The simulaton life is a rich life experience provided by training our
minds to consider simulations of natural and human phenomena often
in order to gain depth in understanding, awareness, and compassion.
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dreams as simulation
Sleep seems such an essential activity to being human. As we consider our senses and our brain activity, we can incorporate thoughts about how the two adapt during our sleeping hours. Researchers study sleep as a specialty and subjects sign up for sleep studies after periods of insomnia in order to explore possible relief from that condition. We learn from that research. The anatomy we bring when we are awake and when we are asleep is identical, but we often experience the two quite differently. Let's spend a chapter considering our nighttime brain activity to consider the possible role of simulation as we sleep.
Three previous theories of dreams gained significant interest prior to the year 2000. Freudian, Jungian, and activation-synthesis theories dominated discussions about dreams in the twentieth century. Those three theories all began with the idea that there were major differences between waking cognition and dreaming, but recent dream investigations have found far more parallels between dreaming and waking thought than were suggested in previous theories. An important focus of recent investigation has been on the transition periods between sleeping and fully awake. Researchers refer to that period as waking sleep and much of what has been discovered about waking sleep parallels our human experience of imagination. Both appear to have full access to the same brain abilities and activities with varying levels of activity on two well-developed brain functions: sensory processing and sense of self.
When we cut ourselves off from sensory stimuli, we provide the brain full access to processing without new outside inputs. When we repress brain processes that maintain our sense of self, we provide the brain access to forming ideas and stories that aren't filtered by our personal convictions. Recent sleep reporting studies provide details whereby most dreams can be explained as taking advantage of daytime brain processing abilities except for the suppression of sensory processing and sense of self. Dream evidence seems corroborated by reporting of research subjects who describe their transition from sleep to wake states or wake to sleep states. Experiences reported by subjects placed in a dark, quiet room while feeling fully awake also support a new cognitive hypothesis for dreams as their experiences are similar to experiences during dream to waking states where sensory processing has not yet ramped up in the subject.
When relying on research subjects and their self-reports, we can consider that there are four aspects to what's being reported: the subject experiences a dreaming process, an experienced dream, a remembered dream, and finally a reported dream. When studying the language of subjects trained to report their dreams, the language contains much more representative content than persuasive content. As a result, combined with the fact there are large samples of reporters over time, the content of reported dreams lacks ego — the sense of self in the reports is minimized. As most subjects state that they don't feel much responsibility for the content of their dreams, they are less inhibited to report remembered content irrespective of the light that content might shed on their character.
Surprising when compared to older dream theory literature, the reports made by trained dream reporters are filled with details that carry over from the previous waking period more often than not. The dreams intermix details from memories and imaginary alternate versions of those memories with those details, but the details are present as part of the dream. The imaginary play with alternate versions changes as the subject is aware of outside stimuli in a way that mimics day dreaming behavior closely — close enough to hypothesize they are identical in brain function for future study. Epic stories and experiences that lack a sense of connectivity to the dreamer might be explained completely by the suppression of brain activity that maintains the sense of self. Reports to date provide enough evidence to hypothesize other brain activity is identical, also warranting further study.
I appreciate this point of view as a lens through which I can evaluate my dream experience in life. My dream life seems to go through periods where all the dreams I remember come in groups that are similar in effect — yet those periods are quite different from each other. I might go through a series of dreams that provide a haunting sense of place that isn't quite familiar but comfortable — where I have no sense of anyone else in the dream but myself. Then I experience a group of dreams that seem to piece together memories into new experiences from component parts that never existed together in my waking life — where people I know come together from distinct times in my life to be co-present in a dream. Then I remember a series of ethically challenging dilemmas from dreams where I find myself in situations that require I act — where I need to consider complex concepts beforehand. Of course, most often, I go through days and weeks of sleep where I have no recollection of any dreams at all. Current research suggests people don't remember dreams very often unless consciously intending to do so beforehand. I can believe that based on my experience with dream investigation.
