Risk-free Social Mapping: Dreams In Hominid Evolution of Consciousness
Jung’s work is not without detractors – for some, his constant search for metaphor in clinical situations and attempting to make literal structures out of them have been called “unscientific” and “malpractice at its finest” (McGowan 187). Though this may have an element of truth in it, it should not be forgotten that even science at its most exact and empirical has the barest grasp on the nature of consciousness, and like God-fearing religion two hundred years ago, has dominated modern thought to the point of self-righteous defensiveness. Biotechnology, geoengineering – all “scientific” disciplines that are plowing ahead without the slightest understanding of the totality of the consequences – prove that science for the sake of science can only go so far.
Nevertheless, in the interest of painting a broader picture, it is important to also focus on recent scientific studies that suggest that the unconscious and dreams do have an evolutionary function and may be as integral to life’s development as the process of gene mutation.
Dreaming appears to be a universal phenomenon and as latest science shows, is not at all restricted to humans, but is a process also physiologically observed in other mammals (Staunton 203), indicating an evolutionary commonality. Until the landmark 1953 study on R.E.M. (rapid eye movement) sleep done by Nathaniel Kleitman and Eugene Aserinsky, science was uncertain of the regularity and exact process of dreaming.
Since then, it has been found that dreaming’s “autostimulation” of certain areas of the brain “assists in the process of central nervous system development,” suggesting a “plausible function of dreaming in the hominid environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (Brereton 382).
Brereton goes on to suggest that dreaming is in fact a form of “risk-free scenario building” that allowed increasingly culturally-evolved hominids a selective advantage by allowing them to mentally map the self in an “emotionally salient space” (380-1).
According to Brereton and Barbara Lerner, emotional salience is critical as it allows the dreamer to mentally map itself in relation to recognizable bodies in space (386). This is essentially the evolutionary edge pushing forward in the human brain – where the basic, neurological processes of dreaming and the evolutionary limitations of sociality enhance each other in a feedback loop of increasing complexities.
In this sense, dreaming could be comprehended as a kind of non-physical evolutionary mutation of human consciousness, an autopoietic ‘bringing forth’ of the contents of the collective, social unconscious, while allowing for necessarily low-risk social mapping.
The scientific and physiological approach to studying dreams still lacks a satisfactory wholeness, just as surely a purely psychological approach would. Another landmark scientific study conducted in 1977 by Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley of Harvard University attempted to challenge the Freudian, psychological interpretation of dreams by applying an “activation-synthesis” hypothesis to the dream process (LaBerge par. 12). Pointing to specific neurological stimuli arising from the brain stem and not the cognitive areas of the cerebral cortex, they hypothesize that dream imagery arises reflexively when the forebrain is bombarded with these signals:
The forebrain may be making the best of a bad job in producing even partially coherent dream imagery from the relatively noisy signals sent up to it from the brain stem. The dream process is thus seen as having its origin in sensorimotor systems, with little or no primary ideational, volitional, or emotional content. This concept is markedly different from that of the ‘dream thoughts’ or wishes seen by Freud as the primary stimulus for the dream (LaBerge par. 15).
Hobson and McCarley’s rather uninspiring findings fly in the face of other documented dream phenomena in which dreamers actively exercise higher brain functions such as cognition, decision-making and memory recall – or what is commonly termed “lucid dreaming” – experiences alluding to the mystic conception of the awakened dreamer.
Stephen LaBerge, a pioneering psychophysiologist credited with developing techniques to enable himself and test subjects to enter the lucid dreaming state at will (the so-called mnemonic induction of lucid dreams) contends that “in essence, dreaming is more like world making” (LaBerge par. 60).
In accounting all available data (scientific or otherwise), it is most likely that dreaming serves both a complex evolutionary, adaptative function and a complex psychological one, even if not every dream is psychologically significant (LaBerge par. 23).
Ultimately, the tantalizing question arises: what happens when the evolution, science, psychology and culture of dreams collide with modernity and the human need for meaning within the context of a permeable, ecological self?
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