A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
On My Mind
All men dream, but not equally.
Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the
day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous
men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.
Keefe regularly talks in his sleep, albeit never quite in English. One night a while ago Hugh actually roared in his sleep, clearly stomping through a dream cretaceous seeking ceratopsian carcasses to dismember. I even recall a woman I knew who made low tonal sounds in her sleep: "Buuuh, muuuh, duuuh." Asked "What are you doing?" she replied clearly, without waking up "I'm playing the tuba." Truly, the arcane realm of dream is a wondrous and surprising one. Sometimes in a playful or experimental spirit I'll respond to Keefe's indecipherable mumblings with an equally abstruse "Gleep! Knak, nurk wak!" or some other gibberish, and wonder what, if anything, his sleeping mind makes of it. If he seems distressed I may whisper to him "As you reach into your pocket you remember you've got your magic wand with you" or "Glancing up, you see a giant hawk with smoking wings that lands beside you to offer a ride." I've never found out whether this affects his dream experience in any way, but it seems a loving and essentially harmless exercise. Sometimes I will whisper in either boys' ear "remember this dream, and tell me about it in the morning," but that doesn't seem to have worked yet. Then again, even if they recounted a dream to me in the morning, there'd be no way to know if it was *that* dream, or if my compulsive meddling had changed anything. What do we really know about it the subconscious, anyway?
Astonishingly, it turns out that neuroscience is starting to pick up some hints. Trial and error and accident are sketching out some vague features of the cranial map. For example, we know what the seahorse-shaped hippocampus does because of a patient who had his removed and proved unable to form new memories thereafter, like the unfortunate protagonist in Memento. We know that the visual cortex at the back of the head has separate regions for seeing spatial relationships (how to catch the thrown object) and identifying object characteristics (it's round and of a certain color so I deduce it's a ball), because of flukish accidents leaving people able to do one but not the other. There are genuinely people out there who can effortlessly align a letter to slide through your mail slot yet can't for the life of them see what's written on the envelope, a condition called "blindsight."
Aside from things we've learned by accident and mishap, however, electroencephalograms and MRIs are revealing the workings of brains that don't have any holes in them. Intelligence is asking questions. As in other sciences, the value of what you learn can be very dependent on asking the right questions. Researchers in the early days used to turn the machines off when their subjects went to sleep because they were 'only' sleeping and the budget conscious scientists didn't want to waste paper. Now we're getting a different picture.
The thing is, our conscious mind, which we think of as running the whole mental show, is starting to look like a little circle of firelight in the middle of a vast dark continent. Apparently one of its functions is to paint over the myriad conflicting and contradictory viewpoints and programs running noisily amok in that darkness with a self-sustaining fiction that all the voices in our head are "one mind." Science writer Timothy Ferris theorizes that transcendental enlightenment, typified by a revelation of 'being one' with all of mankind, life, and the universe, results from tapping into such a cerebral program, designed to simplify our multifarious minds with the fiction of a singular "I."
Even more troubling, research by neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet seems to indicate that the command impulse to my hand telling it to reach for the frying pan is fired from the brain BEFORE I consciously decide to reach for it. Apparently the conscious mind can't do more than throw on the brakes, saying "Hey, the pan's hot: don't touch it!" It's very good, however, at saying "I meant to do that." Plant a post-hypnotic command to walk out of the room, or send such a command to the left brain, and the subject's conscious mind will invent a justification for it as they obey. "Oh, I'm just going to get a Coke." This isn't a simple fabrication: they actually believe that's why they're doing it.
So who's in the driver's seat? Despite his demonization over LSD research, Timothy Leary built a significant body of research around periods of imprint vulnerability in humans. This is like the moment where the newly hatched gosling bonds to the image of its mother. In her absence, the gosling may imprint a ping pong ball or some other object and spend a confused life thereafter, identifying with and eventually trying to mate with ping pong balls. We seem to have several different moments of imprint vulnerability ourselves. We bond with the breast or another oral bio-survival object, and the nature of that imprint seemingly affects our confidence level and neophilia/neophobia forever. In toddlerdom, we imprint lessons about social games and pecking order, defining ourselves on the scale between top dog and bottom dog. Conditions surrounding our development of language encourage us into a perceived category of relative "smarts" and learning style, which is particularly troublesome in a social environment that encourages the belief that "intelligence" is a kind of number that can be attached to kids. Thankfully, real intelligence is not limited to a facility with certain symbol systems. Finally, the circumstances of our awakening to sexuality can lend a shape to our resultant sexual preferences and self-definitions. This quartet of rudimentary programs seems to drive much of our decision making.
But it's got to be more complex than that. A piece of your brain the size of a grain of sand contains a hundred thousand neurons, two million axons (projections for sending data between cells), and roughly one billion synapses. The permutations of possible brain states are estimated to surpass the number of elemental atoms in the known physical universe, making this couple of pounds of jellylike matter in our skulls easily the most complex system our species is aware of. The more I study it, the more it seems that the vast shadow of our ignorance conceals the greater part of who we are. Dreams not only influence our decisions; they may be where our very personality originates.
To the control freak left-brained
aspect of my nature, the revealed lack of eminence of our conscious choices
is intensely threatening, but my right-brain feels a real glimmer of hope.
In our dreams, we are unbound. We can fly, speak with the dead, manifest any
talent, alter space and time and reality. Where the conscious mind is
fettered by our fears and expectations, it is our dreams that propel us to
surpass our limitations. Our species is facing its greatest challenges ever.
Surely it falls to our dreaming selves to think outside of the box. Now I
lean over my sleeping children and whisper affirmations: When you are
sincere, you have success in your heart, and everything you do succeeds.
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