One of my most memorable and insightful experiences from high school came from an assignment in psychology class in which we were required to keep a journal of our dreams for three months. Our teacher motivated us to practice a process whereby we'd train our brains to be hyperaware of a journal notepad and pencil we kept near our bed. My teacher suggested we work to develop a habit of lunging for pen and paper as our first act upon becoming aware we were emerging into an awakened state after sleeping. As soon as we could, she asked that we write down any dreams we could remember. I was skeptical but also highly motivated as I realized I was curious about my dream life — especially since some of the psychiatrists we were to study had formed opinions about dreams and their significance.
The training worked and my lunging became second nature much faster than I would have guessed it could. I found I was able to record my dream life quite voraciously as I experienced an ability to remember my dreams quite vividly. The results were often highly insightful as dreams of a confused youth coming of age in suburbia in the 1970s. The assignment apparently gave me the ability to investigate my most intimate concerns as they were played out in dream scenarios. I recorded dreams you might expect from a sixteen year-old young adult. Dreams played out themes of interacting with the opposite sex, finding a voice to be brave in situations that were uncomfortable, seeing potential futures where my current life perspective was inadequate, and learning to deal with aggression in others. It became apparent that I was overwhelmed more often than not with the situations in my dreams. In light of a new perspective on dreams, I could agree my dreams bypassed the strong sense of self-preservation I took daily to a rough and tumble inner-city high school experience. My strong need for self-preservation at that time likely simplified all that was going on around me into a comfortable worldview that let me study, play sports, and enjoy my friends without conflict.
To both my family and me, I seemed very far from being willing to discuss or let alone raise topics of which my dreams were full of relevance. There was a sense of exasperation and despair associated in the details I had chosen to write down as if in contradiction to my day-to-day reporting of life to others. I faithfully wrote words down as my teacher had assigned me to do, but I glossed over them at the time as they brought me much concern and I wasn't in the habit of letting myself delve into concerns. Upon finding my journal years later, my mother and sister were quite amazed by the words I had scratched out when I felt the words were too intimate to put to paper. Thankfully, the words were still identifiable under the scratches. Even I came to the conclusion the words came from a voice much more mature than any voice I had assumed in my day-to-day life. It wasn't until I found that assignment ten years later that I realized that I had earned the top marks it received. The journal read like something I would have expected from a teenager with a suicide risk — not from a student thriving in learning and playing sport with good friends and excellent teachers.
I recently went through a period where I became aware I was dreaming without immediately returning to an awakened state. I became aware of having a choice as to whether I was going to stay in a dream or not and yet having that decision available didn't seem to have any impact as to where the dream headed. I woke with that ability for a few days in a row (another group of dreams I remembered in succession) and upon writing about it realized the mental load it took to prepare myself to make that ability available to myself in future dreams. I came to the conclusion that such a mental effort could be better be used elsewhere and that I probably needed all the sleep I could get, whatever the natural purpose of sleep was towards a healthy mental state. I experienced myself as much more tired during a day after having had the awareness of being in control of a dream state. As it turned out, I became disappointed with finding a skill I had been hoping to find for some time. I came to the conclusion that my brain processing is actively using all the resources available and new cognitive loads were going to take processing away from other brain functions. That conclusion helped me buy into the possibility that my dreaming brain was identical to my daytime brain except I had more time to elaborate on details since my brain was not busy with processing outside stimuli or keeping my sense of self active.
The one consistent feeling I get upon waking or upon soon thereafter revisiting my dreams in a wakened state is that I have emerged from a simulation. This confirms another hypothesis worth further exploration I have read about dreams — they tend to take on the interests and concerns of the dreamer. Since I spend my days thinking about how simulation may help provide insight and understanding, I can suspect that my dreams are packaged more as simulations since my brain is being trained to consider simulations I present to it for processing.
The dream as simulation experience is not that different from emerging from a movie plot back into my own life, except that I feel a bit like the filmmaker because I identify much of the material of the simulation as coming from my personal life. The experience is not as linear as a movie though — time has a different quality whereby it speeds up and slows down. Another big difference is I wake with feeling a more personal stake in the dream — I want to explore it and dissect it because it came from my brain. I often enough wake up with a huge relief or a huge disappointment in realizing the situation in my dream did not carry over to my waking life. It can feel great not to have missed a high school exam by showing up at the wrong place, but just as likely feel saddened that I had not just spent time with a long-lost friend who expressed affection for me in life.
