Dreams as resonating consciousness

A reader has pointed out to me that, in an earlier article, I may have inadvertently and implicitly suggested that NDEs, psychedelic trances, or hypoxia-induced transpersonal experiences are more transcendent (and therefore more valid) than dreams, since the former do not correlate well with brain activity, while the latter does. Because this is a misunderstanding of my current position, I feel compelled to clarify it here, even though the clarification will require that I tackle subtle philosophical points I am still working on and plan to refine over the coming months or years. So please look upon the below as a working draft. Nonetheless, this is one of the more important articles I have written in this blog, since in it I will go deeper than usual into my view of reality. Please take a deep breath before diving in with me.

Regular readers know that I consider ordinary reality a kind of synchronized, shared 'dream,' a la the movie Inception. As such, reality is entirely in the mind, and does not exist outside the mind. The brain is a kind of localization mechanism of mind: It binds consciousness to a limited perspective in space-time so mind can take multiple, particular points-of-view within the shared 'dream,' much in the same way that we all have 'dream bodies' in our nightly dreams. Therefore, interfering with the brain has a direct causal effect on our experience of reality, because such interference changes the normal functioning of the localization mechanism, thereby modulating our experience. This explains the common correlations between brain activity and subjective experience, as observed by neuroscience.

The reason I have recently highlighted that certain peak experiences break this correlation is that such break illustrates powerfully that subjective experience is not generated by the brain, but simply modulated by it. However, that does not mean that certain experiences that do correlate with brain activity, like our nightly dreams, are any less transcendent. In fact, even if all peak experiences did have brain activity correlates, the hypothesis I am putting forward would still be entirely consistent with the facts. Allow me to explain how.

If the brain is a kind of whirlpool of consciousness, which localizes the flow of consciousness in a particular space-time point, then there are two kinds of experience: conscious experience corresponding to the water captured in the whirlpool; and subconscious experience corresponding to the water flowing freely around the whirlpool and running the entire course of the stream. A way to access ordinarily subconscious experiences is to disrupt the whirlpool so the water initially trapped in it can now escape and flow freely, traversing the entire stream. This is analogous to what happens during NDEs, but it's not the explanation we are seeking here for it does not correlate to any brain activity. Now, subconscious experiences taking place somewhere else in the stream can indeed correlate with brain activations: Imagine an upstream disturbance in the flow, like someone rhythmically wiggling his fingers in the water (or, in the case of the video below, strands of grass touching the water upstream). The ripples of such disturbance will feed into the dynamics of the whirlpool downstream and affect it in a way that corresponds to the rhythm of the finger movements upstream. In other words, one could be having transcendent experiences that are 'outside the brain' (the wiggling of fingers upstream) while measurable brain activations (the corresponding disturbances of the whirlpool) would still correlate with such experiences.

So here is my hypothesis: When we dream, areas of our brains are 'turned off' (like the pre-frontal cortex), which allows our conscious awareness to escape the localization mechanism of the brain in ways partially analogous to what happens during NDEs or psychedelic trances. So our dreams may indeed entail the traversing of realms of experience that exist independent of the brain or ordinary material reality. Yet, unlike a deep psychedelic trip, enough of the brain appears to remain 'on' during a dream that the 'ripples' of our transcendent experiences still resonate with the remaining brain activity. Such measurable brain activity may not be sufficient to explain the dream, in that it may comprise much less information than that experienced in the dream, but it may still correlate with the dream. Analogously, although our shadows correlate with the form and movements of our bodies, there is much less information in a shadow than in the corresponding body; it's ludicrous to think that the shadow can explain the body.

One can thus think of dreams as a state amenable to a synchronization, or resonance, between remaining brain activity and transcendent experiences, in a way analogous to what Steven Strogatz demonstrates in the video at the top of this article, from 11:40 minutes onwards. As such, the dream is not the measured brain activity (any more than a body is its shadow), but the brain activity is a good indicator for the dream experience in the same way that disruptions in the dynamics of the downstream whirlpool are good indicators for what is actually happening upstream.

Copyright © 2012 by Bernardo Kastrup. All rights are reserved.


  1. Your whirpool analogy got me thinking.
    After "the brain is a computer" and "the brain is a radio" we get "the brain is a dam".

  2. I had a very interesting and transcendental type dream last night. It got me thinking about the nature of dreams when I woke up and lo and behold you have an article on it. What I have thought for a while is that the phenomenology of dreams involves the symbols of the brain trying to form a coherent story of a transcendental experience.

    1. Would you feel like sharing your dream? Maybe here or in the Message Board? I, for one, am very interested in transcendent dreams!

  3. Hi Bernardo
    I love your theories. Thank you.
    Just read a 'Q and A' section on your Rationalist Spirituality book website(early 2011?).
    Just wondered whether your answer still holds (I've cut and pasted it below), given your whirlpool theory / idealist /anti dualism stance / "all is mind stuff" views.
    Many thanks

    Q: Okay, but then I still insist on an earlier question: If consciousness is not generated by the brain, then how come neuroscientists find such perfect correlations between conscious experience and measurable states of the brain?

