Where Do All Those Images and Dreamlets Come From?

After a long meditation retreat last month, my curiousity about one aspect of my meditation exprience led me to write the following little query about images.  I’ve submitted it to the Journal of Consciousness Studies Online site, and if they accept it I may get some “expert” reflections on it, or I may get some reflections that are so philosophically obscure that I just give up.  Anyway, I think it’s of general interest to see what kind of thoughts it generates here.

Where Do Spontaneous Images Come From, And Why?

I’m wondering where the huge number of images and dreamlets, whose form and content almost never have anything to do with my life, come from when I meditate.  I say “where,” as the origin of these images and dreamlets does not feel at all like it comes from “me,” from my conscious thoughts and intentions.

Observational Method:

For years I have tried to practice some vipassana (“insight”) meditation most days as part of my ongoing study of consciousness.  I wouldn’t call myself an accomplished meditator by any means, but I’ve certainly learned a lot about how my mind, and thus probably mind in general, works.  Now I want to ask about one of the mysterious aspects of it.

I often get sleepy while attempting to do vipassana with my eyes closed, and rather than just complain to myself about not being able to stay fully awake, I’ve learned, thanks to advice from Shinzen Young, to take the visual imagery that arises as the object of my meditation, to try to observe whatever imagery spontaneously comes with as much concentration, clarity and equanimity as I can.  That is I don’t try to influence it, don’t try to make certain kinds of images arise and others not arise, but stay with whatever comes along and observe them as clearly and  “objectively” as possible.

I can classify my observed imagery roughly in three categories.

First is what I might call the background screen, the faint, moving, morphing, vague patterns, probably caused partly by what light does come through my closed eyelids plus internal processes.

Second is more definite images, brighter, still moving and morphing to some degree, but largely impersonal, more like poorly defined geometrical designs than identifiable, everyday objects.

Third is what I call “dreamlets,” brief (a few seconds) dreams with definite, moving imagery and accompanying, appropriate thoughts (internal talk).  Dreamlets come as I slip more deeply into a hypnagogic state.  I get absorbed quickly into the dreamlet story and lose some of my ability to observe, but often retain some sense that I am observing throughout, and usually come back to more awake, less imagistic consciousness after a few seconds.  Rarely, I can keep observing ongoing dreamlets in this hypnagogic state for longer periods, but it is tricky to maintain enough intention and activation to not actually fall asleep, but not so much as to wake me up so much that the dreamlet fades away.

My question, phrased in the heading as where the images (and dreamlets) come from, is a set of why questions.  Why do the images appear, why do they have the particular forms that they do, and what function, if any, do they have?  I’ve thought about several crude theories, described below, none of which is very satisfying in terms of fitting the data, and wonder if JCS online participants may have some better ideas.

Random Image Creation Process Theory:

One line of theorizing is that some parts of the mind are basically random generators, there is no “Why?” answer or “What function?” answer.  It would be like a program running in your computer that randomly accessed sections of randomly selected files on the hard disk and displayed them for a few seconds before making another random selection, with some blending/morphing of images as one selection is replaced by another.  This kind of theory is a partial fit to my thousands of observations of my imagery and dreamlets, as for almost all of them, there is no obvious connection to my recent activities, my ongoing concerns, or my personal history.  As to continuity, while at the form level alone one image frequently morphs into another in a second or two, there is seldom any obvious cognitive reason for A turning into B into C, etc.

A major shortcoming of the purely random theory is that whatever generates my images works with constraints to generate recognizable objects and dreamlets: they all make rough or complete sense.  I do not see weird things you would never see in reality, the characters in my dreamlets do not speak in gibberish or do impossible things, etc.  So if there is a random process behind things, it is a constrained process, limited as to what kinds of forms and happenings it can pick.

Deeper Processing Byproduct Theory:

Another line of theorizing, applied by some to nocturnal dreams also, is that the images are a byproduct of some deeper activity of sorting through recent sensory impressions and thoughts.  The deeper activity is theorized to be of importance in organizing the brain or something like that, the experienced imagery is a kind of fluff, an epiphenomenon of no direct or relevant meaning.

The main problem with this theory is that these “deeper processes” are so vague at present that this kind of theory could not be disproven or distinguished from a constrained random process theory until such time as the characteristics of the hypothesized deeper processes are specified.

Another problem with this theory is the observation, mentioned above, that what I see is not truly random, it is constrained to “sensible” objects and happenings.  Why would something that is just fluff or static be constrained instead of totally random?

The older version of this deeper processing line of theorizing is, of course, Freud’s ideas on the meaning of dreams as disguised expressions of deeper desires.  Perhaps….but as it’s not feasible to have a psychoanalyst on standby whenever I have an image while meditating, I won’t go there now.  In general, I’m sure that if I started a process of association to many of these images, subtly guided/biased by a therapist, I would eventually get back to things of significance to me, but whether this would be more effective than, say, starting associating to words picked from the dictionary at random, is a good question.

