The Dreaming Imperative

Jerry Shifman -- February 1990

The argument can be made that the central purpose of life is dreaming. Everything else plays a secondary, supporting role.

Many years ago sleep researchers conducted a series of experiments to determine the effects brought about by depriving humans of dreams. In order to study this, a group of volunteers was divided into a test group which would be deprived of dreams, and an equivalent control group.

All of the volunteers in both groups were monitored as they slept. When members of the test group showed the rapid eye movement characteristic of the dream state, they were promptly awakened, truncating the dream. Members of the control group were awakened an equivalent number of times each night, but between episodes of dreaming.

The results were quite distinct. Within about a week the test group began to show negative effects. They became restless, anxious and irritable. In less than a month the test subjects became severely dysfunctional. They were essentially unable to carry on their normal social and business routines. The control group showed no similar problems.

In the concluding portion of the experiment the sleepers were still monitored, but were allowed to sleep undisturbed. Curiously, when members of the test group were allowed to resume dreaming, they spent about twice as much time in the REM dream state as the control group. This effect persisted for a few days, then the test subjects gradually returned to a normal dreaming pattern. The adverse symptoms all disappeared within a week.

From this experiment it is fair to conclude that dreaming is essential for a normal, healthy life. Also, it appears that we must have a certain quota of dreaming, just as we require a certain level of nutritional input. When we miss out on dreaming one night, we make up for it by dreaming extra on subsequent nights.

Another telling bit of research involves measuring the level of brain activity during dreaming. This is done by establishing the rate at which the brain is burning up oxygen. The assumption is that the rate of fuel consumption reflects the level of brain activity. This sort of test reveals that during dreaming the brain is very active indeed, consuming oxygen at roughly the same rate as during intense mental activity while awake.

All of the above shows that dreaming involves a high level of brain activity, and that a regular diet of such activity is essential for a normal life. This much has already been demonstrated. But the philosophical implications of this have not been examined. It is time to look at the whole business of the brain and sleep from a radically different viewpoint.

There can be little argument with the notion that the brain is our most important organ. It controls volitional activity of all sorts, and is also used for "thinking" which does not involve physical movement. Beyond this, the brain also exerts influence on countless semi-autonomous subsystems. Note that the brain is the best protected organ of the body; it is the only organ that has its own private exoskeleton.

Now we must shift gears. Consider: The body does not have a brain; The brain has a body. The only purpose of the body is to ensure survival of the brain. What we regard as "our" life, our waking everyday activity, is actually only the brain's way of getting fed. The entire game -- business, government, society, all of it -- is simply a motivational structure the brain maintains so that we will find ways to get food, indirectly feeding the brain. What the brain really wants to do is dream.

The great unspoken truth is that the purpose of life is to secure a warm, dark, quiet place to sleep. The brain keeps the body powered up just long enough to find the required nutrition. Then the brain shuts down all volitional activity and gets down to the important stuff. Note that "we" really have no choice in the matter; sleep is simply unavoidable. And not only sleep. Dreaming is also unavoidable. Doesn't that make it clear what is really running things, and what its real goal is?

For a major chunk of each day we all willingly lie down and lose consciousness. How unutterably strange and mysterious! It is very easy to view sleeping as the main goal, instead of just a necessary interruption in our "real" life. Note how selfish the brain is. It leads us to the sleeping chamber, then goes about reducing unwanted input stimuli; lighting is reduced or eliminated, sound sources are turned off or blocked out, and we wrap ourselves in warm blankets to reduce thermal loss. The brain starts shutting down the subsystems which are only needed while the body is active.

There is one transition during this process that doesn't always work smoothly. While awake, the mental command to (say) move an arm, results in actual arm motion. But during dreaming sleep, the same mental experience does not result in movement. At some point the volitional system has been disconnected. And just at that moment, there is sometimes a strange glitch. Rather than a smooth transition into sleep, a sudden burst of nervous static may flood the system; we experience a sharp jerk, involving many muscles throughout the body.

The brain is soon free. Unhampered by the necessity to constantly deal with volitional activity, it now is able to go about its own private business. Think about it: we sleep more than we do any other single activity. But what is really going on during sleep remains hidden from us. We are clearly the servant of the brain. We can perform our role without understanding what the larger game is all about. Quite possibly we would have no way of understanding this meta-activity of the brain anyway. We are unneeded at this point. We have simply been set aside until needed again. Come morning the brain restores our consciousness and puts us back to work. Once more we are harnessed into the grand motivational illusion. We must expend effort; we must strive; we must, above all else, get food.

The brain resigns itself to another period of mechanistic activity. But its captive service system will perform its function loyally, until set aside again.

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