This exercise shows aspects of how dreams work and holds an inference as to how consciousness works too. I will describe the exercise first and then explain it and draw conclusions afterwards.
Make your self tired by staying up late; (so we are looking at creating sleep deprivation not physical exhaustion by extra activity). Build up as much sleep deprivation as you can. This works better if you accumulate sleep deprivation over a period of days, rather than just stay up late on one night. Sit at a dining table, and using the table, support your head with your right hand (left if left handed). With your left hand, hold a pebble or small smooth stone with only your thumb and index finger. Hold the pebble right at its edge. Rest your left arm on your left thigh, in such a way that the pebble is held directly over your foot. As you fall asleep, your left hand will drop the pebble but it will hit your foot and wake you up.
For this to work at its best, you need to be very tired and sleep deprived, so that you not only fall asleep very quickly, but so you start dreaming at once – it is the speed of descent into dream sleep that matters. Sleep (and therefore dream) deprivation is crucial to this exercise. You need to use a small pebble so you do not injure your foot, but then again, it needs to be sufficiently heavy or you risk not waking up at all. You can see that this is designed to wake you up as quickly as possible after entering dream sleep. If you enter dream sleep slowly (as we usually do), you may not notice what happens.
There is a less easy-to-use alternative to the suspended pebble but you need to be just as sleep/dream deprived. If you go on a bus journey that has to make many turnings, you can get the same effect. Each time you fall asleep, the bus will turn a corner and wake you up. With practice, this can result in many episodes of falling in and out of dream sleep, as long as you are not slumped or to supported by the bus seat. For best results, sit near the edge of your seat.
So this exercise is designed to get you into dream sleep as fast as possible and get you out of it, just as fast. Most people who do this report the same effect. Before explaining what that is, I need to detour slightly and talks of beginnings and endings.
When we read a book, we know where the beginning is. It is right at the front of the book (for westerners) and the left hand page is usually blank. There is usually a title, authors name and other info. The end of the book is signalled by blank pages and/or the rear cover. When we watch a TV programme, it has a clear start and a clear ending, with titles and perhaps particular music. We go to the movies and the theatre goes dark, signalling the beginning of the film. In real life such beginnings and endings are not so clear. When we read a novel, it has a clear beginning, as mentioned above but mostly we join a story that is already underway. We might join the story at the birth of the main character but as the story unfolds we will learn of what went on before, the characters parents perhaps or preceding and defining history. All stories are therefore connected and where we draw the beginning and ending lines is a matter of convenience, survival and culture but make no mistake – we draw those lines, consciously or unconsciously. With a book or a movie, the line is easy to see.
With dreams this is very far from the case. Many people report dreams that seem very real. So real, that on waking, they need time to adjust to the unreality of the dream and the emergent “real” reality of the new day. It is hugely significant that the mind can do this, that there is a facility in the brain that can arbitrate between realities, (and perhaps this fails in those we label as mentally ill). This exercise shows something most interesting, that being, we do not have dreams like a book or a movie, rather, we seem to join a dream that is already happening. This is why the exercise requires you to be dream-sleep deprived, for the most rapid descent possible into dream-sleep and the most rapid ascent out of it again. It is under these conditions that the dream can be seen as one you join.
What does it mean, that we seem to “join” a dream already happening? Three options emerge, that might be exclusive or all true in some way:
- An ever-changing dream has literally been going on all the time unconsciously and only becomes visible at the thresholds of sleep
- A dream is somehow held in memory and reactivated as dream sleep begins
- The brain back-fills the “time” creating an instant ‘history’ with its sense of chronological time.
Whilst it may be possible that a dream is going on all the time unconsciously and we join it at the onset of dream-sleep, this seems unlikely to me and brain research does not currently support such view. The kind of activities going on in a brain, change appearance between waking and sleeping. This does not disprove the continuous dream idea, the appearances of a continuous dream may be overlaid by the increased activity of a waking brain. Even so, this does not feel likely to me.
