Electric Dreams

The Dream Koan,
"Why Do We Dream?"

Richard Catlett Wilkerson


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Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (2005 June). The Dream Koan, "Why Do We Dream?"
Electric Dreams 12(6).






Why do we dream?

This question has become somewhat of a koan for me.

The priest Hsiang-yen said,

"It is as though you were up in a tree, hanging from a branch with your teeth. Your hands and feet can't touch any branch. Someone appears beneath the tree and asked, `What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?' If you do not answer, you evade your responsibility. If you do answer, you lose your life. What do you do?"
-- Hsiang-yen: Up a Tree

Why do we dream? For me this is a similar question. To remain silent is to avoid ones responsibility to others. But to answer is to fall into the void.

Typically I respond to this question with an array of answers, a collection of hypotheses that include that we dream to protect sleep, we dream to consolidate our daily experiences and reactions to these experiences, we dream to restore ourselves psychologically, physically and spiritually, we dream to rehearse and play, we dream to flee and hide, we dream to contextualize our emotions, we dream to explore and discover... on and on until the answer to "Why do we dream?" seems to be unrecognizable from "Why do we live?" And yet the denial of the difference between all of life and dream life seems an easy out.

This leads to thinking about some of the differences between waking and dreaming, which include the intensity of the imagined experience in dreaming, the receptivity to psi and paranormal phenomenon, the receptivity to unconscious influences, the different brain centers that are activated, the different neuro-chemical states that dominate.

But this really doesnít get at the need-to-know gutsy feeling in the question, "Why do we dream?"

And so there are "approaches" to the question. I canít go into all of them, but some of the most popular include Evolutionary Dreaming (we dream because its adaptive to the survival of the species), Psychological Dreaming (we dream for a wide variety psychological reasons, that have to do with our psyche and life), Spiritual Dreaming (we dream to align ourselves with the Infinite), Recreational Dreaming (we dream because we can, and we want to, much like "Why do we skateboard?", or "Why do we paint?").

I guess these might be reduced to two, that we dream because we are compelled, and we dream because we are motivated. There are reasons we are compelled to dream, biologically, physiologically, environmentally, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and so on. This is often what people mean when they ask the question, Why do we dream? What compels us to do this activity and not something else?

And there are reasons we dream in particular ways, which is more the motivated side of the equation. One can easily see here that we could get swamped in the nature-nurture controversy, of the willed aspects of the dream and driven aspects.

I typically like to think about it in a dynamical way, were there is the interaction of a multiplicity of forces in two forms: there is content, and its expression. The more forceful of the two is the expression. The carpenter presses against the wood and it becomes a table, or a chair. She gives expression to the wood. The wood is too hard and the carpenter falls to the floor. Here the wood has given expression to the carpenter. But these are simplifications of the lines of forces that inform the carpenter and the wood. The carpenter is herself a process of influences, of the wood carving tradition she comes from, the moods she carries from the community breakfast before she began work that day, the dreams she had the night before, the possible angles a human body can apply pressure from. The wood, too, is a multiplicity of influences, the soil going into the make up of the tree, the genetic patterns imposed on the wood cells, the animals that each imposed various expressions on the tree, the influences of different seasons.

In the same way we talk about dream content when we wake up and tell our dream, but the dream is formed from a multiplicity of forces that have given it a particular expression one moment, and a different expression the next. The dream may deeply influence me upon waking and now the dream is giving expression to my life.

One wonders, is there dreaming without a dream? Can we say why we dream without talking about what we dream? I donít think there is any content without expression, nor expression without content. But these can so dramatically change that we move into the world of the abstract, where generalizations appear to represent the many. Fruit is an abstraction that appears to represent particular apples and oranges. Apples and oranges are an abstraction that appears to represent groups of fruits. But we must remember that if there were no fruits, what would these abstractions represent? Nothing. We must question what kind, and how good of a representation are our abstractions? Or are all representations a kind of control system that requires a liberating response?

So, we can say that pre-natal children begin "dreaming" before they are born at about the time the nervous system is developing, and that dreaming here just means that REM cycles are occurring. Is this dreaming without content, or are those little angels involved in dreaming up a storm?