    A: The hypothesis here is that, although the brain does not generate consciousness, consciousness is coupled to the brain in such a way that brain states frame what one experiences. In other words, you are only conscious of what happens in the brain, so if one messes up with the brain, that alters what one experiences. You see, because we cannot explain consciousness through the behavior of matter, we must postulate that consciousness is a fundamental property of nature, like space-time itself. As such, it is reasonable to postulate that consciousness is like a field, grounded on yet unknown aspects of reality. This consciousness field then manifests itself in material reality wherever a suitable structure, like a brain, is present. You could think of consciousness as radio waves that manifest themselves mechanically whenever the suitable substrate – namely, radio receivers – is available. Since the interaction of the consciousness field with material reality is mediated by the brain, it is expectable that brain states determine what one consciously experiences. For instance, if you interfere with the brain through the use of substances – like alcohol or anesthesia – such interference will frame conscious experience to the extent that consciousness, while coupled to the brain, perceives material reality only through the workings of the brain. Yet that does not imply that the brain generates consciousness; merely that it frames conscious perception.

    1. Hi IntegralM, thanks for the nice words!
      The answer does hold, though it makes use of a Dualist metaphor, which is just another way of conveying the same message. Strictly speaking, you could say I'm an "Idealist," that is, someone who holds that all that exists is in consciousness. Even in Rationalist Spirituality, if you read the book, you will see that I use an entire chapter establishing just that, but then I move to the Dualist metaphor. This way, when I talk of the brain being necessary for the manifestation of the field of consciousness in ordinary reality (which suggests Dualism), in fact what I am saying is that the field of consciousness _takes the form of a brain_ in order _to create ordinary reality_ (which is an Idealist metaphor). The two ways of saying it are, at bottom, equivalent; but the Dualist metaphor is a lot more familiar to most people. In my subsequent books, I abandon the Dualist metaphor entirely.

    2. By the way, the choice between using a Dualist or an outright Idealist metaphor in different books has to do with the target audience of each book. Rationalist Spirituality has a different target audience than Dreamed up Reality or Meaning in Absurdity; an audience more used to religious discourse and Dualism. But the underlying philosophy of all three books, if you translate the metaphors, is pretty consistent.

  4. Thanks Bernardo
    I have bought all 3 of your books from Amazon and am very much looking forward to reading them. Even paid extra to get them shipped quickly!!

    I know this question may seem a little simple, but what is your view of reincarnation?

    I like to think that we are all individual points of consciousness "focussed down" in human brains and that maybe, upon dissolution of our brains, our individual points of consciousness carry some "sticky imprints" of our experiences / attachments that draw us to other human brains to focus again in. What do you reckon?

    1. Wow, cool, I hope you like the books!
      Reincarnation is an interesting, though difficult topic. I think that, if everything is in consciousness, then there is ultimately only one conscious Self taking various, local points-of-view in the game of existence. From this perspectives, it's the same Self doing all incarnations. But that isn't satisfying to your question, I gather. I guess what you are asking is whether the memories of a particular life (including memories of identity and character) get passed on to other, future points-of-view. I then see two possibilities: (a) Perhaps we all have access to all memories of all previous points-of-view (i.e. incarnations), so that everybody could potentially remember being Napoleon; or (b) perhaps the memories of a particular incarnation get transferred only to a specific future incarnation (so only one person alive today could have been Napoleon). Alternative (b) requires that the differentiation or individualization of the one Self happens hierarchically, i.e. that there be frames of reality, beyond the material, where one can still talk of a differentiated part of the Self, i.e. a soul that reincarnates. Alternative (b) requires more assumptions than (a). On the other hand, Nature doesn't care about Occam's razor, so (b) may just as well be true. Because of personal, transcendent experiences I've had, I think there is indeed a hierarchy of differentiation of the Self through different frames of reality, so I think (b) is possible.

  5. By the way - I recognise the dual nature of my question, but due to the limitations of the brain my "point of awareness" is currently in, I cannot think of another way to put it!!?

  6. Thanks for your reply Bernardo.
    In asking my question, I was mindful of your reply (again, cut and pasted below) in aforementioned 'Q and A' bit in early 2011. Do you still have the same views as below? I won't ask you any more questions for a bit, I promise!

    Q: Returning to the idea of the human soul; how would you place such idea in your system?

    A: There are many definitions for the word “soul,” so I must be careful in answering this question. Let us say that soul is a form of identity that survives bodily death. Now notice that our sense of identity is fundamentally associated to memory. If tomorrow you were to forget everything you went though in your life prior to that point, would you still have the same sense of identity? Probably not. You would instead begin to build up a new sense of identity. Now, as we discussed earlier, if all conscious experiences survive forever at the most fundamental level of consciousness, then all which gives us our sense of identity also survives forever. All of our memories, experiences, and self-image, everything that has anything to do with the concept of “I” as an entity, will thus survive bodily death. From this point of view, the concept of an immortal soul seems indeed to make good rational sense.

    1. Yes, I still hold the same view as expressed above. In fact, I don't think I changed my mind yet about anything in my books (despite the differences in the metaphors used in different books).

      Feel free to keep posting questions, although the Message Board would be more appropriate for general questions than the comments section of a particular post. Have a look at the link to the right, top of the page ===>


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