Metaphors of the Mind

  1. Part 1 The Brain
  2. Part 2 Psychology and Psychotherapy
  3. Part 3 The Dialogue of Dreams

Part 1 The Brain

The brain (and, by implication, the mind) have been compared to the latest technological innovation in every generation. The computer metaphor is now in vogue. Computer hardware metaphors were replaced by software metaphors and, lately, by (neuronal) network metaphors.

Metaphors are not confined to the philosophy of neurology. Architects and mathematicians, for instance, have lately come up with the structural concept of "tensegrity" to explain the phenomenon of life. The tendency of humans to see patterns and structures everywhere (even where there are none) is well documented and probably has its survival value.

Another trend is to discount these metaphors as erroneous, irrelevant, deceptive, and misleading. Understanding the mind is a recursive business, rife with self-reference. The entities or processes to which the brain is compared are also "brain-children", the results of "brain-storming", conceived by "minds". What is a computer, a software application, a communications network if not a (material) representation of cerebral events?

A necessary and sufficient connection surely exists between man-made things, tangible and intangible, and human minds. Even a gas pump has a "mind-correlate". It is also conceivable that representations of the "non-human" parts of the Universe exist in our minds, whether a-priori (not deriving from experience) or a-posteriori (dependent upon experience). This "correlation", "emulation", "simulation", "representation" (in short : close connection) between the "excretions", "output", "spin-offs", "products" of the human mind and the human mind itself - is a key to understanding it.

This claim is an instance of a much broader category of claims: that we can learn about the artist by his art, about a creator by his creation, and generally: about the origin by any of the derivatives, inheritors, successors, products and similes thereof.

This general contention is especially strong when the origin and the product share the same nature. If the origin is human (father) and the product is human (child) - there is an enormous amount of data that can be derived from the product and safely applied to the origin. The closer the origin to the product - the more we can learn about the origin from the product.

We have said that knowing the product - we can usually know the origin. The reason is that knowledge about product "collapses" the set of probabilities and increases our knowledge about the origin. Yet, the converse is not always true. The same origin can give rise to many types of entirely unrelated products. There are too many free variables here. The origin exists as a "wave function": a series of potentialities with attached probabilities, the potentials being the logically and physically possible products.

What can we learn about the origin by a crude perusal to the product? Mostly observable structural and functional traits and attributes. We cannot learn a thing about the "true nature" of the origin. We can not know the "true nature" of anything. This is the realm of metaphysics, not of physics.

Take Quantum Mechanics. It provides an astonishingly accurate description of micro-processes and of the Universe without saying much about their "essence". Modern physics strives to provide correct predictions - rather than to expound upon this or that worldview. It describes - it does not explain. Where interpretations are offered (e.g., the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics) they invariably run into philosophical snags. Modern science uses metaphors (e.g., particles and waves). Metaphors have proven to be useful scientific tools in the "thinking scientist's" kit. As these metaphors develop, they trace the developmental phases of the origin.

Consider the software-mind metaphor.

The computer is a "thinking machine" (however limited, simulated, recursive and mechanical). Similarly, the brain is a "thinking machine" (admittedly much more agile, versatile, non-linear, maybe even qualitatively different). Whatever the disparity between the two, they must be related to one another.

This relation is by virtue of two facts: (1) Both the brain and the computer are "thinking machines" and (2) the latter is the product of the former. Thus, the computer metaphor is an unusually tenable and potent one. It is likely to be further enhanced should organic or quantum computers transpire.

At the dawn of computing, software applications were authored serially, in machine language and with strict separation of data (called: "structures") and instruction code (called: "functions" or "procedures"). The machine language reflected the physical wiring of the hardware.

This is akin to the development of the embryonic brain (mind). In the early life of the human embryo, instructions (DNA) are also insulated from data (i.e., from amino acids and other life substances).

In early computing, databases were handled on a "listing" basis ("flat file"), were serial, and had no intrinsic relationship to one another. Early databases constituted a sort of substrate, ready to be acted upon. Only when "intermixed" in the computer (as a software application was run) were functions able to operate on structures.

This phase was followed by the "relational" organization of data (a primitive example of which is the spreadsheet). Data items were related to each other through mathematical formulas. This is the equivalent of the increasing complexity of the wiring of the brain as pregnancy progresses.



The latest evolutionary phase in programming is OOPS (Object Oriented Programming Systems). Objects are modules which encompass both data and instructions in self contained units. The user communicates with the functions performed by these objects - but not with their structure and internal processes.

