WARNING: I am not a neuroscientist, a psychiatrist, or a medical doctor. I'm a computer programmer. What you are about to read is based on my own inner journeys and observations and nothing more. Also, I am absolutely not advocating accepting a life that is out of your control. In fact, I believe the only way to escape the invisible walls that may confine you is to identify them first, and then regain as much control of your life as humanly possible.
My journey into the mind and dreams began in earnest soon after college. I was a typical angry young middle-class man, working hard to get ahead in life, to get rich, perhaps, or famous, or at least get a decent car since mine was falling apart at the time. I was driving on the freeway on the way to something I thought important (it wasn’t) while wrestling with the questions many of us have when we find ourselves perpetually dissatisfied with our lives, endlessly searching for the happiness or brass ring we desire whether it be in the form of money, love, adventure, or all of the above.
I had reached that peak state of annoyance with the universe in which I begin to frame my laments as loud queries directed at the unseen puppeteer that seemed to control and influence my life. "Why is happiness so hard to find," I shouted, safe in the knowledge that no one could see me doing this at 55 MPH on the freeway inside my car. Right before I went under an overpass the answer hit me like a thunderbolt. I am not here to be happy. Sure, it's a goal that all of us have the right to pursue to the fullest. But evolution or grand design or whatever you want to call the force that made me into the shape and form that I am did not care about my happiness.
I was put on this planet to do the only thing that nature and the universe care about — to safely transport my seed from one place to other in the hopes of meeting fertile ground to produce more frustrated, anxiety-ridden beings that would do the same. I was a high-IQ chauffeur for my balls.
You see, the enlightenment was so hard to find because it was easy to find. I just disliked the answer. A lot. Most of us live our lives believing we are the masters of our fate and that the driver in this vehicle that we call our body is the intellectual "I." Sure, we know that powerful, elite groups of the wealthy shape the larger part of our destinies in a myriad of ways, but as far as where we decide to go today (outside of work), what clothes to wear, etc., the countless choices we make every day, those are our domain.
No, and despite the introductory warning at the top of this page about my lack of scientific expertise, there are more studies producing the same result every year. By the time a decision reaches our conscious minds our subconscious has already made it.
That was the enlightenment I had while approaching the overpass that day. That the "me" who was driving the car and doing all the talking inside and outside my head, who I thought was in charge, wasn't. It was an enlightenment that did not help me get any happier at the immediate moment, but the instant I accepted it there was a great release from the tyrannical pressure I put on myself to succeed. There was no grand plan put into place where I, Robert Oschler, was destined to find happiness, just one to help me ferry my merry genitalia around planet Earth. As long as I was doing that successfully, life didn't care much about how happy I was. However, I still did, a lot.
Now what about dreams? Right now I am imagining you, the unseen partner in this one-way conversation who is reading these words. I'm wondering how much of your attention I really have as your mind flits between the pressures of your life and this article at lightning speed. Are you a man, a woman? Do you have a family? Are you reading this in the bathroom (kudos!) or while talking on the phone? These questions are important because I need to get you away from the huge number of meanings that are attached to the word "dream." I am asking you these questions because I want you to think about you and what the word "dream" means to you. Once you have done that and really nailed down the answer, I want you to put those strong attachments aside as I give you an idea.
Remember, I am a computer programmer. Having said that, I worry that you may think I have a cold and analytical view of dreams and the human mind. Nothing could be further from the truth. But if you, like I once did, have an emotional need to believe that in dreams you travel to unknown and mystical places because to not believe that traps you in the world of the physical and that is more than you can bear, then stop reading now. I respect that need and I have no desire to injure it. I simply don't share it anymore.
If you do any reading on how much of the world we perceive is actually a magnificent internal construct provided by our subconscious, our world view, and not a product of what we take in with our eyes and other senses, you understand something pretty quick. While the human mind and perhaps soul cannot be reduced to a simple computer, it has many of the same problems to solve. The studies I have read demonstrate quite easily that our minds pick up a lot less data from the world than we believe; just enough to keep our internal image of the world updated so we can navigate our lives as safely as possible. The conclusion that comes from understanding the importance of the internal world construct, and how we maximize the use of relatively scant sensory input, is that the mind does share several important characteristics with a computer. Your mind has to solve problems, categorize and store data, and update your internal "records" every second of the day.
[Note: from this point on I will be using YOU in capital letters to refer to the larger YOU that is the seat of your emotions, your feelings, and your dreams. I will use the lowercase "you" to refer to the part of you that thinks intellectually, favoring facts over feelings.]
The human mind also has another computational task that it has to perform every night. It has to update "you." YOU were alive before you used words. Any mother knows that. Language is such a drastically important tool to human beings and society that it seems almost impossible to think thoughts without it. But YOU do. When YOU were a baby there was a time when YOU didn't know any words at all, but YOU were clearly human, definitely alive, and certainly a bundle of strong emotions, feelings, and thoughts. Then YOU grew up. Learned to speak. To fall and wail in pain, to want things and delight in getting them or feel sorrow when denied, and YOU learned a million different things about how YOU fit into your family, your friends, and the world.
Every step of the way, especially during the early formative years, YOU made important decisions about who you wanted to be like, who YOU were, and where YOU were in the social hierarchy. YOU created you, literally dreaming you into existence until the bubble wrapped in on itself and you thought you were in charge.
But the larger YOU, that lives strictly in a world of emotions, fears and desires is still there. It's giving you the energy to keep reading this article, or pulling at you to call your significant other or watch television, to run a quick anger fantasy at the friend who hurt you the other day, or make you pause for a moment with a smile on your face as you think about the friend who made you laugh a little while ago. That larger YOU, which is not the smarter “you,” uses you to get what it wants. The women out there know this truth when they meet a man they desire and suddenly all of his stupid jokes are hilarious, and as I man I have no desire to recount the massively foolish things I did in pursuit of a pretty face. My intellect was still intact, just stuffed in a closet with the radio playing loudly, safely out of the way.
So, even if you are still clinging to the idea that “you” and not YOU are driving your life, see if you can pretend to let go of it for a while and follow me down the rabbit hole. As I said, your mind has to solve countless problems both large and small every second of the day, but what about the night? That's when it updates *you* and that's where dreams come in as possibly the most amazing computational task in existence.
I hope you enjoyed reading Part I of this article. In the next part I'll give my opinion on what the mind actually does during sleep. Here's a teaser. Not only does it integrate all the experiences of the day before, but it also shapes your mind and your memories to change you in specific ways to meet the challenges of the next day.
See you next time.
Resource Links on Subconscious Decision Making
Unconscious Influence by Jack Shimell
A Battle for Truth: Conscious Versus Subconscious in Decision-making by Anna Dela Cruz
"Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions" by Dan Ariely (See below for book link)