Robert Berezin M.D.

The Theater of the Brain

Reflections on Dreaming and Consciousness

What is the function of dreaming and how does it operate?

Posted Oct 25, 2013

Consciousness in waking life operates as a kind of top down functioning. Organized as an invisible play, established in early childhood, it informs how we filter and process the world. Conflicts that are stirred during the day, which resonate with the warp of our play inside, then need to be digested to leave us open to take on the next day. Dreams do the digestion work during sleep for whatever is generated during the day as it resonates with our inner character. Consciousness operates on the level of people and feeling. What are the conflicts that are addressed by dreaming? The issues that may occupy the dream stage are combats, quests, challenges, boredoms, wishes,
hopes, curiosities, pain, disappointments, sexual interests and stimulations, fantasies, competitions, fears, anxieties, cruelty, sadism, humiliations, sufferings, abuse, deprivations, traumas, envies, jealousies, sadnesses, and otherwise the full panoply of life’s dramas, engagements, and relationship adventures.

The restorative processes of the organism during sleep operate in their appropriate contexts. With regard to cellular metabolism, digestion operates in the molecular realm. Emotional conflict, which operates in the realm of people and feeling, gets digested in its comparable world, a dream of people and feeling. The function of dreaming is consonant with the overall function of sleep—to restore the brain-body so it can be free and flexible to take on the next day in the most optimal way. Consequently, there is a special sleep state devoted to dreaming, REM sleep, whose function is to restore our consciousness. In REM sleep, we are in a brain-body trance state. The attention of consciousness is withdrawn from reality. Consciousness is no longer oriented through the senses or the body. Consciousness recedes from our striated muscles, so we are in a state of paralysis. Muscle tone is at its lowest ebb. Likewise, it recedes significantly from our senses so that we are not oriented by reading reality. The eyes, no longer seeing the outside world, dart back and forth—with their Rapid Eye Movements—as we see a dream. If any of the senses gets stimulated beyond a certain threshold—a loud noise, a strong light, a strong touch, even a strong smell or taste—we shift trance states back to waking.

Consciousness, no longer operative in the theater of reality, now operates in a living theater of the brain, doing its sleep work. No longer tied to reality, the curtain is lifted on this inner theater. A drama, triggered by the events of the day, is now onstage. Untethered to reality, it writes its own play, giving us a window into the unadulterated nature of consciousness itself. Inner dramas triggered by the day’s conflicts are the stuff of dreams. It is through the enactments of the dream story that consciousness does its sleep work.

Since dreams are about emotional conflicts, the feeling centers in the brain are central in the construction of all aspects of dream creation. Consciousness, in dreams, is not just a reductive brain rehash. Dreams are an alive, creative production of consciousness. Dream enactments take place in the living moment, as do the productions of waking consciousness. It is also essential to realize that the actual work of a dream is enacted in sleep with no reference to wakefulness at all. Our dreams are not dreamed to be seen by our waking selves. They are not a production to be shown in your local movie theater, on HBO, or on YouTube. They are purely intended to be shown on the brain’s projection screen in sleep. The brain routinely does its REM sleep work unremembered.

We remember only a tiny fraction of dreams. In fact, we dream about the same stirred conflicts five times over the course of the night. Although remembered dreams are, in fact, useful in therapy, and can provide eureka moments for us, this is not their purpose or function. The happenstance that we remember a dream is an unintended by-product of a trance shift on awakening. If the purpose of dreams were for us to acquire information about our waking selves, remembering far less than one percent of them in some seemingly secret code would be woefully inefficient.