Dreams & Perceptual Synthesis

This thought came to me after I’d been reading Kant before bed and woke up the next morning with a migraine. Or, to be accurate, at first I saw a migraine aura in my dream. I even told someone else in the dream that I was getting a migraine, and went to look in a car that I no longer own for a medication that I no longer take. The person was kind of a bore, so I tried to shut him up by mentioning that Oliver Sacks had written a good book about migraines. He kept talking and (perhaps to escape) I awoke. The migraine aura was, unfortunately, still there.

Later in the day I was thinking about how real the boring person had seemed, even though he wasn’t an actual person. I had a thought about dreams, not about why we dream, but about how. Like most people, while I’m dreaming I often talk to people I’ve never met (or even seen in a film or on TV). I also go places that don’t exist.

Yet these nonexistent people are credible, and the nonexistent places are coherent. So in dreams, some process synthesizes coherent, convincing wholes.

What occurred to me is that this probably isn’t unique to dreams. It is probably the same mechanism that synthesizes waking perceptions of people and places into coherent wholes, and that synthesizes memories of people and places into coherent wholes.

Perhaps dreams only highlight the essentially creative and active process that also underlies (supposedly passive) perception. I’m sure that cognitive science is way ahead of me here. That’s the next place for me to look.

Another place to look would be the migraine aura. It’s a little like hearing something in a dream and then waking up to hear the actual noise that crept into the dream. Only in this case, the migraine aura is generated internally–by my own malfunctioning brain. It’s a bridge between the dreaming and the waking perceptions, but is not a perception itself. Instead, it is a malfunctioning of perception, like a screwdriver placed across two electrical systems that short circuits both of them.

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