Whenever I encounter a dream as a particularly well-packaged simulation, I find myself revisiting the details immediately to think through the events that occurred. I might even creatively play with some of the details to see the effect that version of the dream would have on me. I remember a period whereby I could make myself quite anxious if I added supernatural phenomena to a dream I had just had — wondering if my sleeping body would have handled the experience or whether I would have died right then in my sleep. I often thought my dream was just on the edge of becoming something I would not have been able to handle. I am glad those thoughts have long past. My dreams have suggested they are governed by enough of me to never get to a point of something I could not handle — they have become allies in my personal growth over time.
As I continue to evaluate my dreams as if they were simulations of reality I could experience in my future, I am surprised how different the same simulation can feel emotionally — depending on which category of dream type I am having from the different groups of dream types I have experienced. The haunting place dreams when I am alone seem to use multiple places I have experienced as fodder for their haunting detail. Because they were so haunting, they still quickly come to mind. For example, I can immediately bring back details from a dream in which I am hiking in a high plateau among ample rocks of different sizes in an arid climate for a full day (I track the sun across the sky) only to descend among the rocks at sunset to a line of headlights approaching from some far off roadway. Another I remember vividly is where I am skiing alone on a late spring day when a ski lift runs incessantly without human operation and I ski down a snowy ski run only to transition into a golden hayfield over the course of a couple of meters transition — I take the run many times without seeing any other life but the hay and without having any personal opinions or concerns. Those types of dreams seem to have a very calming effect on my waking life — except for the haunting aspect that I can't quite tie the place to any particular life experience I remember having nor make any sense of any relevance for the dream outside of reminding me how much I enjoy being alone in outdoor settings.
Other simulations from the category of ethical dreams seem to present simulations of my daily life that require decisions that are right at the cusp of my opinion between right and wrong. I don't recognize having thought about a particular ethical concern with much detail at all in my waking life, but I seem to be able to recall the detail once awake to help me think through the decision as if I actually had to make it at some near point in the future. Those simulations feel like someone is trying to put my mind through its paces while I sleep and, depending on the situation, either continue into my waking day or provide a huge sense of relief and appreciation that I can delay forming any conclusions until a future date. The dreams are valuable to me in suggesting I should continue to maintain my brain function as I may need to rely on it in the future.
A third category of dreams seems to push me to contemplate the limitations of time and space in the waking world. My mind seems to try and compensate for the limitation of control in my life's experience by conveniently combining details of time and place to create new combinations I may have learned from or enjoyed in my waking life. Most noticeably are dreams where people from different epochs of my life are co-present with me performing an activity or discussing a phenomenon. Almost just as noticeable are dreams where details of my life come together across places I lived or spent time enough to tie the object to an awareness of when an where I encountered it. Those dreams could easily have been created as daytime thought experiments had I chosen to do so and yet I don't recall anytime in my life when I explicitly set out to have such a thought experiment. My dreams play out hypotheses like those I hear sportscasters suggest — questions like "what if Larry Bird had played on the same basketball team as Kobe Bryant?" I rarely am engaged in putting my own effort into sportscaster's scenarios. I am more likely to engage in my own dreams that have recently been played out while I slept, with people I more intimately know personally through a relationship they have had with me.
When I wonder why I experience such a discrete categorization of dreams from different periods of my dream life, I come to the conclusion that the time spent evaluating a dream feeds back into improving the likelihood I will have a similar dream soon. Or, alternatively, that I am more likely to remember a dream if I have spent time remembering one of a similar genre recently. I have learned to appreciate the categorization because it provides me a better opportunity to see a connection between each genre and its potential on fine-tuning an embodied mind. Haunting place-specific dreams seem to suggest that I can become better at mindfully engaging with the physical details I encounter in my environment. Ethical dreams suggest I can become better at mindfully engaging the logical thought processes of my brain to pre-think future situations or overall societal concerns. Mixed up time-space dreams remind me of how limited my day-to-day life is by dimensionality, and how perhaps my embodied mind could benefit from intermixing experience across time and place to imagine meaningful combinations I have yet to encounter. If I consider all genres together, I find a rich fodder for suggesting new combinations of experiences to feed my brain in different sequences. Such food for thought can then encourage brain exercise.
