I had a strange and frightening dream experience today. Then I had a theory of the operation of the mind that I thought of when I lay in bed for a while afterward thinking about the experience. I shall first describe to you the dream, and then the theory.
The dream was that I am photographing a huge concert in Austin. It is nighttime and anything is hardly visible, but I am on a raised rim around a huge rectangular concert ground teeming with a dense population of dark human heads numbering in the tens of thousands. The ground centers on a deep pit of some sort from which a faint red glow emanates, presumably the source of the music, but I cannot see it clearly for the forest of black heads around. Everything is blurry and unclear and dark.
Apparently some others are there to photograph it as well, and with alarm I watch them step off the raised rim onto the sea of people, and the surface of this dark granular sea begins to move swiftly to the central pit as they step on it, like a crowd of small dark pebbles rolling to create a moving surface. They move along with it until they drop into the central pit.
I do not want to do this so I step away and into a covered area beside the rim. I think there is a person standing there, leaning against an opening, looking out to the concert ground. Maybe not a person. I had a feeling it could be a individual of an alien species of sorts, and this gathering that I am at is not something entirely human.
There is a box or something on the ground that I stumble on, and a jacket or something I was carrying drops to the ground, along with my phone, which opens up as it hits the ground to spill its battery (it’s a Nokia E5 that does this every time it hits the ground in real life).
I stoop to pick it up, and as I do so, the frightening part of the dream begins.
I feel a very sudden onset of a heavy, heavy drowsiness land on me. My eyes get immediately heavy and my body is hard to pick up off the stooping position. Everything in me wants to lie down and drift away into the unobserving nothingness of sleep, and my mind launches a vigorous and alarmed fight against this. It is a very frightening feeling, because sleep never arrives like this, so it must be something else, and it is my own body that is betraying me. Everything is getting dark, and it is my own instincts that are bullying me to let go and fall asleep, while my self feels like a small person trapped inside this fast-darkening human body machine, taken by sudden fear and shock but not knowing how long it can keep up its small, fragile, important fight.
At this point I look to the floor and notice that the battery that spilled out of my phone is blue. My battery is actually not blue. Which means, I tell myself, I am dreaming. I have been taken already. The battle has been lost. This is not waking life any more.
I think I fall gently to the floor on my back, and the panic inside me soars to unbearable heights. I cannot go like this, I tell myself. I remember the person/alien standing there. I do not know who it is, but surely they shall not be so unfriendly as to not offer me help in such a crisis.
‘I need help!’ I shout out. There is no response.
At this point I half-open my eyes with a lot of effort. And I see bits of my room that I am sleeping in, in Austin. I see a beam on the roof, and the Tintin poster I put on the wall. This part is not a dream. I do really see this with my half-open eyes.
But I am not able to wake up.
This really, really frightens me. This has never happened to me before. I know that I have breached the layer into final wakefulness, but something is still keeping my mind from being able to fully wake up, try as I might. It is also strange because it is not that I am too tired and sleepy to fully wake up, and that I am not trying hard enough out of my drowsiness. There is a full battle going on inside my head, but this highly increased activity has no effect on being able to finally wake up. It is indeed a very, very strange thing to find oneself in.
I put all my resources together into one concerted effort, and then I feel something. I feel a shift in perspective, as if I am now a new person who is outside this experience, looking at the struggle I was going through as a dream that needs to be woken out of. I feel myself as being on the outer loop of a nesting, no longer the character struggling in this story, but a real-life person waking up from a dispensable dream in which this character resided.
And that’s when I actually woke up. I fully opened my eyes and looked through the crack of my blanket at the morning sunlight pouring into my room, illuminating the white ceiling. I checked to see if this is what it felt to be fully awake. My faculties were returning as they always do each morning, and I was assured that I was awake.
An epilogue is that I lay in bed for some more and drifted off into drowsiness again, and somehow managed with my sleepy antics to land a desk lamp on myself that shook my entire half-asleep world and jolted me finally into wakefulness enough to get me out of bed.