Programming objects, in other words, are "black boxes" (an engineering term). The programmer is unable to tell how the object does what it does, or how does an external, useful function arise from internal, hidden functions or structures. Objects are epiphenomenal, emergent, phase transient. In short: much closer to reality as described by modern physics.

Though these black boxes communicate - it is not the communication, its speed, or efficacy which determine the overall efficiency of the system. It is the hierarchical and at the same time fuzzy organization of the objects which does the trick. Objects are organized in classes which define their (actualized and potential) properties. The object's behaviour (what it does and what it reacts to) is defined by its membership of a class of objects.

Moreover, objects can be organized in new (sub) classes while inheriting all the definitions and characteristics of the original class in addition to new properties. In a way, these newly emergent classes are the products while the classes they are derived from are the origin. This process so closely resembles natural - and especially biological - phenomena that it lends additional force to the software metaphor.

Thus, classes can be used as building blocks. Their permutations define the set of all soluble problems. It can be proven that Turing Machines are a private instance of a general, much stronger, class theory (a-la Principia Mathematica). The integration of hardware (computer, brain) and software (computer applications, mind) is done through "framework applications" which match the two elements structurally and functionally. The equivalent in the brain is sometimes called by philosophers and psychologists "a-priori categories", or "the collective unconscious".

Computers and their programming evolve. Relational databases cannot be integrated with object oriented ones, for instance. To run Java applets, a "virtual machine" needs to be embedded in the operating system. These phases closely resemble the development of the brain-mind couplet.

When is a metaphor a good metaphor? When it teaches us something new about the origin. It must possess some structural and functional resemblance. But this quantitative and observational facet is not enough. There is also a qualitative one: the metaphor must be instructive, revealing, insightful, aesthetic, and parsimonious - in short, it must constitute a theory and produce falsifiable predictions. A metaphor is also subject to logical and aesthetic rules and to the rigors of the scientific method.

If the software metaphor is correct, the brain must contain the following features:

  1. Parity checks through back propagation of signals. The brain's electrochemical signals must move back (to the origin) and forward, simultaneously, in order to establish a feedback parity loop.
  2. The neuron cannot be a binary (two state) machine (a quantum computer is multi-state). It must have many levels of excitation (i.e., many modes of representation of information). The threshold ("all or nothing" firing) hypothesis must be wrong.
  3. Redundancy must be built into all the aspects and dimensions of the brain and its activities. Redundant hardware -different centers to perform similar tasks. Redundant communications channels with the same information simultaneously transferred across them. Redundant retrieval of data and redundant usage of obtained data (through working, "upper" memory).
  4. The basic concept of the workings of the brain must be the comparison of "representational elements" to "models of the world". Thus, a coherent picture is obtained which yields predictions and allows to manipulate the environment effectively.
  5. Many of the functions tackled by the brain must be recursive. We can expect to find that we can reduce all the activities of the brain to computational, mechanically solvable, recursive functions. The brain can be regarded as a Turing Machine and the dreams of Artificial Intelligence are likely come true.
  6. The brain must be a learning, self organizing, entity. The brain's very hardware must disassemble, reassemble, reorganize, restructure, reroute, reconnect, disconnect, and, in general, alter itself in response to data. In most man-made machines, the data is external to the processing unit. It enters and exits the machine through designated ports but does not affect the machine's structure or functioning. Not so the brain. It reconfigures itself with every bit of data. One can say that a new brain is created every time a single bit of information is processed.

Only if these six cumulative requirements are met - can we say that the software metaphor is useful.

Part 2 Psychology and Psychotherapy

Storytelling has been with us since the days of campfire and besieging wild animals. It served a number of important functions: amelioration of fears, communication of vital information (regarding survival tactics and the characteristics of animals, for instance), the satisfaction of a sense of order (justice), the development of the ability to hypothesize, predict and introduce theories and so on.

We are all endowed with a sense of wonder. The world around us in inexplicable, baffling in its diversity and myriad forms. We experience an urge to organize it, to "explain the wonder away", to order it in order to know what to expect next (predict). These are the essentials of survival. But while we have been successful at imposing our mind's structures on the outside world - we have been much less successful when we tried to cope with our internal universe.


The relationship between the structure and functioning of our (ephemeral) mind, the structure and modes of operation of our (physical) brain and the structure and conduct of the outside world have been the matter of heated debate for millennia. Broadly speaking, there were (and still are) two ways of treating it:

There were those who, for all practical purposes, identified the origin (brain) with its product (mind). Some of them postulated the existence of a lattice of preconceived, born categorical knowledge about the universe - the vessels into which we pour our experience and which mould it. Others have regarded the mind as a black box. While it was possible in principle to know its input and output, it was impossible, again in principle, to understand its internal functioning and management of information. Pavlov coined the word "conditioning", Watson adopted it and invented "behaviourism", Skinner came up with "reinforcement". The school of epiphenomenologists (emergent phenomena) regarded the mind as the by product of the brain's "hardware" and "wiring" complexity. But all ignored the psychophysical question: what IS the mind and HOW is it linked to the brain?

