Home Personal Psychology Sleeping/Dreaming Dreamer Beware: The Insightful Dreams of Sarah, Dan and Katherine

Dreamer Beware: The Insightful Dreams of Sarah, Dan and Katherine

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Is There Really a Committee of Sleep?

I have been following Deirdre Barrett’s vision of a sleep committee and have suggested that this committee makes important, strategic decisions regarding the nature and purpose of dreams. Is this notion of a committee nothing more than a metaphor. It is certainly a compelling metaphor that has helped Deirdre Barrett sell quite a few copies of her book; however, can we really say that a committee of some sort exists in our psyche?

We now know that there is no executive function operating in our brain that controls and coordinates all of the diverse functions of the brain. In many ways, according to Karl Pribram, the noted neuroscientist, the brain operates like a dynamic holograph (Hampton-Turner, 1981. pp. 94-97). Rather, like many complex systems, the human brain operates without hierarchical control by one unit of the system (Waldrop,1992). Why then should we consider a committee that provides some executive function when we are asleep?

Committee: To Be or Not to Be

I offer three answers regarding the matter of a sleep committee. First, even if this is just a metaphor, the notion of a committee is critical to appreciating the purposeful role that dreams can play in helping us navigate our complex lives. Even if there is no actual committee, we can engage our dreams with the assumption that they were meant somehow to guide us in our life. So, let’s pretend that the committee exists—just as we pretend that the content of our dreams is insightful and meant to be of benefit to us.

I offer a second answer. The committee does exist as one of the self-organizing elements of the complex neurological system that we call our “brain.” As Ilya Prigogine (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984), a Nobel prize winning scientist, has proposed, system do not need to be organized by some outside entity. They will self-organize. We might find an example of this self-organization in the structuring of a dream during the night. Perhaps the peremptory ideational trains that I focused on in one of my previous essays (Bergquist, 2023a; Bergquist, 2023b) provides something of the original impetus for and even preliminary structure of the committee.

We have a lingering concern about some issue that draws in related concerns, past experiences and hope for the future. They bind together and create the opportunity for formulation of a poetic image or dramatic enactment (much as we do when awake). At some point, this image or enactment precipitates the firing of neurons in our visual cortex (and sometimes our auditory cortex). Certain functions are shut down (such as our arms and lengths) so that we don’t somehow enact our dream (the exception being those who walk in their sleep). Other functions are left open—such as eye movements and certain muscles in our neck). We are now ready for the dream. It takes place.

Lucid Dreams

A third answer is available. There is a particular kind of dream that speaks to the capacity of us as dreamers to organize our dreams. This dream is called “lucid” and refers to our capacity to realize that we are dreaming when we are in the midst of a dream. According to Barrett (2001, p. 11):

“Lucid dreams are those in which the dreamer realizes he or she is dreaming during the course of the dream. Consciousness allows the dreamer to take volitional action. Lucid dreamers may recall plans for what to do in their dreams. They carry these out even as unexpected aspects of the dream state continue to flow.”

This capacity to know we are dreaming and to use this knowledge to influence the direction and content of the dream parallels a capacity we have when awake to think about our thinking and to reflect on the ways in which we experience our life. This capacity is often called “meta-cognition” and a form of higher order thinking. The presence of lucid dreaming suggests that we have the capacity for second order reflection even when we are asleep. As lucid dreamers we can provide our dream with some guidance and can focus on discerning the intentions of our dreams.

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