Perchance to dream…

In the latest issue of Philosophy Now, Raymond Tallis takes a semi-serious look at the great unknown, the under-examined third of our lives in which we are asleep.

The tone of Tallis’s article comes from the fact that he, like the rest of us, doesn’t know the first thing about sleep. Not just what it is and why we do it, but what it means to our concepts of consciousness and self that every night we lose control, passing from a world of physical perception to another of mental impression.

When I’m awake, if I encounter a stray dog on the street, I have little trouble assessing whether the animal is likely to be friendly or indifferent or hostile. I can recognize its breed, if it has one, or its mongrel status if it doesn’t. To a comforting extent, I am in control of the situation. And it’s situations like this, thousands of them a day, that give me the confidence to use words like “I” and “me” to refer to a complex of physical systems and mental processes that are under my supervision.

When I’m asleep, if I encounter a stray dog on the street, the beast is just as likely to start to speak or to morph into an alien as it is to wag its tail, which is just as likely to be a feather duster or a scimitar as a proper tail. Halfway through the encounter, the street scene may at any time and without explanation or embarrassment become a spaceport or a kitchen. I’m definitely not in control here; and even when I know that I’m dreaming (“lucid dreaming” being one of the things I do fairly frequently when I sleep), I can’t make things make sense. It feels that my conscious mind, my willful self, is paralyzed, a passive and quite inert observer/participant, but certainly not the architect or master of this dreaming world.

And yet, as Tallis points out, for the most part, philosophers — and psychologists, for that matter — have paid little attention to the question, “Where do we go when we’re asleep?” Or, perhaps more to the point, “Where do we go when we’re asleep?”

One obvious answer is that when we’re unconscious we occupy the “unconscious mind.” Tallis is dismissive, willfully restricting the definition of “unconscious” to Freud’s conception of “the unconscious.” With his trademark lack of restraint, Tallis characterizes the Freudian unconscious as “that multi-storied jerry-built word-castle which so many otherwise intelligent people have taken for a scientific idea.” Gee, Ray, why don’t you tell us what you really think?

Giving Tallis the benefit of the doubt that he’s not really dismissing the entire realm of unconscious mental processes, we can easily unpin the mind’s unconscious processes from their tarnished Freudian associations. After all, if the rest of the body has them, why not the brain?

We know with ever-increasing detail and certainty that most of what our bodies do and much of what our minds experience have their origins in automatic or instinctive processes that we do not consciously control. How many mL of oxygenated blood does your left thigh muscle need you to pump through the arteries in your leg in order to maintain your present body stasis? You don’t know? Neither do I. How many different visual stimuli just entered your right eye? How many of them have been collected and sent to the brain to be organized into a recognizable image? How is that collection and organizing done? What microseconds-long decision algorithms regulate these processes? What attention choices did you make before you noticed the fly on the ceiling? I don’t know, and neither do you.

None of this concerns us much. We’re used to it. It’s just something that parts of us do to benefit other parts. I’m pretty sure that your sense of self is not threatened by the knowledge that you don’t consciously control all of the thousand and one things that are going on in your body every moment of every day.

But what does interest me, and it should interest you, too, is what it means to my sense of self, to my “I” and “me,” that so much of what my body does and my mind thinks doesn’t need “me” at all.

So what am I, then, if my body works without me all day long — and even when I dream, my brain works without me all night long?

Hamlet’s fear of a worse world to come was wrong. We don’t sleep after we die, and we certainly don’t dream. The real issue is, how much of “me” dies when I sleep, and sleeps when I dream?

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