I dreamt recently that I was riding a horse. What was most curious about it was that I have never had a desire to ride a horse; nor do I remember reading or thinking about stallions, geldings, or mares in the recent past. Also, I have never ridden a horse, let alone any other animal for that matter – with the miserable exception of that poor helpless pachyderm that I sat on in Ayutthaya in Thailand as one of those must-do touristy things to tick off while you are there.

So why did I – apparently all of a sudden – dream about riding a horse?

Explaining dreams – along with consciousness – is admittedly one of those things that are still lost in a Cartesian mind-matter divide; it is one of the (many?) frontiers yet to be conquered by science. Among the many attempts to explain consciousness, one of the more recent, interesting and radical ones is that of Francis Crick (the co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA) who takes a functional or reductionist approach in postulating that consciousness – and, by association, the mind – is essentially only another physiological process. In support of his hypothesis, Crick offers fairly convincing evidence of how certain areas of the brain – certain specific sets of neurons even – are involved in the act of perception. There is of course no denying that perception is closely allied with consciousness. Crick, however, appears to over=stress this association to assert that the brain is the (only?) source of consciousness. Consciousness is, however, more than mere perception, and this is where one feels that Crick’s argument fails or is at least incomplete.

While propounding this highly mechanistic, deterministic view of the mind, Crick also presents a bleak picture of our existence by implying that what we call free will is essentially a myth. Crick appositely begins his book, “The Astonishing Hypothesis,” with the words, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Incidentally, this book also boasts perhaps one of the most misleading sub-titles in publishing, “A Search for the Soul.” When you read the book you get the feeling that ironically, Crick is, in fact, trying to tell the world that the search for the soul is fruitless, for the soul does not exist anyway. His hypothesis is more depressing than astonishing.

If the soul does not exist as postulated by Crick, the place and meaning of the self to become somewhat tenuous. Furthermore, if the self does not exist, then who is this “me” who had this dream of riding a horse, the one who does not really want to ride a horse? For most people, Crick’s dismissal of the soul and mechanistic interpretation of consciousness is rather a bit too frigid when juxtaposed against their understandably more optimistic world-view. I would rather believe that it is I (who or whatever that I am) , a dream rather than think that a set of a billion or so neurons decided to stage a song and light show in my head for no one’s benefit. In the words of Pascal, although I am “only a reed, the weakest thing in nature;” it still ennobles me to remember that I “am a thinking reed.” And that is why I would like to find out why I had this dream.

Is the purpose of dreaming of visualizing or conceptualizing in our sleep something that we would never think of actually doing (or “dream of” doing), something that would perhaps be not in alignment with our diurnal lives and aspirations? And, this could be due to the fact either I do not have a desire to ride a horse – or the unique set of social mores and boundaries that define and describe me (that bundle of concepts and thoughts referred to collectively as my “conscience”) prevents me from realizing that act. Certain neuro-scientists have described dreaming as the process by which the brain-mind cohort flushes away all undesirable thoughts and ideas and reconnects and reboots the neural systems. It has been found that when we dream, our brains use that time to eliminate the toxins produced by its chemical activities.

Freud thought that a person who is dreaming is not truly ‘asleep,’ even if he is sleeping. As elucidated by psychoanalyst, Dr Joyce Mc Dougall, during a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Freud also thought that when we are asleep or dreaming, our body is as though ‘paralyzed’ and that therefore dreams replace action. As Dr McDougall explained, “When we are dreaming, instead of doing something, we exist in another state… [one] without motivated physical action. [Nevertheless,] something very active is happening.” Freud proposed that all the dream-thoughts and images that invade the mind are dealing with messages from the body. Maybe my body did want at some time in the past to ride a horse, but my brain never recognized that wish!

Buddhism considers, on the other hand, that dreaming is the second of four stages between waking and deep sleep. Buddhism views deep sleep as a rehearsal of death, whereas dreaming is a rehearsal of the intermediary stage between death and rebirth. In Buddhism, there are techniques, that allow us to be conscious (that word again!) that we are dreaming, to transform the dream, and finally to create dreams as we wish, choosing the subject matter and scenario. As Matthew Ricard explains, “the aim is to see that all phenomena are like dreams and are illusory.” (This ability to control your dream and choose the scenario also echoes the Hindu idea of Brahma dreaming this world into being.)

In the end, I am not sure which theory I am comfortable with: whether it is the proposition that our dreams are a mere cerebral flushing mechanism or the possibility that I can make my own world into being. I am however sure of one thing: I am happy to leave my dreams unexplained and contend with a broken freewill – instead of accepting that my dreams, free will and consciousness are merely the pointless residue from an electro-chemical interplay between a pinch of noradrenaline and a few thousand axons and dendrites inside my head.

By Venkat Ramanan