Dreaming, interacting and being
In the winter of 1977 Jorge Luis Borges did seven talks at Teatro Coliseo seven nights in the period between the 1st of June to the 31st of August. The second one of them, he named The Nightmare. He spoke about dreams, and argued that dreams are aesthetic works - maybe the oldest aesthetic expression we have. Even if our dreams sometimes seem strange to us, they are shaped by ourselves. We dream that we are reading a book, but really we are composing every word. In the dream, we do not know this, and believe that the book is unfamiliar to us. Borges talked about how the soul, when it is free of the burden of the body, creates conceptions and is capable of easily imagining things, that it does not know of in the awake state. In the dream we are the theatre, the audience, the theme and the words we hear all at once. We do it all unconsciously and it all has a liveliness that we are not used to in real life. We are in Borges’ words composing works of fiction that can pass the limitations of space and time.
What happens when we go to sleep is that activity all over our brain drops dramatically. But after some time, the brain wakes up again. The neurones begin to communicate, just like when we are awake. They send out signals to the body to move and speak, but a small area of our brain stem called the pons stops the body from actually moving. The body is in a temporary paralysis except for the eyes that behave like they always do. This stage is called rapid eye movement sleep. When we are in REM sleep the emotional brain is lit up and the reasoning brain is turned down. Among other things, the serotonin release is shut off, and to scientists it looks like the brain then believes, that what ever it is observing or connecting is of importance. This is why, when we wake up, we are sometimes left with an impression of something profound.
A thousand years back, it was common to believe that dreams where messages from the gods, prophecies, warnings, instructions. And across history and cultures, many manuals for dream deciphering have been formed. But reality is that most things we dream, come from memories of our own lives. The REM sleep is a space wherein we can test out new ideas and put things together without the constraints of logic. Experts believe that the brain is creating dreams that are not designed to settle on a single answer, but to help us realise all the possible answers that are out there. In the dreams we work with our experiences as material, and we identify all types of unlikely associations and connections, that we would never discover while we were awake.
When we talk about how the brain works, or how thoughts are formed, how pines in the mountains are formed, or the fabric of space, it is a continuation of the gaze that humans for thousands of years have had when they went out »in the first light of day looking at tracks left by antelope in the dust of the savannah«, writes Carlo Rovelli in Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. They were studying the details of reality in order to pursue something which they could not see directly, but could follow the traces of.
There is an interaction between ourselves and the world. We gather information, and try to understand what that information is telling us about the world. But this is not what distinguishes us from the rest of nature. Rovelli says that a raindrop contains information about the presence of a cloud in the sky, and that a ray of light contains information on the colour of the substance from which it came. All things are exchanging information, and that means all matter carry traces of what it has been interacting with. These interactions are what we learn from: »The primal substance of our thoughts is an extremely rich gathering of information that’s accumulated, exchanged and continually elaborated.«
In Sein und Zeit, Heidegger introduces the concept of Dasein. It is derived from da-sein, which in German literally means there-being. Dasein was for Heidegger a critique and a redirection of how to perceive being. Being as Dasein means being-in-the-world - engaging in the world, and not separated from it. We cannot perceive the being of a thing if we are not engaging with it. Traditionally, being has been understood as a set of properties that we have had the contemplative capability to separate. Take the example of a hammer. Traditionally, we would think of a hammer with a set of properties: A metal head, a wooden handle. But for Heidegger, this way of contemplating a hammer does not reveal its true being. It is only when we engage with a hammer its true being reveal itself to us. In other words, the being of a hammer is hammering. For Heidegger, attempts to theorise single entities makes no sense without exploring the totality in which the object exists. Dasein is always a being engaged in the world. Neither a subject, or the objective world alone, but the coherence of being-in-the-world.
In the REM sleep our mind is unconsciously working with all the data we have accumulated from being in the world. The activity that goes on in the brain is largely composing and recomposing unlogic situations and worlds build on our experiences. And if we believe that all things continuously exchange information about each other, we are in a constant negotiation with what things around us mean, and what our position between them means. It is not so much the content of the dream that is profound - people do not want to hear about your dreams - but rather the practice itself.
The surrealist painter Salvador Dali used the compositions of his dreams as a direct source in his work: »My work consists of the meticulous execution of my dreams«. Giving form to a dream is an interesting exercise. It is a way of accessing hybrid compositions or fictions that we put together ourselves, in a chamber where time and space can be bent. There is a curiosity and a willingness embedded in the practice. It is a complete contrast to the structures that shape how we act when we are awake. It is by being in the world and interacting with it we get to understand how it works, and do not get stuck in our rutines. When we dream we possess our own humble type of eternity. To direct our energy toward composing and testing alternate answers might very well illuminate our being and acting in the world, and bring some of the unlogic, erternal liveliness into the physical, factual limitations that structure the awake hours of our lives.