Wednesday, January 11, 2017


The Blackfeet people (probably most of the prairie tribes pre-encounter) had a culture based on dreams, that is, internal experiences that were vivid guides to life.  They valued these, even went out of their way to experience them.  They were the key to ceremonies and an assurance that life was far more than the daily routine of the camp, the hunt, and the family.  

There is a tribe — not in the Americas, but I forget where — that values dreams in a slightly different way.  Their practice is to tell each other their dreams every morning.  They greet children with the question, “Did you dream anything last night?”  As I remember, they were just interested, not trying to find symbols or predictions.  

My mother, however, had a dream book she kept by her bedside and consulted if her night had been vivid.  It made no sense to me.  Gypsy stuff.  “You will meet a handsome stranger.”  “You will travel across water.”  I write out my dreams and reflect on what they might mean.  Once in a long while, if under extreme pressure, a dream that’s neon in its intensity will “happen.”  I take them seriously.

But I had never run across quite this version of the subject until this morning on one of my site feeds:

I think Cinematheque might recognize this, even draw on it for their videos.  

There’s a website:   It might be diagnosed as autism or dissociation, which are part of the shattering consequences of abuse in childhood or extreme trauma even in adults.  The brain goes on a runaway, and in this article that is not unpleasant, even invited and valued.  The trouble is that it interferes with what is traditionally called “real life.”

Using those structures and images, those story-paths and visions, can be very helpful for an artist or writer and, in fact, they may reach out to what is formally called entheogens, drugs which are hoped to break through into another “world.”  Maybe religious, certainly mystical.

With the recent invention of fMRI and other technical scrutinizing and recording devices, we have added new ways of looking at experiences such as these.  Let’s make a list:

1.  Scientific laboratory evidence of brain activity by tracing electrochemical signals, by recording blood flow, by infecting neurons in ways that make them light up when active (only done with animals so far), by radioactive tracing, and so on.  In this way we have direct observation of where things are happening but not WHAT, except that we know some places in the brain specialize in pleasure or pain or mapping or memory, which may cause hormonal molecules to be created and disseminated.

2.  Direct observation of someone may be video-recorded.  Possibly a researcher might interfere with someone’s brain by using magnets, or playing sounds, or introducing chemicals.  In rather desperate attempts to jolt a malfunctioning brain into “normal”, we might use electroconvulsive therapy, or insulin shock.  Animals may have parts of the brain surgically removed or, even in humans, the two hemispheres separated.  (We don’t do lobotomies anymore, do we?)

3.  Reports by people of their internal life while under hypnosis or taking “truth serum.”  Somehow this seems more compelling than people in a daily ordinary state reporting their moods or fantasies, though lying down and free-associating can work to some degree.  That’s psychoanalysis and usually responds to some proposed “system” devised by some authority.  

It is subjective and personal, but interpreted by someone who knows the system, which is also subjective but not originating in the dreaming person.  It is a common “folk” practice to assume that a fish means this and a teakettle means that, universally, everywhere, even though the person might not even know what a teakettle is, and indeed, teakettles vary.  Smart analysts ask the patient what a teakettle means to that individual.  

4.  Religious interpreters are a special and culturally validated sort of psychoanalyst using a system likely to be ecologically based, the family being a personal ecology.  Christianity and Shinto use the family as reference.  Ag cultures dream of lambs and seeds.

5.  Philosophers, especially males in their twenties in an academic setting, spend a lot of time introspecting, ransacking their inner thought constructs in a way usually more like math than evocative art forms.  Sometimes these internally generated systems become more real than the real world, but mostly — in a setting where people argue constantly according to objective rules and principles — philosophy remains engaged with real life and possibly even useful.

Brains are the dashboards of the bodily symphony of perceptions, most of them entirely unconscious like the heart beat or peristalsis, but capable of prompting waking mood and even calling up dreams.  As I age, I’m aware of much going on that is just under consciousness, like the word I’m trying to think of or the information about where I left the pickup keys.  Beyond that, when I read something packed with revelations, the physical feeling (it IS physical to me) of understanding, of seeing the meaning of it, never quite breaks up through the ice-sheet separating conscious from unconscious.  Some thoughts will keep trying to get through and may arrive in thought as a dream or simply when my brain’s guard is down and I’m only washing the dishes.

There is no scientific method for philosophy.  One asks “artistic” questions: is it a beautiful idea, is it parsimonious, is it precedented, is it confirmed by others (often a sub-group of the larger culture).  There are boundaries enforced by opinions from peers and by the “foundations” of the traditional educational canon.  It can be a great shock to Westerners when they discover Asian assumptions.  The Islamists have still not recovered from forbidden Western ideas.

But there IS a scientific method for the “objective” study of the brain’s mechanisms — gating, intensifying, editing, transforming, interpreting — in terms of results.  For these people in the article who are seized by dreaming, there may be some tiny neuron nexus that isn’t turning down the volume or ending7hyju persistence of dreams.  Or it may not be in the solid flesh of brain tissues but rather in the molecular loops of hormones and enzymes.  One can hardly keep from thinking of the stereotypical opium den in China where people lie on couches with their pipes, dreaming and dreaming.  Someone must have written down what they “saw.”  Coleridge?

Children seem to have trouble separating the reality that is shared with everyone else from their own private world.  As a pre-schooler I was convinced that a little red airplane landed in the street in front of our house.  I was so insistent that my mother took me outside and showed me that there were so many high wires between poles that no plane could get through.  Kenner’s question would be “what did it mean?”  But no one asked me that at the time.  I ask it now.

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