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Dreaming and psychosis

          The dreaming mind shares an erratic mode of logic with the psychotic mind.  That is to say that both dreams and waking psychotic moments have a degree of cognitive bizarreness.  In this context the word bizarre has a paradoxically well-defined definition in psychology. It refers not to hallucinations, but to illogical jumps (known as disjunctive cognition) in a train of thought.  A schizophrenic’s waking fantasies, like a dreamer’s dreams, involve impossible plots, characters and actions, like flying, or seeing an animal which has half dog and half sheep. There is also a discontinuity or uncertainty about time and place as in rowing a boat in a lake which becomes an ocean or jumping into the past.

          Normal people don’t experience bizarre cognition while awake, but their dreams are as bizarre as a schizophrenic’s waking fantasies.  Bizarreness seems to arise when the brain is deprived of sensory input, and when thoughts are heavily influenced by emotion.  The sleeping brain blocks conscious experience of external stimuli – a sleeper may ‘hear’ someone make a noise in the room, but not consciously experience it. The brain reacts to stimuli, but not the consciousness. That disconnection with the outside world is what characterizes the hallucinations associated with psychotic states as well.  Bizarreness is not, however, the same as delusion. A delusion is a false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality, while hallucination is the perception in absence of stimulus, and  illusion is the misperception of external stimuli. All of which are different than psychotic states and dreaming.

          In the disjunctive cognition of dreams and psychosis two aspects of cognition do not match each other.  The dreamer/psychotic is aware of the disjunction but does nothing to correct it. In normal waking consciousness, if you see someone who looks like Joe, but isn’t, your brain will automatically correct the mis-identification, and you’ll think “oops! I thought that was Joe, but it isn’t.”  When you dream, you don’t make the correction, and the dream character will not be the person you at first thought was Joe,  but will be Joe-but-not-Joe. Even though there are these similarities between the dreaming mind and psychotic states, there is still a wide gap between the two.  For one thing, dreams are more consistent with waking conceptions and concerns.  You dream about what went on in your waking life, and about your psychological concerns, but psychotic fantasies are considerably more random.

          The collective activity of huge assemblies of neurons as reflected in their rhythmic electrical discharge fosters perception, memory and consciousness.  We perceive gazillions of sensory stimuli every moment, but we only become conscious of a few, and of those we only commit certain ones to memory.  How our brains select which percepts will be admitted to consciousness is something of a mystery, but it seems to predicated on those coalitions of synchronized neurons.  Atypical activity of those coalitions is associated with both the bizarre cognition of a schizophrenic, dreaming and  – perhaps surprisingly – the heightened mental states experienced by meditators.

          When masses of neurons emit their electrical signals at about 40 times a second, gamma rays are produced, and can be detected via electroencephalogram (EEG).  It is suspected that these may be the result of various chemical messengers fostering efficient communication across large numbers of neurons.  Schizophrenic patients’ brains produce much fewer gamma rays. In their brains neural synchronization occurs, but at a frequency below that of gamma rays, indicating weaker neural integration. Experienced meditators exhibit expanded gamma ray activity not only during meditation, but also while not meditating. The more experienced the meditator, the more gamma rays.  In sleep, stimulus to the right pre-motor are of the brain, which is richly connected to other parts of the brain, elicits less electrical activity in other parts of the brain than the same stimulus does in waking people.  In early bouts of deep sleep, the stimulation induces a stronger initial surge of premotor electrical activity than it does in wakefulness, but that activity quickly vanishes and fails to spread to other parts of the brain. In short, all this simply means – not surprisingly – that the brain can operate in several ‘modes’: the psychotic mode, the dreaming mode and the meditating mode. What is surprising is that the third mode is voluntary, while the first two are not.

          Studies of the dreams of experienced meditators have shown markedly varying results. Some say that meditators have more archetypal dreams while non-meditators have more dreams about waking activities. Buddhist texts claim that more experienced meditators dream less often than non-meditators.  Some studies showed that meditators experience more perceptual bizarreness in dreams; perception of forms or objects with geometrical patterns, a crystalline appearance, altering in perspective, becoming very large or very small, multiplying, glowing or objects or scenes which are condensed or superimposed. They are also reported to have more lucid dreams than non-meditators, and some speculate that the same operative mode of the brain applies to both lucid dreaming and meditation (as in the gamma-ray studies). The lucid dreamer is aware that the world she experiences is a construct of her own mind, and the meditator sees herself and her environment as not separate but as two poles of an ongoing dialogue. The psychotic, on the other hand, often sees himself as a spectator of his own life. Confused yet? Its all just food for thought.

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