches on the same idea in his Allegory of the Cave. All of these metaphors are used simply to describe what the human mind uses as it’s reality rendering screen for us the observer.
It is very ease and self-evident to see in action how the brain is producing a type of rendering on this virtual screen. Simply close your eyes and it will be very apparent that sensory information is being rendered by the brain. What we observe as reality is actually an approximation of reality based on sensory information, information processing and the final rendered product of these processes.
I will also put forth that what the brain uses to render sensory information in this simulation of reality is also a type of thought-form. Each cell along the pathway to the final rendered product adding it’s cellular thoughts as bits of data to the larger picture that they collectively output.
Why this canvas of the mind is important to dreaming is because the same mechanics are at work in rendering dream content. This feedback interface is simply virtual renderings composed of thoughts which produce the final product. The final product is simply described as the dream content.
Thus what we have with dreaming is a type of information processing phenomena where thought programs the content and the mind renders the content in this virtual canvas of the mind so that we have a meaningful view of what that information represents. It is the same canvas that also renders our sensory model of reality. This is one common factor between ourselves as the observer of this content, and where this content renders as part of our feed-back interface.
Through these mechanics, our mind has evolved a type of language which for all intents and purposes is a type of communication between the conscious and unconscious aspects of ourselves. This is also a type of Non-Verbal communication. Dreams are examples of non-verbal communication at work between our waking mind and the unconscious mind if you subscribe to the idea that we are composed of many different compartments like Freud’s Ego, ID, super-ego and unconscious. If you are more Jungian then it would be communication with the collective unconscious which translates how non-verbal communication in the form of dreams is the mechanism by which this communication takes place amongst these different properties of our larger consciousness system.
Regardless of what the dream content may be as the final result of all these processes, the mechanics themselves are self-evident and worth consideration as this is how we dream and why we dream from a mechanical perspective.