The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


The Interpretation of Dreams

Animals sleep, and thatís a mystery in itself. When we dream, we are vulnerable: why would Nature select that odd phenomenon? Why do we sleep in the first place? Several hypotheses have been weighed. The evolutionary reason could be that natural selection rewarded individuals who were capable of hiding still at the time of the day when they were most vulnerable. An energetic reason would be that sleep optimizes an individualís energies at the time of the day when it is least efficient to search for food. Others prefer a restorative reason: during sleep the body performs maintenance (muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, etc. occur during sleep). And there could also be a cognitive reason: during sleep the brain might self-organize.

And then there is an oddity within the oddity of sleeping. The bizarre, irrational nature of dreams, where reality gets warped and laws of nature are turned upside down, and why we remember them at all have puzzled humans since ancient times. Ancient people believed that dreams were the vehicle that the gods used to communicate with mortals. Dreams belonged to the sphere of the supernatural. Dreams were due to external forces. In almost all civilizations people believed that dreams had to be interpreted, i.e. that they had a meaning and that specialists (whether oracles or priests) could figure out that meaning. Aristotletried in vain to demystify dreams, arguing that their story-line was accidental and meaningless, that they reflected the events of the day, and that they were ultimately caused by imbalances in the body.

However, dreaming is a process that absorbs a lot of energy; therefore, it must serve a biological purpose, possibly an important one.

In 1900 the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freudadvanced a theory of dreams that stood on the following principles: 1. Dreams are composed of sensory images; and 2. Free associations are evoked in the dreamer's mind by these images. He concluded that dreams rely on memories and that they are assembled by the brain to deliver a meaning. Meaning of dreams are hidden and reflect memories of emotionally meaningful experiences.

The classical world of Psychology was a world in which actions have a motive. Motives are mental states, hosted in our minds and controlled by our minds. Motives express an imbalance in the mind, between desire and reality: action is an attempt to regenerate balance by changing the reality to match our desire.

Freud's conceptual revolution consisted in separating this mechanism of goal-directed action from the awareness of it. Freud suggested that motives are sometimes unconscious, i.e. that we may not be aware of the motives that drive our actions. There is a repertory of motives that our mind, independent of our will, has created over the years, and they participate daily in determining our actions. Our conscious motives, the motives that we can count, represent only a part of our system of desires.

Freudinterpreted dreams accordingly. A dream is only apparently meaningless: it is meaningless if interpreted from the point of view of conscious motives. However, the dream is a perfectly logical construction if one also considers the unconscious motives. It appears irrational only because we cannot access those unconscious motives.

Freud's fundamental thesis was hidden (ironically, it was itself unconscious): that all mental life is driven by motives/desires. Freud never justified it and spent the rest of his life analyzing the content of dreams for the purpose of eliciting the unconscious motives (i.e., of "interpreting" the dream), focusing on sexual desires (a prime example of censored motives in his time) and childhood traumas (which somehow he believed were more prone to generate repressed motives).

Freudnever even tried to explain the mechanism by which repression of motives operates (by which the unconscious is created, by which some motives are selected over others as undesirable and then such motives are repressed but kept alive and active) and the mechanism by which unconscious motives re-emerge during sleep (by which sleep transforms those repressed motives into a flow of scenes).

Freud's work had an unfortunate consequence: psychiatrists became more interested in the "content" of dreams than in the "form" of dreaming. Psychiatrists kept looking for the "meaning" of dreams, rather than for the process of dreaming. Psychiatrists studying dreams behaved like doctors analyzing symptoms of a disease or of an injury. However, unlike doctors, who knew the anatomy of the body, psychiatrists knew nothing of the neural processes of the brain.This historical accident basically caused dreams to remain outside the sphere of science for seven decades.(Freud's impact, incidentally, has always been larger in the arts than in the sciences).


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