The other camp was more "scientific" and "positivist". It speculated that the mind (whether a physical entity, an epiphenomenon, a non-physical principle of organization, or the result of introspection) - had a structure and a limited set of functions. They argued that a "user's manual" could be composed, replete with engineering and maintenance instructions. The most prominent of these "psychodynamists" was, of course, Freud. Though his disciples (Adler, Horney, the object-relations lot) diverged wildly from his initial theories - they all shared his belief in the need to "scientify" and objectify psychology. Freud - a medical doctor by profession (Neurologist) and Josef Breuer before him - came with a theory regarding the structure of the mind and its mechanics: (suppressed) energies and (reactive) forces. Flow charts were provided together with a method of analysis, a mathematical physics of the mind.

But this was a mirage. An essential part was missing: the ability to test the hypotheses, which derived from these "theories". They were all very convincing, though, and, surprisingly, had great explanatory power. But - non-verifiable and non-falsifiable as they were - they could not be deemed to possess the redeeming features of a scientific theory.

Deciding between the two camps was and is a crucial matter. Consider the clash - however repressed - between psychiatry and psychology. The former regards "mental disorders" as euphemisms - it acknowledges only the reality of brain dysfunctions (such as biochemical or electric imbalances) and of hereditary factors. The latter (psychology) implicitly assumes that something exists (the "mind", the "psyche") which cannot be reduced to hardware or to wiring diagrams. Talk therapy is aimed at that something and supposedly interacts with it.

But perhaps the distinction is artificial. Perhaps the mind is simply the way we experience our brains. Endowed with the gift (or curse) of introspection, we experience a duality, a split, constantly being both observer and observed. Moreover, talk therapy involves TALKING - which is the transfer of energy from one brain to another through the air. This is directed, specifically formed energy, intended to trigger certain circuits in the recipient brain. It should come as no surprise if it were to be discovered that talk therapy has clear physiological effects upon the brain of the patient (blood volume, electrical activity, discharge and absorption of hormones, etc.).

All this would be doubly true if the mind was, indeed, only an emergent phenomenon of the complex brain - two sides of the same coin.

Psychological theories of the mind are metaphors of the mind. They are fables and myths, narratives, stories, hypotheses, conjunctures. They play (exceedingly) important roles in the psychotherapeutic setting - but not in the laboratory. Their form is artistic, not rigorous, not testable, less structured than theories in the natural sciences. The language used is polyvalent, rich, effusive, and fuzzy - in short, metaphorical. They are suffused with value judgements, preferences, fears, post facto and ad hoc constructions. None of this has methodological, systematic, analytic and predictive merits.

Still, the theories in psychology are powerful instruments, admirable constructs of the mind. As such, they are bound to satisfy some needs. Their very existence proves it.

The attainment of peace of mind is a need, which was neglected by Maslow in his famous rendition. People will sacrifice material wealth and welfare, will forgo temptations, will ignore opportunities, and will put their lives in danger - just to reach this bliss of wholeness and completeness. There is, in other words, a preference of inner equilibrium over homeostasis. It is the fulfilment of this overriding need that psychological theories set out to cater to. In this, they are no different than other collective narratives (myths, for instance).

In some respects, though, there are striking differences:

Psychology is desperately trying to link up to reality and to scientific discipline by employing observation and measurement and by organizing the results and presenting them using the language of mathematics. This does not atone for its primordial sin: that its subject matter is ethereal and inaccessible. Still, it lends an air of credibility and rigorousness to it.


The second difference is that while historical narratives are "blanket" narratives - psychology is "tailored", "customized". A unique narrative is invented for every listener (patient, client) and he is incorporated in it as the main hero (or anti-hero). This flexible "production line" seems to be the result of an age of increasing individualism. True, the "language units" (large chunks of denotates and connotates) are one and the same for every "user". In psychoanalysis, the therapist is likely to always employ the tripartite structure (Id, Ego, Superego). But these are language elements and need not be confused with the plots. Each client, each person, and his own, unique, irreplicable, plot.

