Dreams

Written on April 16, 2009. Written by .

Have you ever woken up from an amazing dream and thought “I should go back to sleep so I can get back to enjoying that dream.”? I said this to myself yesterday morning, but before I could get back to sleep, I had a sudden realization. I decided that this thought didn’t really make sense because once I went back to sleep, I (my awareness) would no longer be there to enjoy the experience. It is just my body that would be experiencing the dream. The experiences of your body do not affect your subjective life quality unless if your awareness is attached to your body, or in other words you are conscious.

To see this, imagine that we have a way to safely and painlessly detach and reattach your arm. Now say we detach your arm and carry it into another room where we prick it with pins, cool it to uncomfortable temperatures, and generally cause the neurons to generate pain impulses. These impulses never reach your brain, so they are not connected to your awareness and thus do not adversely affect your life quality, even though the same procedure would decrease your life quality if your arm was attached. The same argument applies to your entire body, minus the portions of the brain that are responsible for your awareness (if we assume that awareness emerges from the brain, which seems to be a safe assumption at this point). Now in the case of dreams, it doesn’t really matter what part of the brain they emerge from because awareness is completely disabled during sleep, so the experience of dreaming has no impact on your subjective life quality (though the experience of recalling memories of dreams does).

Our only awareness of dreams comes from the residual memories that they leave for us to recall when we wake up. These memories are artificial in the sense that they do not come from our conscious experience. In other words, we do not experience dreams; dreams occur in an unconscious body. Yet, we naturally believe that we were experiencing the dream just a few moments ago.

What if you actually are conscious when sleeping, but your memory of consciousness is disabled? This would mean that when you are asleep, you are completely aware and probably screaming “Ahhhh! My body is frozen! This is so boring! Get me out of here!”, but you can’t remember any of this after you wake up. Based on the science that I have seen, this seems less likely, but I don’t think it has been ruled out yet. But what happens if this is the case, should we include dreams in our life-quality maximization analysis? To answer this requires us to go back and look at the motivation for the rule of maximizing expected subjective life quality. This rule was formulated based on the geneticly-induced illusion of ego-persistence; the only reason we care about our future lives is because our genes tell us to care. And this genetic mechanism hinges on the mechanism of memory to convince us that our past experiences were part of the same life, and this in turn convinces us by extrapolation that our future experiences will be part of the same life. But without the memories to convince us, the illusion of ego-persistence breaks down. Applying this principle to dreams, we realize that even if we are conscious when asleep, we aren’t programmed with any convincing illusion that that awareness belongs to our life. Therefore taking on the burden of maximizing the life quality of this additional consciousness is a sacrifice that will reduce the life quality that does come with a convincing illusion (our awake consciousness).

Of course this discussion is more pedagogical than practical because we rarely spend much effort trying to improve the quality of our dreams. But I think this issue brings to light some important philosophical concepts.

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