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Dreams and the self - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Dreams and the self [Jun. 22nd, 2009|09:58 am]
Arvind Narayanan
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In last night's dream, a T-Rex was trying to eat me. It went on for the longest time, it was horrible. I wish the T-Rex had cornered me at some point and said "game over, motherfucker!" so that I could have gone on to the next dream or whatever. But that's the funny thing, apparently you can never die on your own dream. I certainly never have.

I frequently fly in my dreams (this has been by far the most common recurrent motif); I hear that a significant proportion of the population does this as well. Do you? I wonder what it means for humanity as a whole.

Another thing that fascinates me about dreams is that since your conscious processing is subverted, you can pretty much simulate multiple entities in a way that you can't when you're awake. For example, this dude I was once talking to in a dream sat with his hands firmly planted in his pockets, and I was wondering why, until he pulled out a gun on me much later. Of course, my brain knew all along why he had his hands in his pockets -- both my character and the adversary are being simulated inside my head -- but it chose to keep that fact from me, just for shits and giggles. Or sometimes my character would need to sum a sequence of numbers, and find to his surprise that the sum is exactly (say) 100. While I can of course sum numbers in my head, quickly coming up with a sequence of random-looking numbers that sum to 100 seems beyond my wakeful arithmetical ability. The only conclusion is that my brain was working on the sum for a prolonged period of time -- and choose not to tell me.

The amazing, amazing thing is that even though almost everyone goes through these experiences when asleep, almost no one realizes that their waking consciousness is also a similarly fragile illusion. Even seeing the breakdown of coherent consciousness in other people -- such as patients with a severed corpus callosum, who develop two distinct personalities -- doesn't seem to help. Nor do studies showing that our consciousness is merely "informed" of the decisions we make, said decisions actually having been made in the subsonscious several seconds before we are even aware of making them. People have a remarkable ability to ignore any evidence that contradicts their model of the self.

If it isn't enough that most of the problems in the world are caused by our outsized egos and our little worlds that revolve around ourselves, chew on the fact that the basis for ego rests fundamentally in a fallacy :-)

[User Picture]From: dandydand
2009-06-22 09:09 pm (UTC)
I frequently have lucid dreams where I question the importance of trivial-seeming details (such as "Why am I sitting on a step?") and soon after that, that detail (my location) becomes an integral part of the dream.

It has the feeling of a syllogism with the first two statements reversed... is this really how our minds work?
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-06-23 03:46 am (UTC)

question and a comment

Is it true that you sleep only 4 hours a day? If so, please tell us how long you've been at it, and about its effects on your effectiveness at work.

About consciousness: is it not true that it is nothing but knowledge of sensations such as hearing, sight, pain, balance, emotions, thoughts you've had in the past few seconds. By this definition (which is incidentally drawn from the sanskrit word Indriyajnaana), I don't think that consciousness is as fragile as it sounds in your musing.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-06-26 08:15 am (UTC)

Re: question and a comment

hey, sorry i couldn't get to this sooner.

"Is it true that you sleep only 4 hours a day?"

whoa, what? who told you that? that's especially odd considering that i'm a proponent of people getting more sleep. i myself get my regular 7-8 hours, plus i also take an afternoon nap, even if i'm at work. the vast majority of people can improve their overall productivity by sleeping more.

of course, like everyone i'm occasionally sloppy and fail to get as much sleep as i should be getting, but that doesn't mean i'm a proponent of it. also, i hope that some day we can hack our brains to require less sleep, but we aren't anywhere close yet.

re. consciousness: scientists are slowly making progress trying to figure out what consciousness is (i recommend dan dennett's ted talk). but whatever it is, it's certainly not anything as simple as what you claim it to be.

regardless, there are a few things that are commonly understood to be aspects of or consequences of consciousness -- these include a feeling of being in control, making deliberate decisions, self-awareness, free will, etc. my claim is that most or all of these commonly understood aspects of consciousness are illusory.
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From: ext_219930
2009-12-29 01:10 am (UTC)

Causality and time in dreams

I thought I read somewhere that often the passage of time in dreams doesn't correspond to the real passage of time. That is, 2 events in a dream can be separated by the passage of a long time (in the dream), even when the whole dream actually occurs over a very short period of time (in the outside world, as determined by things like eye movements or brain activity).

Similarly, in your "numbers summing to 100" dream, do you remember the actual numbers? Or are you just taking it on faith that because you dreamed that you had a list of numbers that summed to 100, your brain actually created that list during the dream? It seems simpler to assume that your dream involved the concept of "a list of numbers that sum to 100", without actually knowing the list.

In your gun example, it's possible that your dreaming brain started with "he's pointing a gun at me", and then came up with "aha, that's why he's been keeping his hands in his pockets all this time". It's not like dreams are great respecters of causality.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-12-29 02:54 am (UTC)

Re: Causality and time in dreams

Those are all great comments. I didn't know about the difference in perception of passage of time. If you have a link I'd appreciate it.

As for the your objections, they are certainly plausible, and I have no way to refute them right now. I suppose the next time something like the list-of-numbers-summing-to-100 episode happens, I can try to recollect the numbers when I wake up and verify the arithmetic.

But note that these are just two examples of something that is an everyday occurrence for me (and I suspect for many/most other people.) There are other similar things that my brain can do in my dream that I have been unable to recreate in waketime despite repeated trying. (Perhaps I should write another post about that.) So I remain convinced of my overall hypothesis, although I recognize that I have no way to convince you of it.
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