To qualify as a "psychological" plot, it must be:

  1. All-inclusive (anamnetic) - It must encompass, integrate and incorporate all the facts known about the protagonist.
  2. Coherent - It must be chronological, structured and causal.
  3. Consistent - Self-consistent (its subplots cannot contradict one another or go against the grain of the main plot) and consistent with the observed phenomena (both those related to the protagonist and those pertaining to the rest of the universe).
  4. Logically compatible - It must not violate the laws of logic both internally (the plot must abide by some internally imposed logic) and externally (the Aristotelian logic which is applicable to the observable world).
  5. Insightful (diagnostic) - It must inspire in the client a sense of awe and astonishment which is the result of seeing something familiar in a new light or the result of seeing a pattern emerging out of a big body of data. The insights must be the logical conclusion of the logic, the language and of the development of the plot.
  6. Aesthetic - The plot must be both plausible and "right", beautiful, not cumbersome, not awkward, not discontinuous, smooth and so on.
  7. Parsimonious - The plot must employ the minimum numbers of assumptions and entities in order to satisfy all the above conditions.
  8. Explanatory - The plot must explain the behaviour of other characters in the plot, the hero's decisions and behaviour, why events developed the way that they did.
  9. Predictive (prognostic) - The plot must possess the ability to predict future events, the future behaviour of the hero and of other meaningful figures and the inner emotional and cognitive dynamics.
  10. Therapeutic - With the power to induce change (whether it is for the better, is a matter of contemporary value judgements and fashions).
  11. Imposing - The plot must be regarded by the client as the preferable organizing principle of his life's events and the torch to guide him in the darkness to come.
  12. Elastic - The plot must possess the intrinsic abilities to self organize, reorganize, give room to emerging order, accommodate new data comfortably, avoid rigidity in its modes of reaction to attacks from within and from without.

In all these respects, a psychological plot is a theory in disguise. Scientific theories should satisfy most of the same conditions. But the equation is flawed. The important elements of testability, verifiability, refutability, falsifiability, and repeatability - are all missing. No experiment could be designed to test the statements within the plot, to establish their truth-value and, thus, to convert them to theorems.

There are four reasons to account for this shortcoming:

  1. Ethical - Experiments would have to be conducted, involving the hero and other humans. To achieve the necessary result, the subjects will have to be ignorant of the reasons for the experiments and their aims. Sometimes even the very performance of an experiment will have to remain a secret (double blind experiments). Some experiments may involve unpleasant experiences. This is ethically unacceptable.
  2. The Psychological Uncertainty Principle - The current position of a human subject can be fully known. But both treatment and experimentation influence the subject and void this knowledge. The very processes of measurement and observation influence the subject and change him.
  3. Uniqueness - Psychological experiments are, therefore, bound to be unique, unrepeatable, cannot be replicated elsewhere and at other times even if they deal with the SAME subjects. The subjects are never the same due to the psychological uncertainty principle. Repeating the experiments with other subjects adversely affects the scientific value of the results.
  4. The undergeneration of testable hypotheses - Psychology does not generate a sufficient number of hypotheses, which can be subjected to scientific testing. This has to do with the fabulous (=storytelling) nature of psychology. In a way, psychology has affinity with some private languages. It is a form of art and, as such, is self-sufficient. If structural, internal constraints and requirements are met - a statement is deemed true even if it does not satisfy external scientific requirements.


So, what are plots good for? They are the instruments used in the procedures, which induce peace of mind (even happiness) in the client. This is done with the help of a few embedded mechanisms:

  1. The Organizing Principle - Psychological plots offer the client an organizing principle, a sense of order and ensuing justice, of an inexorable drive toward well defined (though, perhaps, hidden) goals, the ubiquity of meaning, being part of a whole. It strives to answer the "why's" and "how's". It is dialogic. The client asks: "why am I (here follows a syndrome)". Then, the plot is spun: "you are like this not because the world is whimsically cruel but because your parents mistreated you when you were very young, or because a person important to you died, or was taken away from you when you were still impressionable, or because you were sexually abused and so on". The client is calmed by the very fact that there is an explanation to that which until now monstrously taunted and haunted him, that he is not the plaything of vicious Gods, that there is who to blame (focussing diffused anger is a very important result) and, that, therefore, his belief in order, justice and their administration by some supreme, transcendental principle is restored. This sense of "law and order" is further enhanced when the plot yields predictions which come true (either because they are self-fulfilling or because some real "law" has been discovered).
  2. The Integrative Principle - The client is offered, through the plot, access to the innermost, hitherto inaccessible, recesses of his mind. He feels that he is being reintegrated, that "things fall into place". In psychodynamic terms, the energy is released to do productive and positive work, rather than to induce distorted and destructive forces.
  3. The Purgatory Principle - In most cases, the client feels sinful, debased, inhuman, decrepit, corrupting, guilty, punishable, hateful, alienated, strange, mocked and so on. The plot offers him absolution. Like the highly symbolic figure of the Saviour before him - the client's sufferings expurgate, cleanse, absolve, and atone for his sins and handicaps. A feeling of hard won achievement accompanies a successful plot. The client sheds layers of functional, adaptive clothing. This is inordinately painful. The client feels dangerously naked, precariously exposed. He then assimilates the plot offered to him, thus enjoying the benefits emanating from the previous two principles and only then does he develop new mechanisms of coping. Therapy is a mental crucifixion and resurrection and atonement for the sins. It is highly religious with the plot in the role of the scriptures from which solace and consolation can be always gleaned.

