Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Dreams and Déjà Vu

I thought I had a dream last night, I’m sure I did. I kind of remember it was about Nick, son number two. What was he doing? Hard to remember. But it was something that mystified me at the time, and even more now, since I can’t remember it.

And then there is déjà vu. Others thing that this is a malfunction of the mind, but in my case, I’m not so sure. I think if I could only get one extra piece of memory to function, it would actually work, and I could see what was going to happen, because it happened before. Really, I do.

Wonder of wonders, amazingly and incredibly, so satisfyingly, we are going to see more of exactly why these things happen in the near future (if we haven’t already and I’m unaware of it.) Functional MRI – we see what areas of the brain are working when the person can tell us, or we can just see as someone calculates, for example, what the brain is doing. Shades of Wilder Penfield, who opened up the brain and stimulated it and asked the person what they were thinking! It’s just a miracle. The computer companies put chips in with the intention of performing tasks; the brain scientist looks at the bio-chips already in there and figures out what they do. What a world of wonder. That plus the universe opening up to the Hubble. That plus anthropology unraveling the evolution of great apes and people, how there were other humanoid species that died out, and some of them recently on an Indonesian island, and great ape anthropology showing us that chimps have culture, that they use tools one way in West Africa and another in South Africa, and that it’s culture, not genes. What a world!

OK, that was a diversion.

But there is also another way of thinking about brain functions besides functional MRI – evolutionary, teleologic thought. If it works this way: there must be a reason however our brain works, it must give us an advantage, because we’re here and we had to survive competition. So, why does it work that way?

Here’s what I think. Dreams have lots of functions. They have symbolic thought that somewhere in our brain, where exactly I don’t know, they picture meanings to us and work out our problematic areas. OK, that’s pretty general, but let’s leave it there. What I really want to say is this – why are these dreams hard to remember, in our conscious minds? (Except for Ingmar Bergman, who claimed to remember them all in detail.) I think I know. We have to keep our conscious minds very clear. If we are to work our way through the world and eat – always my primary preoccupation – we have to be pretty clear about what is and what is not factually and objectively true. So, we can’t have the airy fairy dreams cluttering our minds while we are about our work. Someone who remembers his or her dreams and – here’s the important point – can’t distinguish them from objective reality, will wind up not eating. They will be too confused. So the best way to make sure that there is no confusion is to make dreams unrememberable in the conscious world. So, not remembering your dreams is functional.

Of course, that doesn’t mean they are forgotten. They are just not recoverable by the part of your brain that is conscious. There’s a whole lot more of your brain, and lots of the processing is “subconscious” and “unconscious.” These areas of metaphor will no doubt be further subdivided as the functional MRI gets more capacity and other technologies come on line.

So what about déjà vu? Well, I think déjà vu is a lot of fun. I really treasure those moments. But what is the function of déjà vu, what is the evolutionary advantage? I don’t think there is one. I think it’s a malfunction. I don’t know where it comes from, and it sure is like a dream. I think it’s an overflow from somewhere that is dream related. It’s to our benefit that these malfunctions are transitory. I always want them to last longer, but if they did, I would think I could find something to eat just the way I did before, but then I would become befuddled. I wonder if there is a mental disorder that features prolonged and repeated episodes of déjà vu? Haven’t heard of it, but you would think it could happen. I wonder.

You heard it here first.

Or maybe not.

Budd Shenkin

1 comment:

  1. I have seen this column somewhere before.

    Seriously, I am always fascinated by the brain and by the new things we are learning about it. I share your inclination to believe that everything if not nearly everything about us evolved to where it is for a reason. Speculating backward about the origins of things like deja vu is the kind of think such a belief leads to. I continue to look for some evolutionary explanation for the political left and the political right.

    So I wondered about deja vu as well and came up with my own theory. I believed that the signals between the synapses in our brain travel at the speed of light. The speed of these signals would fluctuate ever so slightly, which meant that at some point they may move slightly faster than the speed of light and somehow pass into the future briefly and them come right back. I have since learned that the signals in our brain don't travel at the speed of light, not even near the speed of light so that theory went out the window...at the speed of light no doubt. I have yet to replace it, so I guess yours is now my working theory until I stumble upon some inconsistency or come up with a new one.