Von der Kunst des Herumliegens und Träumens
The hammock engulfs me, rocking me gently into a half-sleep. The noise of the street wafts in from the distance. The rattle of an engine, the chatter of neighbours, the laughter of a child. My mind slips out of the dream world into consciousness and back again, getting stuck somewhere in between in a state of pleasurable meditative floating. Memories, fragments of the imagination push into my awareness like marionettes dancing across a stage. Everything is possible in this feather-light state of suspension. Reality is as real as the dream, two oscillating, intertwining worlds.
The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who along with Lao Tzu is considered the most important representative of Taoism, once dreamt he was a butterfly, flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He was not aware of being Zhuangzi. Suddenly, he woke up and there he was, truly himself again. And he didn’t know whether he was a man who had dreamt of being a butterfly, or whether he was a butterfly now dreaming of being a man. So, Zhuangzi writes, it is with the transformation of things.
The noise of the street wafts in from the distance. The rattle of an engine, the laughter of a child.
As fleeting as they may be, dreams exert an influence on us, even the dreams dreamt by people of times long past still occupy us today. “The images that entered into consciousness in the twilight between sleep and wakefulness shaped our thought and left their mark on philosophy and religion. In this way, the dreams of our ancestors shaped our idea of who we humans actually are,” says science writer Stefan Klein.
And yet people in the Western world have burnt the bridge between their daytime and nighttime selves, as French anthropologist Roger Bastide wrote: “We have devaluated the nocturnal half of our life.” Sleep – for most people, it is just a necessary period of rest so they can be all the more productive at work the next morning. The echoes of the dream world are rinsed away with the toothpaste residues after the morning brush. Daydreaming? Who has time for that?
Yet in the oscillation between waking and sleep, we explore the topography of our consciousness. Yes, from a purely neurological point of view, dreaming is not that far removed from consciousness. “The simple dichotomy of waking and sleep inadequately describes the possibilities of our consciousness,” Klein writes. “The mind can by no means be merely present or completely absent. In many, even most, states of consciousness, features of waking and dreaming intermingle.”
From a purely neurological point of view, dreaming is not that far removed from consciousness.
In 2010, the French neurophysiologist Michel Magnin described the processes of falling asleep. According to Magnin, different parts of the brain enter a state of rest at different times. While some portions are still awake, others have already shut down. This is controlled by the thalamus in the middle of our head, our control centre, if you will, which relays the signals coming from our sense receptors. For this reason, the thalamus is also often called the “gateway to consciousness”. If it closes, the cerebrum can no longer receive signals from the senses. According to Magnin, the thalamus is the first to shut down when we go to sleep, while the cerebral cortex and hence consciousness remain in a state of wakefulness. Above all, our perception of the world is much less objective than we assume. “The eyes are merely the window, it is the mind that sees,” writes neuroscientist Giulio Tononi.
Every second, the virtually unimaginable sum of ten billion bits of information reaches our retina, says Klein. That is fifty times more data than a computer receives over the fastest internet connection currently available. And yet it is not this flood of data that evokes experience. “Because only a tiny part of this information actually reaches our consciousness – about a hundred bits per second.” A ten-millionth of what the eyes see. Apparently, the brain first deletes the largest part of an image in order to then create a new one from other sources, the so-called association fields. It is these fields that create the image we see.
The association fields work like “a collage artist who sifts through existing material, selects what fits, reassembles it and modifies it”, writes Klein. They are based on our present perception, but also on visual memory and all our other knowledge of the world. So we don’t just see the apple tree standing in front of us, but also trees from long ago, perhaps remembering the trees from school lessons, the smell of a fresh apple.
“The eyes are merely the window, it is the mind that sees,” writes Giulio Tononi.
Our brain, three pounds of water, fat and protein, creates an illusion that becomes reality, creates our identity. “Our perception of the world is a fantasy that coincides with reality,” writes British cognitive psychologist Chris Frith. “Waking is nothing more than a space-like state that moves within a framework that the senses set for it,” says Colombian neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás.
In sleep, most neuroscientists now believe, the brain processes the enormous amount of information it is bombarded with every day. It learns, it organises, it links information. Important things are distinguished from the unimportant and irrelevant things are deleted in order to make more room for new impressions, writes Klein.
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Our feelings help us in this process. They dictate what creates pleasure and what triggers fear. The Belgian neuroscientist Pierre Maquet believes that feelings are the actual subject of dreams. Like a director, the dreaming brain creates a film that reveals our emotional state. “The sphinx is not the cause of my fear, it is an explanation of my feeling of oppression,” the English romantic poet Samuel Coleridge once wrote.
Dreams and daydreams are much more than figments of our imagination. They allow us to travel around our brain. They reveal another, hidden side that is of utmost importance for our lives. So why not give them ample time?
Once I wanted to take a taxi in the Burmese city of Yangon. I had an urgent appointment and was in a great hurry. There was a taxi parked on the corner. The driver, an elderly gentleman in a long white shirt, was lying on the back seat with his bare feet on the front backrest, a newspaper spread over his stomach, and daydreaming with pleasure. When I asked him if he could give me a ride, he looked at me in amazement, as if he could hardly believe that he was being asked such a presumptuous question at such an inopportune moment. “Can’t you see I’m busy?” he asked, aghast.
Traum und Tagtraum sind mehr als Hirngespinste. Sie ermöglichen uns, unser Gehirn zu bereisen.
He was right, of course. The Calvinist spirit of compulsive busyness overlooks the creative power of daydreaming. Franz Kafka once wrote of his dreams “shining forth into wakefulness even before I fall asleep”. The Chinese scholar Ouyang Xiu of the Song dynasty declared that he did his best writing on a pillow, the back of a horse and on the toilet. The philosopher and mathematician René Descartes solved mathematical problems in bed. This was also recognised at some point by his Jesuit teachers, who had previously tried to get him to get up in the morning with buckets of cold water. He was given the privilege of sleeping in.
The aspiring dreamer and loafer may place herself in the tradition of an impressive pantheon of writers, philosophers, artists and scientists who have sung the praises of pleasurable lazing about. Yes, she can refer to a philosophy of dreaming that Lin Yutang specifies in The Importance of Living. The Chinese philosopher, Lin writes, dreams with one eye open, because he knows about his transience. This knowledge enables him to resist the temptations of fame, wealth and achievement.
Franz Kafka once wrote of his dreams “shining forth into wakefulness even before I fall asleep”.
And from this detachment grows his love of freedom, of being a vagabond, of nonchalance. “Life, then, is really a dream, and we human beings are like travellers floating down the eternal river of time, embarking at a certain point and disembarking again at another point in order to make room for others waiting below the river to come aboard. Half of the poetry of life would be lost if we did not feel that life is a dream, a journey, or at least a stage on which the actors rarely realise that they are only playing a role.”