Part 3 The Dialogue of Dreams

Are dreams a source of reliable divination? Generations upon generations seem to have thought so. They incubated dreams by travelling afar, by fasting and by engaging in all other manners of self deprivation or intoxication. With the exception of this highly dubious role, dreams do seem to have three important functions:

    1. To process repressed emotions (wishes, in Freud's speech) and other mental content which was suppressed and stored in the unconscious.
    2. To order, classify and, generally, to pigeonhole conscious experiences of the day or days preceding the dreaming ("day residues"). A partial overlap with the former function is inevitable: some sensory input is immediately relegated to the darker and dimmer kingdoms of the subconscious and unconscious without being consciously processed at all.
    3. To "stay in touch" with the outside world. External sensory input is interpreted by the dream and represented in its unique language of symbols and disjunction. Research has shown this to be a rare event, independent of the timing of the stimuli: during sleep or immediately prior to it. Still, when it does happen, it seems that even when the interpretation is dead wrong - the substantial information is preserved. A collapsing bedpost (as in Maury's famous dream) will become a French guillotine, for instance. The message conserved: there is physical danger to the neck and head.

All three functions are part of a much larger one:

The continuous adjustment of the model one has of one's self and of one's place in the world - to the incessant stream of sensory (external) input and of mental (internal) input. This "model modification" is carried out through an intricate, symbol laden, dialogue between the dreamer and himself. It probably also has therapeutic side benefits. It would be an over-simplification to say that the dream carries messages (even if we were to limit it to correspondence with one's self). The dream does not seem to be in a position of privileged knowledge. The dream functions more like a good friend would: listening, advising, sharing experiences, providing access to remote territories of the mind, putting events in perspective and in proportion and provoking. It, thus, induces relaxation and acceptance and a better functioning of the "client". It does so, mostly, by analysing discrepancies and incompatibilities. No wonder that it is mostly associated with bad emotions (anger, hurt, fear). This also happens in the course of successful psychotherapy. Defences are gradually dismantled and a new, more functional, view of the world is established. This is a painful and frightening process. This function of the dream is more in line with Jung's view of dreams as "compensatory". The previous three functions are "complementary" and, therefore, Freudian.

It would seem that we are all constantly engaged in maintenance, in preserving that which exists and inventing new strategies for coping. We are all in constant psychotherapy, administered by ourselves, day and night. Dreaming is just the awareness of this on-going process and its symbolic content. We are more susceptible, vulnerable, and open to dialogue while we sleep. The dissonance between how we regard ourselves, and what we really are and between our model of the world and reality - this dissonance is so enormous that it calls for a (continuous) routine of evaluation, mending and re-invention. Otherwise, the whole edifice might crumble. The delicate balance between we, the dreamers, and the world might be shattered, leaving us defenceless and dysfunctional.


To be effective, dreams must come equipped with the key to their interpretation. We all seem to possess an intuitive copy of just such a key, uniquely tailored to our needs, to our data and to our circumstances. This Areiocritica helps us to decipher the true and motivating meaning of the dialogue. This is one reason why dreaming is discontinuous: time must be given to interpret and to assimilate the new model. Four to six sessions take place every night. A session missed will be held the night after. If a person is prevented from dreaming on a permanent basis, he will become irritated, then neurotic and then psychotic. In other words: his model of himself and of the world will no longer be usable. It will be out of synch. It will represent both reality and the non-dreamer wrongly. Put more succinctly: it seems that the famous "reality test" (used in psychology to set apart the "functioning, normal" individuals from those who are not) is maintained by dreaming. It fast deteriorates when dreaming is impossible. This link between the correct apprehension of reality (reality model), psychosis and dreaming has yet to be explored in depth. A few predictions can be made, though:

