The Mechanics of Dreams

Guha: There has to be a biological basis of dreams. There are many biological functions going on in the brain which are very intricate and sophisticated. These are powerful mechanisms created by Nature. It is a superb intelligence and its innate tinkering. Intelligence means, it is functioning for itself, you know. For example, you suddenly get unparalleled energy and stamina to save yourself in a dangerous situation, which otherwise is beyond your normal capacity. Such an effort came to us through the evolution of life. Thought is a tool that came to our species to be utilized as a means for survival. We don’t have long teeth, we don’t have huge and tall body like a giraffe’s, but we have a tool which gives us indirect power to protect ourselves by enhancing the remembered present, to use a philosophical term. So, all these powerful ingredients are involved in creating a mechanism through which we function. But it is not going to work if it is overloaded, you have to clean it. Why do we need to sleep? Because it is important for the body to go through a different cycle for its own sake. Otherwise, it is going one way, you know, you’re just continuously acquiring things. It has to purge, it has to clean itself to maintain the rhythm of life. A major component of dreams is a result of this purging process, the purging of memory. It is phenomenologically similar to our digestive system. It keeps information that is important for its functioning and throws out the rest, some of which we experience as dreams. In the state of rest or sleep – and it’s not a state in which everything is inactive – a massive mechanism is going on. It is like the background processes in a computer that do self-cleaning and optimizing. We are a biological computer created by the magnificent workings of Nature. It created a function that is involved in producing thoughts and ideas which learn how to derive energy from the environment. It is so mysterious and it presents itself in so many strange ways that it is impossible for us to know.

The movement that is allowed in the dream state is normally produced by inhibiting the motor neurons. The motor neurons control muscle movements which gives us the power to move. Without the activity of the motor neurons you cannot move or do anything. The neurons in the brain are connected through electro-chemical interaction. They start injecting very specific neurotransmitters which gradually inhibit selective circuits in the brain which are connected to the body. The motor neurons are completely inhibited during sleep. So, your hands and legs cannot move and even speech is mostly impaired. But vital organs like the heart, lungs, sex organs etc. continue to remain active in dream. Any movement that is experienced by the brain in dream is a smooth movement from place to place. You are either a witness of an unfolding scene or moving with the scenes as if gliding or flying. Without this inhibition you will suddenly try to run because you see something coming towards you in a dream and the visual cortex and the motor neurons get activated because you are seeing something. People who have a defective circuit sleepwalk. So, this is not perfect. There are always nooks and crannies in which defects exist just like our diseases.

The struggle in the brain for something desirable sometimes gives a glimpse of the various possibilities. And one of the possibilities could be a very good solution. For example, if I am working very hard on a problem and I am thinking about it continuously, I begin to dream about the aspects of the problem because my system is trying to work it out even during sleep. And I might find a most beautiful solution in dream. All dreams and thoughts are part of the many possibilities, some of which can actualize. You can never dream of anything that has no reference in your information world. It is a combination of different things and can form a story line of its own. The components are all part of the known. We know very little and the rest is speculation. Some speculations are satisfying to the play of intention and some are depressing as they go against the intention. One day you see yourself frolicking in a dream, another day you see yourself floating in the seventh heaven with eyes closed and the world’s glory being revealed to you! Then you end up writing Saundarya Lahari (The Waves of Beauty by Shankaracharya) or propound Advaita Vedanta!

Compiled from various talks on this subject during 2019 and 2020 in India and USA.