If we really have opportunity to effect our dream function by our intent and reinforcement though conscious remembering details of dreams, we can be fascinated by following the work of researchers who investigate hypotheses about the purpose of dreams.
Antti Revonsuo, a cognitive neuroscience researcher in Finland, investigates dreams and has investigated a large enough sample to find that negative emotions and aggressive interactions are more common in dreams than their positive counterparts of positive emotion and submissive or peaceful interactions. She suggests such a finding supports a hypothesis that dreams provide dangerous situations in order for people to prepare for such possibility during their waking lives.
Researchers pursuing the hypothesis that the dreaming brain is identical to the awake brain except for processing new stimuli and maintaining a sense of self add the consideration that the lack of sense of self includes the relaxation of brain processes that remind us of who we are, where we are, and what the tasks are that immediately face us. That relaxation allows us to travel to exotic places in sleep that are not accessible to where we physically lie. It also allows us to review or anticipate tasks that aren't likely to be encountered in our current daily life.
Other researchers have found that dreams can present highly illogical hodgepodges of memories and personal associations that offer dream experiences that are not likely in daily life. Such combination and recombination of materials can provide the brain a workout during sleep. The result of such dreams can inspire, calm, or bewilder the dreamer in ways that make the dream more memorable when awaking from sleep.
A category of dream theorists says that dreams have a problem-solving function. In their theories, dreams supposedly deal with problems we can't or haven't yet solved in waking life in order to offer solutions. A variety of systematic studies testing the problem-solving hypothesis have found only minimal support for this view. Instead what research can support is the finding that we have learned to develop uses for our dreams as part of a cultural interest in doing so — as an idea shared by social cognition. As we review dreams in the light of a waking day, and believe that they may be full of insight, we may sometimes come up with new ideas or insights through the activity of studying them. That is, we have invented a use for dreams, but that doesn't mean that problem solving is a psychological function of dreams built into us over evolutionary time.
I like that last train of thought because it suggests dreams are useful as simulations whether the simulation is a purpose of dreams or not. The dream does not even need to flush out the simulation completely — I can build the rest of the simulation myself through the combination of my imagination with the fodder provided by my dreams. Dreams become an opportunity to consider the raw materials that my pattern-recognition processing brain uses in different time-sequenced orders than what I have experienced in my waking life. I can associate inputs from two completely different periods of my life into one simulation in order to think through those inputs for insight and understanding. There is a rich sense of possibility that comes from following up on dreams with a particular interest in building more fully-formed simulations from any rich pieces suggested during sleep.
In this light, I can try and convince myself that my dreams became more meaningful because I was looking to find meaning in them. That would not be much of a stretch in the case of my high school psychology assignment. Our assignment was specifically to write down our dreams for three months and then evaluate the dreams for meaning in the form of a journal to be turned in for grading. The emotional states brought on by the genres of dreams I categorized — haunting places, uncomfortable ethical decisions, unexpected combinations of people — naturally begged me to consider a reason for riling me up emotionally. If there is not enough evidence to support a hypothesis that a purpose of dreams is to problem-solve by gaining new insight and understanding, we might still find evidence to support a hypothesis that the cultural interest in investigating dreams comes from a purpose of dreams to invade our waking life with an emotional motivation to investigate them.
If investigating our dreams brings an evolutionary advantage by getting us to find new insights and understanding, we can suggest simulation in general could offer a similar evolutionary advantage. If culturally we can gain momentum in an interest to simulate phenomenon for consideration, we can perhaps gain the same benefit of insight and understanding that investigating dreams provides in the form of investigating simulations. The process seems similar. We start by noticing something we have experienced — in the case of dreams while we sleep and in the case of simulation as we perceive. We expand on that detail to flush out a wider domain of interest. We scope the domain into something we can investigate. We then gain insight and understanding from investigating that scope.
We can continue this concept of simulating phenomena by adding the power of our imagination to the simulation development activity. Such is the topic for chapter 6.