  1. The dream mechanisms and/or dream contents of psychotics must be substantially different and distinguished from ours. Their dreams must be "dysfunctional", unable to tackle the unpleasant, bad emotional residue of coping with reality. Their dialogue must be disturbed. They must be represented rigidly in their dreams. Reality must not be present in them not at all.
  2. Most of the dreams, most of the time must deal with mundane matters. Their content must not be exotic, surrealist, extraordinary. They must be chained to the dreamer's realities, his (daily) problems, people that he knows, situations that he encountered or is likely to encounter, dilemmas that he is facing and conflicts that he would have liked resolved. This, indeed, is the case. Unfortunately, this is heavily disguised by the symbol language of the dream and by the disjointed, disjunctive, dissociative manner in which it proceeds. But a clear separation must be made between subject matter (mostly mundane and "dull", relevant to the dreamer's life) and the script or mechanism (colourful symbols, discontinuity of space, time and purposeful action).
  3. The dreamer must be the main protagonist of his dreams, the hero of his dreamy narratives. This, overwhelmingly, is the case: dreams are egocentric. They are concerned mostly with the "patient" and use other figures, settings, locales, situations to cater to his needs, to reconstruct his reality test and to adapt it to the new input from outside and from within.
  4. If dreams are mechanisms, which adapt the model of the world and the reality test to daily inputs - we should find a difference between dreamers and dreams in different societies and cultures. The more "information heavy" the culture, the more the dreamer is bombarded with messages and data - the fiercer should the dream activity be. Every external datum likely generates a shower of internal data. Dreamers in the West should engage in a qualitatively different type of dreaming. We will elaborate on this as we continue. Suffice it to say, at this stage, that dreams in information-cluttered societies will employ more symbols, will weave them more intricately and the dreams will be much more erratic and discontinuous. As a result, dreamers in information-rich societies will never mistake a dream for reality. They will never confuse the two. In information poor cultures (where most of the daily inputs are internal) - such confusion will arise very often and even be enshrined in religion or in the prevailing theories regarding the world. Anthropology confirms that this, indeed, is the case. In information poor societies dreams are less symbolic, less erratic, more continuous, more "real" and the dreamers often tend to fuse the two (dream and reality) into a whole and act upon it.
  5. To complete their mission successfully (adaptation to the world using the model of reality modified by them) - dreams must make themselves felt. They must interact with the dreamer's real world, with his behaviour in it, with his moods that bring his behaviour about, in short: with his whole mental apparatus. Dreams seem to do just this: they are remembered in half the cases. Results are, probably, achieved without need for cognitive, conscious processing, in the other, unremembered, or disremembered cases. They greatly influence the immediate mood after awakening. They are discussed, interpreted, force people to think and re-think. They are dynamos of (internal and external) dialogue long after they have faded into the recesses of the mind. Sometimes they directly influence actions and many people firmly believe in the quality of the advice provided by them. In this sense, dreams are an inseparable part of reality. In many celebrated cases they even induced works of art or inventions or scientific discoveries (all adaptations of old, defunct, reality models of the dreamers). In numerous documented cases, dreams tackled, head on, issues that bothered the dreamers during their waking hours.

How does this theory fit with the hard facts?

Dreaming (D-state or D-activity) is associated with a special movement of the eyes, under the closed eyelids, called Rapid Eye Movement (REM). It is also associated with changes in the pattern of electrical activity of the brain (EEG). A dreaming person has the pattern of someone who is wide awake and alert. This seems to sit well with a theory of dreams as active therapists, engaged in the arduous task of incorporating new (often contradictory and incompatible) information into an elaborate personal model of the self and the reality that it occupies.


There are two types of dreams: visual and "thought-like" (which leave an impression of being awake on the dreamer). The latter happens without any REM cum EEG fanfare. It seems that the "model-adjustment" activities require abstract thinking (classification, theorizing, predicting, testing, etc.). The relationship is very much like the one that exists between intuition and formalism, aesthetics and scientific discipline, feeling and thinking, mentally creating and committing one's creation to a medium.

All mammals exhibit the same REM/EEG patterns and may, therefore, be dreaming as well. Some birds do it, and some reptiles as well. Dreaming seems to be associated with the brain stem (Pontine tegmentum) and with the secretion of Norepinephrine and Serotonin in the brain. The rhythm of breathing and the pulse rate change and the skeletal muscles are relaxed to the point of paralysis (presumably, to prevent injury if the dreamer should decide to engage in enacting his dream). Blood flows to the genitals (and induces penile erections in male dreamers). The uterus contracts and the muscles at the base of the tongue enjoy a relaxation in electrical activity.