We do remember dreams, so a dream memory could be reactivated as descent into dream-sleep occurs. . . . . only it just doesn’t feel like that. When you remember a dream, it becomes somehow “fixed”, more like a picture, a remembered thought. Dreams themselves are always more dynamic and slippery, the reality can move and shift. As you fall asleep and rapidly wake up in this exercise, the time involved is very brief, perhaps half a second or less. The “joining” experience just does not feel like a memory being reactivated.
Many people have reported dreams that seemed to go on for hours but in fact lasted just a few minutes or seconds even. The classic report is, being woken up by the alarm, looking at the clock and falling asleep again. A dream happens and for whatever reason, the person wakes up again and cannot believe the time; a few minutes have past according to the clock but hours have happened in the dream. (Mostly, this phenomenon seems to involve hours and very rarely whole days. I have never seen a report involving weeks or months though some dreamers report jumping stages – jumping from being young to being older or back).
I think this exercise demonstrates that the brain can, in less than a half a second, backfill a sense of reality and time – and this is more than just a memory, or at least, more than ordinary memory. I would describe ordinary memory as a retrieval mechanism, triggered deliberately by me or automatically by an internal brain event or external happening in the world. I choose to remember a day last week, pictures emerge and I can arrange them chronologically. But there are other things that seem more dynamic than a simple retrieval of images. For example, my sense of self, the kind of person I think I am. This could be a memory but it is a much more complex one (if indeed it is a memory). That this sense acts like a memory sometimes is certainly the case but it is also so changeable and involves many things I find it hard or impossible to describe but I know these “things” are there. Sometimes these things become more visible at certain times than others. So, maybe these are unconscious memories lurking just below consciousness but partially perceivable like the distorted shapes of fish seen below the surface of dark water. For me, these things do not present as memories, they present as feelings, as emotions.
Elsewhere, I have described that feelings are not stored as memories. A thought becomes a memory almost immediately, and the memory is added to and subtracted from, as thought and memory interact to create something, which will then become a memory till more interaction occurs. But if you feel something, that feeling is not stored, you remember an event and as recall happens, a new fresh feeling occurs, that may seem identical to the feeling you had before but it is new. Feelings are always new – even the unwelcome ones. We cannot store a feeling, only remember having a feeling. When we remember the feeling from our past we might have a fresh new feeling triggered by it, or, it remains just a thought with very little emotional charge. And we cannot force a feeling to happen either. If you try to find a stored feeling or create a new one, it is a memory that will arrive and as it does it may trigger a feeling but also significantly, it may not. More is said of feelings elsewhere but for here, I will just register that many feelings are triggered by events and many are not triggered by anything we can see. They are triggered by unconscious events and perhaps other more mysterious sources. It is these “Deeper” feelings that the brains tries to control as it descends into and ascends out of sleep. An aspect of this control, or a by-product of the material it works with, is a retrospective “sense” of time, imposed by the brain on fluid feelings already present. In other words, we do not actually join a dream already happening, the brain instantly makes one when confronted by feelings that are not under its control. This becomes more visible if we go in and out of dream-sleep rapidly, hence the exercise to facilitate this. If the brain can make a whole dream in an instant, that seems to have lasted hours, what else can it do?
The brain backfills a sense of reality and time and the clearest way to get a sense of this happening, is to see its after effects when dealing with dream material, where it will organise, what may be random neurons firing, into a sequence. As the brain wakes up, this backfilling is consigned to memory as it gets to work on the real world now visible, and that action will label the dream as unreal.
So in summary, there is a split second at the interface between sleep and awake, where the brain is waking up and it imposes order on the dream fragments still happening in the waking. I have experimented a lot with what some call ‘mico sleep’, and seen each time how the brain will back-fill reality. This is important for our practice because as the brain has this facility, we get to see that the process of deciding what it real, is not completely under our control.
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