Seeing, Imagining, Dreaming

January 16, 2013

In our world of fancy high-tech gadgets (smart phones, laptop computers, ebooks, ipods, ipads) it’s interesting to reflect upon what a remarkable gadget our mind is, the most amazing gadget of all.

First, there is our sense of sight.  We often take it for granted, but we are equipped with an enormously complicated video camera system which gathers reflected light from objects and provides us with pattern recognition skills, allowing us to identify those objects from a distance, purely from their visual image on the retinas of our eyes.  We have a naming system, called language, which enables us to classify all (or nearly all) of the things we see around us, and we have a memory system which permits us to keep track of classifications we have made in the past.

Second, once objects are stored and classified in our memory system, we have the capacity of recalling them at will and placing them in particular settings from the past. We can navigate in our imagination to places we have been. We can picture ourselves at a vacation cottage near the sea or a restaurant in the city center.  We can travel in our mind’s eye to Paris or Istanbul, the Grand Canyon, or anywhere we have actually been.  By recall of still photos, movies, or television, we can travel in our mind’s eye to places we have never been.  We can go to the moon or the surface of Mars, hitching a ride on a space ship with astronauts or on an unmanned space vehicle.

Third and finally, in our dreams we can travel into the past, constructing trips to places and times that may not correspond to actual memories but represent syntheses of several memories.  In a recent dream I found myself in a former office at work, not a particular office but a composite of two or three different offices.

Nightmares about rape or molestation may combine different perpetrators.  Nightmares about auto accidents may combine different accidents.  Combat veterans may have nightmares that combine several battles from the same war (for example, Khe Sanh, Bien Hoa, Hue in Vietnam), different combat theaters (for example, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), or different historical eras (for example, World War I, the American Revolutionary War, the Trojan War in Ancient Greece).

Current research on dreaming suggests an important role in the consolidation of recent memory into longterm memory.  Reconsolidation and revision of older memories is possible over time, as we gain new information of the facts involved in the original event.  Dream revision therapy makes use of reconsolidation to adjust our traumatic memories and make them less frightening, more endurable.

Seeing, imagining, and dreaming work together in our mind’s eye, both waking and sleeping, to help us cope and even succeed in a perilous world that still offers second chances and many opportunities to survive and even thrive.