I think a good place to start might be the story some scientists tell about dreaming.

Evolutionary Dreaming: The biological story is basically centered on the notion that dreams are adaptive and help us somehow survive better in the world.

There is a counter-train of thought to evolutionary dreaming that says no, dreaming is like our appendix, we don't need to dream, some people don't seem to dream and they seem just fine. (One wonders what they mean by "fine." If I can get along in life without my arms and hands, would they say I'm doing just fine without them?) But here I want to track the positive story:

A kind of fictional story evolves out of this Evolutionary View, that our world is dark half the time and in light half the time, so creatures evolve that do better in one half or the other. When in the less adapted half, it's better to keep the creature hidden and away, asleep in a hidey-hole. This worked fine for lizards and worms, the body temperature drops and the creature goes into a semi-coma. But the mammalian brain can't get so cool and doesnít come out of coma states very well as the reptile brain and so the brain stem REM pulses regularly through the night to stimulate the mammalian brain. This brain activation would tend to wake the creature up, so 1. All impulses to the limbs from the brain are cut off, 2. Noise and other disturbances from the outer world are dampened in effect, i.e. the threshold for disturbing the sleeping creature is higher than normal, and 3. Brain chemicals and processes are coordinated that help the creature imagine it is awake while making it difficult to actually wake up. This would be dreaming for the Evolutionary Biology theory.

Further, if the poor little creature was dreaming there was a juicy berry over the log outside the hidey-hole, and woke up and acted on this information, (when in fact over the log was a hungry snake) well, this wouldn't work so well, so dreams are set up to be forgotten upon waking.

Then along comes a creature (human) who has the capacity to represent things that are past (language) and can recall his/her dreams, at least if they exercise this capacity to represent the past in language (dream journal or tell yourself or another your dream immediately). Now these dreams that were originally created to keep the creature down during the night can be appropriated for other reasons.

Many are quick to point out that animals too may have learned to appropriate dreams for uses besides the above mentioned theory that they are just imagining some satisfaction instead of waking up and acting upon it. That is, animals may practice and rehearse in dreams, animals may play and explore and animals may be sensitive to psi or paranormal information that comes in through dreams. But this doesnít essentially change or challenge the Evolutionary Theory. Many organs, they say, have evolved for one reason, and later been appropriated by the body for other, multiple uses and reasons.

This is pretty much how other researchers view dreams, that they were originally adaptive mechanisms for keeping the creature out of trouble, and later got appropriated for other uses, including memory consolidation, contextualization of emotions, rehearsal of life tasks and concerns, resolution of psychological issues, contact states for a multitude of dimensional beings, ghosts, demons, gods, spirits, archetypes, angels, past lives, future lives, alternative universes and distantly located humans and other beings and objects. It is all highly speculative. Researchers are even less sure of this view as the REM = Dreams theory falls further and further apart.

As we move out of the Evolutionary theory (dreams originally adaptive, now appropriated for other reasons) the question of why we dream begins to appear now as a theoretical debate over origins.

That is, another viewpoint is that dreams were first, and material life came into being out of this dream, and may continually be coming into being from dreams of gods and other divine imaginings. If Aboriginal DreamTime is a model for much of early human thought, then the belief that dreams preceded any biological need for them has been around a hundred or thousand times longer than the Evolutionary theory. Carl Jung once had a vision of a Buddha figure dreaming, then in shock, realized it was him dreaming himself, and that when the dreaming-Jung woke up, waking-Jung would disappear.

One neednít call on the gods for help to see alternatives. Perhaps the desire to dream was what preceded the first dream, just as the desire to have hands instead of hooves preceded this development. (hoofed creature desiring hands mates with a mutant with more hands like features. . .)

In other words, the origin of dreaming question is like a chicken/egg question, more a theological debate than a truly scientific study. Once we concede that the origin of dreams is a mystery, then the whole new, and much more interesting, world of dreaming opens up. That is, we canít say in a singular way why we dream, only that there is a multiplicity of dreaming, a myriad of dreamings, a gaggle of reasons why we dream.

Perhaps the existential choice view is a good way to end:
Why do you dream?