Now comes the theory, and the theory is about that final part where I stepped out of a loop and into a surrounding perspective that helped me wake up.
As I was lying in bed after this experience, still in a half-asleep state, I was thinking in my head how such a shift of character was possible. How in my mind I could both be a person, and then in a moment be another person regarding the first person as their dream.
And I had the following ‘insight’. I do not claim this in any way to be a well-founded theory of any sort, but I thought about it later and it seemed to link to some other ideas about the operation of the mind in an interesting way, so I thought it would be good to preserve it.
If you consider the brain as a very complicated computer, which I almost certainly believe it is, only using neural circuits instead of logic gate circuits, one can draw analogies between the working of the brain and that of a computer, although computer architecture today is at an infant stage in many ways compared to the complexity of the human brain.
A computer runs many processes at any given time, and they are interrelated in increasingly complex ways. Without going into the hard problem of consciousness, if the brain is the hardware, the mind, our thoughts, and our sense of self doing things must be some complex fallout of the processes that go on all the time in this vast and complex neural circuit.
It is important now to consider that like a computer, the brain is supporting many processes at once in its network. The sense of self doing things is a fraction of these. It has many subconscious processes, some which we may choose to become conscious of if we direct our attention to, and may let them recede back into the subconscious at our will (think of the exercise of trying to isolate all the noises in a noisy environment, or listening for a particular instrument in a piece of music). Some processes are forever in the subconscious and cannot be brought into attention. Similarly, there is data that can either be consciously pondered or packed away as memories that recede from the consciousness until retrieved perhaps many years later. (There is data in your mind now that you cannot think of unless someone produces a very specific cue, when it jumps right up.) The sense of self and conscious thought is only a group of processes in the brain amidst this sea of processes, illuminating a fraction of the other processes and data by shining its small light on them as and when ‘we want’.
Now this was my theory, that the collection of processes in this neural hardware that embodies the feeling of the self is not a concrete, unchanging one. In other words, ‘we’ inhabit different collections of processes in the hardware at different times.
At this point I think it relates in a way that I’ve been hearing said a lot in the context of mindfulness meditation or vipassana, for example by Sam Harris, that the self is only one of the incessant stream of thoughts arising in this one unchanging background of consciousness. ‘Pure consciousness’ is the substrate on which thoughts evolve, such as hunger or boredom or the feeling of self and having a body and doing things. The final objective of mindfulness meditation as I understand it is to dissolve the state of the mind into this pure consciousness, undisrupted by the arising of thoughts. In the context that I am talking about, the potential in this complex circuit for processes to go on that sense the outside world, take decisions and reflect internally, is the one unchanging substrate. The processes themselves that arise, operate transiently and quit to make way for others are only temporary, and our (so-perceived) continuous ‘sense of self’ is a constant real time transition of inhabiting different collections of processes in the neural circuitry. Note that I do not aim at all to explain how a collection of neural processes can assume a ‘sense of self’. This is related to the hard problem of consciousness that I do not even want to hint that I can solve.
Now, just as in a computer we can have encompassing processes running, observing or controlling subjugate processes, so can happen in the computer inside our head as well. In fact, in a computer of such staggering complexity, it must happen. For example, the rush of anxiety as you face a crowd of people on stage is a process in your mind. You can choose to observe it as it happens (then you’ll be taking the first steps to mindfulness). At that point, the self is a process that is observing this other process, both occurring in this complex neural circuit.
What happens then when the process that ‘we’ inhabit shifts from a nested process to another that observes the first? Would the experience be somewhat like what I went through? That could explain how I was both the actual person struggling to wake up, and then switching to be the other person who felt like they were dreaming of the first and could control its termination.
As I was lying in bed, still half-asleep, these are the thoughts that went through my mind. As I said, I am not claiming any of these to be founded in anything at all. They just seemed to be interesting ideas, and may in future spring new ideas and connections that can actually be placed on firmer logical grounds, so I decided to blog about it.
Let me know what you think.
The following is a truncated clip from one of Sam Harris’ lectures talking about mindfulness meditation in the context in which I referred to him.