The Frontal Cortex

The Head Trip

Bookslut has a really interesting interview with Jeff Warren, author of The Head Trip:

Q: It turns out sleep is more interesting than we usually expect — and that it even has a history! What are some key misconceptions about sleep?

A: I would like to spiel about dreaming for a moment if you don’t mind. The writer Rodger Kamenetz tipped me off to a great Borges quote. Borges once wrote: “Lately I’ve been rereading psychology books, and I have felt singularly defrauded. All of them discuss the mechanisms of dreams or the subjects of dreams, but they do not mention, as I had hoped, that which is so astonishing, so strange — the fact of dreaming.”

The fact of dreaming. When you wake up in a dream and actually take a look around — it’s bananas. It’s the absolute craziest goddamn thing in all of human life. Every night we beam down into an elaborate virtual world where we can pound the walls with our oven-mitt fists and sniff giant daisies and have elliptical conversations with archetypal bus drivers. From inside a dream there is nothing vague or washed out about the experience — dreams are totally real, as real as getting off the plane in Lagos and ordering a beer from some guy at the side of the road. You are at this place — you’re IN it! At the time it’s every bit as solid and real as waking. Except… and this is what’s so cool… except when you’re self-consciously aware inside the dream you can then squeeze up real close to the walls with your little magnifying glass and look for suture marks. You can conduct experiments. You come to realize that there is a set of laws operating in the dream world that is every bit as real as the laws of physics in the waking world. What are these laws? And why aren’t there as many scientists down here with their slide rules and theories as there are out there? We spend our lives in two worlds and yet we only pay attention to one of them — the other is seen as an embarrassing curiosity, a forum for banality-rehearsal and botched sex.

People protest: “but it’s not real, stop living in fantasy.” All experience is real. On the personal side, dreams reveal all kinds of junk about the self. On the scientific side, our dreams represent an unparalleled opportunity to examine the dynamics of consciousness. I mean think about it: without sensory input to dilute everything, you get consciousness in a pure culture. And it so happens that this pure culture — The Dream — runs like an underground creek beneath the waking world, muddying the ground in all kinds of interesting ways.

And that’s just the conventional science. Who knows what else we may discover digging around in the dream world. For those interested in the wooly world of mind-matter speculation, the epistemological rabbit hole goes very deep indeed.

This is going to sound hyperbolic but I really believe we’re at are at the dawn of a new age of scientific exploration. The external world is mapped; now the explorers are turning inward. The galleons have left port. They’re approaching a huge mysterious continent. They won’t be the first to arrive. There are paths already cut in the forest, where shamans and monks and others have set up outposts and launched their own expeditions into the interior.

It’s a thrilling story, a lurid epic in the making, and yet almost no one has any idea it’s happening.

As far as our misconceptions about sleep, I would say the biggest one is this idea that we lose consciousness when the lights go out. This couldn’t be further from the truth. At night consciousness just turns inside out. Instead of moving through a world constructed from sensory input, we move through a world constructed from memory and imagination. We do lose certain self-reflective properties, and — critically — our short-term memories are compromised so we don’t remember many of our experiences. But when you wake people up in the night most of them report some kind of mental activity — either the strange snap-shot narratives of sleep onset, the fully immersive dreams of REM, or the low-level “mentation” of deep sleep. Even in the emptiest bliss-saturated realms of slow wave sleep the experiencing self remains. Consciousness is 24-hours.

And everyone should definitely check out The Head Trip. It’s a fantastic exploration of the fringes of consciousness, those liminal spaces (like the hypnagogic dream state) where the spit and glue of reality come undone and we can see, quite lucidly, the “baseless fabric” of our vision. It’s also full of immensely interesting tidbits, like polyphasic sleep, the napping habits of hunter-gatherers, and the EEG signature of a daydream.

Via Mindhacks


  1. #1 Dan Miller
    June 12, 2008

    For the final word on the subject, see this classic xkcd.

  2. #2 Mozglubov
    June 13, 2008

    Odd, I really thought you would be using this xkcd. I think the one you linked to is slightly more relevant, though…

    Additionally, one interesting aspect of dreaming is the narcoleptic tendency to dream immediately upon going to sleep. Apparently most people need to sleep for a significant chunk of time before they going into the dream cycle (at least that is what I’ve learned in at least two of my courses), but I can (and usually do) start dreaming within a minute or two of falling asleep. Very often this immediate dream is just a continuation of my waking environment, only slightly altered (one of the most memorable being in highschool when I was sitting in my geometry class, only suddenly there was a terrifying man glaring at me through the window. I woke up startled, only to see that it was my track coach walking by).

    Anyway, dreams are fun, but I am wary of most discussions about them simply because I think most people get it rather wrong or at least leave out the term “typically”. For example, I have read that people are not supposed to be able to read or write coherently in their dreams, but I have plenty of dreams in which I am doing just that (and once, after falling asleep in class, I even woke up to see that I had written in the middle of my notes “George W. Bush is a big…” I would have been curious to find out just what my dreaming state thought of Bush, but alas I never did get to find out since someone poked me awake). Does anyone else find themselves reading facts about dreams and dreaming and thinking, “Hey, I do it differently!”

  3. #3 Lee Pirozzi
    June 14, 2008

    One of my dream/nightmares will be at Agora Gallery, along with a few (frontal cortex sculptures – none as well wired as the real thing), but if you stumble along in Chelsea, please take a peak June 26 – July 17. Just an invitation and thank you for enduring my blogs here.

  4. #4 Herbal Amanda
    June 17, 2008

    I always think of the dichotomy of waking input to dreaming to photosynthesis. The waking world where we receive input is like the the light reactions and sleeping and dreaming like the dark reactions.

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