These facts would indicate that dreaming is a very primordial activity. It is essential to survival. It is not necessarily connected to higher functions like speech but it is connected to reproduction and to the biochemistry of the brain. The construction of a "world-view", a model of reality is as critical to the survival of an ape as it is to ours. And the mentally disturbed and the mentally retarded dream as much as the normal do. Such a model can be innate and genetic in very simple forms of life because the amount of information that needs to be incorporated is limited. Beyond a certain amount of information that the individual is likely to be exposed to daily, two needs arise. The first is to maintain the model of the world by eliminating "noise" and by realistically incorporating negating data and the second is to pass on the function of modelling and remodelling to a much more flexible structure, to the brain. In a way, dreams are about the constant generation, construction and testing of theories regarding the dreamer and his ever-changing internal and external environments. Dreams are the scientific community of the Self. That Man carried it further and invented Scientific Activity on a larger, external, scale is small wonder.

Physiology also tells us the differences between dreaming and other hallucinatory states (nightmares, psychoses, sleepwalking, daydreaming, hallucinations, illusions and mere imagination): the REM/EEG patterns are absent and the latter states are much less "real". Dreams are mostly set in familiar places and obey the laws of nature or some logic. Their hallucinatory nature is a hermeneutic imposition. It derives mainly from their erratic, abrupt behaviour (space, time and goal discontinuities) which is ONE of the elements in hallucinations as well.


Why is dreaming conducted while we sleep? Probably, there is something in it which requires what sleep has to offer: limitation of external, sensory, inputs (especially visual ones - hence the compensatory strong visual element in dreams). An artificial environment is sought in order to maintain this periodical, self-imposed deprivation, static state and reduction in bodily functions. In the last 6-7 hours of every sleep session, 40% of the people wake up. About 40% - possibly the same dreamers - report that they had a dream in the relevant night. As we descend into sleep (the hypnagogic state) and as we emerge from it (the hypnopompic state) - we have visual dreams. But they are different. It is as though we are "thinking" these dreams. They have no emotional correlate, they are transient, undeveloped, abstract and expressly deal with the day residues. They are the "garbage collectors", the "sanitation department" of the brain. Day residues, which clearly do not need to be processed by dreams - are swept under the carpet of consciousness (maybe even erased).

Suggestible people dream what they have been instructed to dream in hypnosis - but not what they have been so instructed while (partly) awake and under direct suggestion. This further demonstrates the independence of the Dream Mechanism. It almost does not react to external sensory stimuli while in operation. It takes an almost complete suspension of judgement in order to influence the contents of dreams.

It would all seem to point at another important feature of dreams: their economy. Dreams are subject to four "articles of faith" (which govern all the phenomena of life):

  1. Homeostasis - The preservation of the internal environment, an equilibrium between (different but interdependent) elements which make up the whole.
  2. Equilibrium - The maintenance of an internal environment in balance with an external one.
  3. Optimization (also known as efficiency) - The securing of maximum results with minimum invested resources and minimum damage to other resources, not directly used in the process.
  4. Parsimony (Occam's razor) - The utilization of a minimal set of (mostly known) assumptions, constraints, boundary conditions and initial conditions in order to achieve maximum explanatory or modelling power.

In compliance with the above four principles dreams HAD to resort to visual symbols. The visual is the most condensed (and efficient) form of packaging information. "A picture is worth a thousand words" the saying goes and computer users know that to store images requires more memory than any other type of data. But dreams have an unlimited capacity of information processing at their disposal (the brain at night). In dealing with gigantic amounts of information, the natural preference (when processing power is not constrained) would be to use visuals. Moreover, non-isomorphic, polyvalent forms will be preferred. In other words: symbols that can be "mapped" to more than one meaning and those that carry a host of other associated symbols and meanings with them will be preferred. Symbols are a form of shorthand. They haul a great amount of information - most of it stored in the recipient's brain and provoked by the symbol. This is a little like the Java applets in modern programming: the application is divided to small modules, which are stored in a central computer. The symbols generated by the user's computer (using the Java programming language) "provoke" them to surface. The result is a major simplification of the processing terminal (the net-PC) and an increase in its cost efficiency.


Both collective symbols and private symbols are used. The collective symbols (Jung's archetypes?) prevent the need to re-invent the wheel. They are assumed to constitute a universal language usable by dreamers everywhere. The dreaming brain has, therefore, to attend to and to process only the "semi-private language" elements. This is less time consuming and the conventions of a universal language apply to the communication between the dream and the dreamer.

