Sunday, April 15, 2012

On Van Eeden, LaBerge, and Hobson

Currently, I am writing a paper for my psychology class. What else shall I talk about other than architecture in dreams?

It didn't occur to me to research on my own, before this paper was assigned. Almost everything I've ever written about or thought of came from my own mind. I never know about Frederik van Eeden, who gave lucid dreaming its name, or Stephen LaBerge until a few weeks ago. So I really don't know much about what I've been exploring in myself for the past.... 10 years (I began in 2002).

However, even though I haven't read up on all these philosophers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and studies beforehand, I've come to the same conclusions myself on many topics. So I suppose I should say I know what I'm talking about, based on personal experience and observations, not from textbooks.
Something I've been struggling with is finding texts about architecture, specifically, in dreams. But I came across this chapter on the cognitive unconscious, written by influential dream researcher Allan Hobson, which explains well the influence of the waking world (read: built world) on the dream world:
Are the brain's perceptual structures unconscious? Certainly. How else could I see, with surrealistic clarity, my dream bird hat with no external stimulus? In waking consciousness, every perceptual encounter is a match between an internal structure and an external stimulus. Without visual experience, the blind do not see -- either in their dreams or when their sight is magically restored. In this view the brain is an image file, but remember, it is much more than that, because it can fabricate new images as well as call up old ones. My bird hat is a good example of this novel image-making capability. It is this creative aspect that is at the center of the recent debate between psychoanalysts and cognitivists regarding the nature of the unconscious mind.
As soon as a percept suggests a scene -- be it my internally generated bird hat in a dream or the aquamarine Mediterranean Sea shimmering now beyond my vine-covered balcony -- my cognitive unconscious seeks to situate the stimulus in a context. The time: What day is today? The place: Where am I? And the personnel: Who is with me? If I attend to any of a myriad details, the answer -- in waking -- is unequivocally clear, because the context is given by the world. This is Stromboli. The volcano smokes above me. The Miramar Hotel porch with its characteristic Aeolian architecture frames my view. The cast of characters, the blend of my first and second families, has a reassuring unity. My son Ian has brought me the Gazetta del Sud, July 23, with its lurid tales of Mafia mischief. The chambermaid strolls by, singing, "La prima amore no si scordo mai," and even though I am busily writing, I know her song means sthat one's first love is never forgotten.
Without this external structure -- and without full access to attention or recent memory -- my cognitive unconscious does the best it can in my wedding dream. It creates the context, George Vaillant's house and garden, with a nodding obeisance to certain rules: the house is old, stylish, rambling, and full of antiques. The garden is intricate, full of terraces, walls, perennials, fountains, and hidden places. So far so good. These are the formal features of the Vaillant manse in Dedham, Massachusetts, all right. But they are organized in a completely novel way. So novel, in fact, that when I awake, I will be puzzled, if not downright consternated, by their imperfect fit with reality.
The incongruence between the dream house and the real house is surprising because now, awake, I can visualize the actual house quite easily. I could even draw a floor plan and a map of the garden that I believe would be quite accurate. To account for such a glaring discrepancy, I need to consider factors other than the absence of waking context signals. My cognitive unconscious has clearly different operating properties in dreaming. It is not only inattentive to perceptual detail, but also inattentive to its inattentiveness! I have lost the ability to image accurately. And I have lost the ability to monitor my inaccuracy. What is missing? The superego? I doubt it. A brain chemical? I am sure of it.
But a fair exchange is no robbery, as the saying goes. My cognitive losses are compensated. For my loss of perceptual and orientational accuracy, I have gained autocreative freedom. I could never in waking create so convincing a false scenario as I effortlessly dream.
My confabulatory powers are enhanced. So are my artistic talents: I paint a more colorful picture of myself than any photograph could possibly record. In my dream, I am a Fellini character costumed in grotesque, comical garb. This is why the surrealists working with Andrew Breton were so interested in dreaming. And it is why even more traditional writers, like Robert Louis Stevenson, for example, so frequently turn to dreams when stuck for a plot solution. Stevenson said he could reliably consult with his dream brownies (or fairies) when he needed a fabulous fiction. His Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde transformation was born of one such dream dialogue.

Hobson, Allan J. (1999). Consciousness. New York, NY: Scientific American Library (48-50).

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