World-Simulation Virtual Reality Processing Model:

For years I have found it useful to think of consciousness as a world-simulation process, as a Biological-Psychological-Virtual-Reality (BPVR) (Tart, C., 1991.  Multiple personality, altered states and virtual reality: The world simulation process approach.  Dissociation, 3, 222-233), where a mental model of self and world is constantly being created.  This model is compared against sensory stimuli from the world in order to update the model, although the simulation of the world created by whatever processes do it is not always an accurate simulation of external reality.  From this perspective, it is quite useful for the simulation process to generate scenarios of what one is liable to encounter in the world and try out various responses to see what is likely to happen, a series of “What if?” exercises so you won’t be surprised by novel events and may have a strategy for coping with them already worked out.

This modeling fits my conscious thinking well.  At best, much of my waking thinking is directed to modeling my goals and life situation and devising useful plans of action.  My more idling, less consciously directed, waking thoughts similarly frequently revolve around practicing the best ways to deal with my ordinary reality: how to phrase a certain idea in a lecture I will be giving, e.g.

The problem with applying this model to the imagery and dreamlets that arise during vipassana practice is that the content is so seldom recognizably about my life, or situations I might have to deal with in my ordinary life.  If there is a practice simulation process, you would think it would focus primarily on what might be useful given my history, and only rarely “play” with material of no likely practical usefulness.

The previous three theories are compatible with mainstream thinking that totally equates mind with brain functioning.  The next two lines of theorizing require more openness than the usual conventional mindset has, and may be dismissed without thinking about them by those who find the ideas disturbing.  But if you do dismiss them, I would still like your thoughts on the questions raised above and at the end of this note.

Semi-Random Recall of Past Lives:

Since I learned this vipassana technique in the context of Buddhism, and Buddhism accepts the reality of reincarnation – most everybody in India did in the Buddha’s time –  I wondered if these images and dreamlets, usually of no obvious connection to my current life, could be bits of memories from previous incarnations?  Certainly if I had been raised to believe in reincarnation and then learned vipassana meditation in a Buddhist context, it would be easy to interpret the imagery, so unconnected to my current life, as coming from previous lives.  Indeed, I could take it as a sign that I was making progress toward enlightenment, since Gautama Buddha is reputed to have remembered his past lives as part of his enlightenment experience.

While I do not have the standard mindless rejection of any possibility of reincarnation that is so common in Western intellectual communities, since I know there is some data supporting the theory, nevertheless my imagery doesn’t support this idea.  The images of people and things that arise are almost always what you would see in the contemporary world.  (I say “almost always” to be cautions and not over-generalize, I couldn’t swear that I have never had an image of someone dressed in an old-fashioned way, e.g., but I don’t think so.)

Random Telepathic Reception Theory:

Given the existence of thousands of peer-reviewed published experiments supporting the existence of several kinds of psi, extra-sensory perception – see my recent “The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together” book (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2009) for a review of data and its implications – another line of theorizing might be that the process of vipassana meditation increases my receptivity to telepathically picking up the thoughts of others.  We could analogously picture various minds “broadcasting” like radio stations and the meditation process occasionally “turning on” the “telepathic receiver” and randomly twirling the dial to different frequencies.  I’m reminded of lying in bed at night, sleepy, randomly turning the tuning dial, there’s a little snatch of conversation (turn), some music (turn), a bit of drama (turn),, music (turn), conversation, etc.  This would fit the contemporary nature of the imagery and its lack of connection to my ongoing life and personal history, but introduce new mysteries of what is the hypothesized telepathic reception mechanism, how does it get switched on and tuned, and why?  I won’t speculate further here, but it’s interesting to think about….

Bottom Line Question:

So, “where” do all these images and dreamlets come from?  Why do they take the form they do?  What, if anything, does it mean?

One comment

  1. Dr Tart,

    When I was being tested at Laurentian University, one of the things they did was put me in a dark isolation room with magnetic coils and slowly increased the EMF I was exposed to. They asked me to describe what I was experiencing as they did this.

    The sorts of things I saw during this test were a lot like little dreamlets in a way. I usually see lights of some sort, even in the dark. People have lights around them, which are easier to see in the dark, but I was alone so that wasn’t what I was paying attention to.

    I think I was just picking up on the changes in energy from the coils. I found that as they varied the intensity, the colors would change along with how I felt. When I was seeing pretty blues and purples, I felt pretty good. But when the colors changed to sickly greens and yellows, I started feeling ill.

    I don’t know if the neat lights I was seeing relate to your dreamlets or not, but when I’m falling asleep I seem to pay more attention to just those kinds of lights. Sometimes I don’t want to fall asleep because I enjoy watching them so much.

    If the lights I see when I’m falling asleep, and when I’m in a dark isolation room being subjected to varying EMF levels, are like your dreamlets, then maybe that would suggest they are influenced by your environment. My lights seem to change when my environment does.

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