Even the discontinuities have their reason. A lot of the information that we absorb and process is either "noise" or repetitive. This fact is known to the authors of all the file compression applications in the world. Computer files can be compressed to one tenth their size without appreciably losing information. The same principle is applied in speed reading - skimming the unnecessary bits, getting straight to the point. The dream employs the same principles: it skims, it gets straight to the point and from it - to yet another point. This creates the sensation of being erratic, of abruptness, of the absence of spatial or temporal logic, of purposelessness. But this all serves the same purpose: to succeed to finish the Herculean task of refitting the model of the Self and of the World in one night.

Thus, the selection of visuals, symbols, and collective symbols and of the discontinuous mode of presentation, their preference over alternative methods of representation is not accidental. This is the most economic and unambiguous way of representation and, therefore, the most efficient and the most in compliance with the four principles. In cultures and societies, where the mass of information to be processed is less mountainous - these features are less likely to occur and indeed, they don't.

Excerpts from an Interview about DREAMS - First published in Suite101

Dreams are by far the most mysterious phenomenon in mental life. On the face of it, dreaming is a colossal waste of energy and psychic resources. Dreams carry no overt information content. They bear little resemblance to reality. They interfere with the most critical biological maintenance function - with sleep. They don't seem to be goal oriented, they have no discernible objective. In this age of technology and precision, efficiency and optimization - dreams seem to be a somewhat anachronistically quaint relic of our life in the savannah. Scientists are people who believe in the aesthetic preservation of resources. They believe that nature is intrinsically optimal, parsimonious and "wise". They dream up symmetries, "laws" of nature, minimalist theories. They believe that everything has a reason and a purpose. In their approach to dreams and dreaming, scientists commit all these sins combined. They anthropomorphesize nature, they engage in teleological explanations, they attribute purpose and paths to dreams, where there might be none. So, they say that dreaming is a maintenance function (the processing of the preceding day's experiences) - or that it keeps the sleeping person alert and aware of his environment. But no one knows for sure. We dream, no one knows why. Dreams have elements in common with dissociation or hallucinations but they are neither. They employ visuals because this is the most efficient way of packing and transferring information. But WHICH information? Freud's "Interpretation of Dreams" is a mere literary exercise. It is not a serious scientific work (which does not detract from its awesome penetration and beauty).

I have lived in Africa, the Middle East, North America, Western Europe and Eastern Europe. Dreams fulfil different societal functions and have distinct cultural roles in each of these civilizations. In Africa, dreams are perceived to be a mode of communication, as real as the internet is to us.

Dreams are pipelines through which messages flow: from the beyond (life after death), from other people (such as shamans - remember Castaneda), from the collective (Jung), from reality (this is the closest to Western interpretation), from the future (precognition), or from assorted divinities. The distinction between dream states and reality is very blurred and people act on messages contained in dreams as they would on any other information they obtain in their "waking" hours. This state of affairs is quite the same in the Middle East and Eastern Europe where dreams constitute an integral and important part of institutionalized religion and the subject of serious analyses and contemplation. In North America - the most narcissistic culture ever - dreams have been construed as communications WITHIN the dreaming person. Dreams no longer mediate between the person and his environment. They are the representation of interactions between different structures of the "self". Their role is, therefore, far more limited and their interpretation far more arbitrary (because it is highly dependent on the personal circumstances and psychology of the specific dreamer).

Narcissism IS a dream state. The narcissist is totally detached from his (human) milieu. Devoid of empathy and obsessively centred on the procurement of narcissistic supply (adulation, admiration, etc.) - the narcissist is unable to regard others as three dimensional beings with their own needs and rights. This mental picture of narcissism can easily serve as a good description of the dream state where other people are mere representations, or symbols, in a hermeneutically sealed thought system. Both narcissism and dreaming are AUTISTIC states of mind with severe cognitive and emotional distortions. By extension, one can talk about "narcissistic cultures" as "dream cultures" doomed to a rude awakening. It is interesting to note that most narcissists I know from my correspondence or personally (myself included) have a very poor dream-life and dreamscape. They remember nothing of their dreams and are rarely, if ever, motivated by insights contained in them.

The Internet is the sudden and voluptuous embodiment of my dreams. It is too good to me to be true - so, in many ways, it isn't. I think Mankind (at least in the rich, industrialized countries) is moonstruck. It surfs this beautiful, white landscape, in suspended disbelief. It holds it breath. It dares not believe and believes not its hopes. The Internet has, therefore, become a collective phantasm - at times a dream, at times a nightmare. Entrepreneurship involves massive amounts of dreaming and the net is pure entrepreneurship.


next: The Happiness of Others

APA Reference
Vaknin, S. (2008, January 11). Metaphors of the Mind, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, June 26 from

Last Updated: July 4, 2018

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD