LIVERIGHT, MARCH 2016Many scientists who study the mind live in fantasyland. They ought to move back to reality: neuroscientists, psychologists, computer scientists pursuing artificial intelligence, and the philosophers of mind who are, in many cases, the sharpest thinkers in the room.
The mind makes us rational. That mind is the one we choose to study. When we study sleep or dreaming, we isolate them first—as the specialized topics they are. But, as I argue in my new book The Tides of Mind, we will never reach a deep understanding of mind unless we start with an integrated view, stretching from rational, methodical thought to nightmares.
Integrating dreaming with the rest of mind is something like being asked to assemble a car from a large pile of metal, plastic, rubber, glass, and an ocelot. Dreaming is hallucination, centering on a radically different self from our waking selves, within unreal settings and stories. Dreams can please or scare us far more vividly than our ordinary thoughts. And they are so slippery, so hard to grasp, that we start losing them the moment we wake up.
But dreaming fits easily into the big picture of mind; and we will make no basic progress on understanding the mind until we see how. Dreaming is the endpoint of the spectrum of consciousness, the smooth progression from one type of consciousness to the next, that we each experience daily.
The simplest approach to the spectrum centers on mental focus. The quality of our attention goes from concentrated to diffuse over the course of a normal day; from a state in which we can concentrate—we can think and remember in a relatively disciplined way—to one in which, with our minds wandering and memory growing increasingly vibrant and distracting, we approach sleep. Then our thinking becomes hallucinatory (as we pass through “sleep-onset thought”); and finally, we are asleep and dreaming. Usually, we oscillate down and up more than once during the day. We move partway down, come partway back, then finally slide slowly to the bottom, when we sleep and dream.
We can also describe the spectrum as a steady shift from a mind dominated by action to one dominated by passive mental experience; from mental doing to mental being. In the upper spectrum, we tend to ignore emotion as we pursue some mental object by means of reasoning or analysis. But the daydreams and fantasies that occupy us as we move down-spectrum are often emotional. And in dreaming we encounter the most saturated emotions, good and bad, that the mind can generate.
The spectrum clarifies important aspects of the mind. “Intentionality,” the quality of aboutness (“I believe that bird is a sparrow” is about “that bird”), is sometimes called “the mark of the mental”—the distinguishing attribute of mental states. But intentionality belongs strictly to the upper spectrum, and disappears gradually as we descend. At the bottom, our minds are dominated by experience, pure being. Happiness or pain or “the experience of seeing purple” are states that have causes but are about nothing.
Software simulations of the upper spectrum, of thinking-about, have grown steadily stronger over the years. That trend will continue. Being, however, is not computable. Software can no more reproduce “being happy” than it can reproduce “being rusty.” Such states depend on physical properties of particular objects. A digital computer resembles only the upper-spectrum mind. Software will never come close to reproducing the mind as a whole.
Leaving sleep outside our investigation is a good way not to see any of this. Arbitrarily hacking off one end of any natural spectrum is an invitation to conceptual chaos. There has been plenty of that in the science of mind. We must start by understanding sleep and dreaming, and go from there.
David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale University. Read an excerpt from his latest book, The Tides of Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness at the-scientist.com.