Where do dreams come from? From our brains? If so, what causes them? Or do they come from outside our brains? If so, from where? Or maybe, some dreams come from our brains and others come from outside our brains.
If we want to accurately interpret our dreams, we should consider just where they might originate.
Hmm. Well, shall we jump right in?
In this series on dreams, I generally avoid the terms “body, soul, and spirit” because these terms are loaded with lots of ideas that may not be useful to this discussion. As I discuss in Peace in Your House, there are conflicting understanding of these terms, and different people bring their own definitions and baggage to them. I prefer to think of our human existence not as three parts, but as deeply complex fully-integrated beings – this is the biblical approach, incidentally.
When I use the terms brain and consciousness, I’m talking about something other than body and soul. I’m being intentional in the use of these terms.
When considering the brain, it’s important to understand that the health of our physical body impacts the functioning of our brain. Similarly, our spiritual and emotional health impacts how our brains function.
And this all relates to where dreams come from.
Brain: Filter or Creator of Consciousness?
Scientific materialists (who hold there is no supernatural realm) suggest that your brain creates your consciousness, which is a construct of personhood. They also say that your brain constructs dreams for purely chemical or bio-mechanical reasons. Dreams come from ourselves, according to materialists, and thus should be interpreted emotionally or physically. One famous scientific materialist, Sigmund Freud, based his theories of dream interpretation from this starting point.
Gnostics hold that the brain is dirty and evil, and temporarily houses your consciousness, holding it back from achieving enlightenment or oneness with the cosmos.
But what if the Gnostics and Materialists miss the mark. Perhaps the brain acts like a filter, allowing the consciousness to be shaped and molded over time.
(re)Molding our Minds
Our minds and bodies are constantly bombarded with stimuli, which in part shapes how our brains operate, but also our brains are already shaped to filter out this stimuli. Our consciousness then interacts and is shaped by this stimuli that is filtered through the brains.
People’s ability to interact with their surroundings depends on how much their body filters before the input reaches their consciousness.
Have I lost you yet? I may have lost myself. Bear with me, because this really does relate to the origins of dreams and dream interpretation.
Physical stimuli bombard you all the time, and your brain does its best to filter the stimuli, determine what is important for your consciousness to receive, and then organize the stimuli so your consciousness can do something about it.
This filtering allows your consciousness to interact with the stimuli, including interpreting if there are ideas being communicated. The brain will attempt to construct a narrative from the input, to the point in filling in gaps of the narrative to help it make sense. The brain will literally make stuff up to help make sense of the input.
Often the brain will error in this attempt, and the conclusions you draw from it will be mistaken.
Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP)
I really began considering these ideas while preparing for the Peeranormal episode on EVP. Started by Dr. Michael S. Heiser, Peeranormal is a podcast where a panel reviews some peer-reviewed scientific research into something paranormal, and then we discuss it. I sit on the panel, and participated in the EVP discussion.
Electronic Voice Phenomena occurs (allegedly) when paranormal researchers take certain recording devices into a supposed haunted house, and try to record the voices of spirits. Generally, I’m a believer in EVP, but I don’t believe every claimed case of EVP is actually the result of a spirit talking. The research confirming or denying EVP was unconvincing. You can listen to the podcast episode and read the scholarly articles here.
Much of the skeptical research dealt with the issue of priming. Basically, paranormal investigators were open to the idea of spirit voices being recorded electronically, and so when they heard anomalies on the recordings, their minds easily interpreted the sounds into words.
But when listeners were not primed to perceive paranormal voices, they did not hear them. For instance, during World War 2, intelligence officers listened to countless hours of static using similar tools as paranormal investigators. They were trying to pick up signals from the enemy, but never interpreted the anomalies they heard as paranormal voices.
Some of the peer-reviewed research pointed out that our brains will fill in the gaps of input to help construct a narrative. For instance, if I asked a spirit a yes/no question, and I expected to hear a yes, and an anomaly appeared on the recording, my brain would be predisposed to interpreting it as yes.
In other words, sometimes we hear what we want to hear.
When it come to dreams, seemingly random ideas might flash through your mind while you sleep, and the brain will work hard to develop a coherent narrative.
Whether or not the narrative means anything … well often, that’s the real question.
Consider a child who is raised in a neglectful and abusive home compared to a child who is raised in a loving and caring home. Both children visit the same grandparent’s house for Thanksgiving meal. One child eats the food, but also sneaks food away, hiding it for future use, while treating adults rather disconnectedly. The other child engages the adults cheerfully, and eats, but doesn’t sneak away food.
Why the different responses to the same stimuli? Simply, their brains have been shaped to experience the same inputs differently.
The first child’s brain has constructed a narrative that interprets the world with distrust, to expect to not have basic needs met. The child determines he needs to squirrel away extra food while it’s freely available for times when it’s not, while keeping adults at a distance, lest they lash out and cause more pain.
The other child has learned that the world is not dangerous and there was no need to have to take care for a day of hunger since the child has never known hunger. The child implicitly trusts the adults because the child’s brain has constructed a narrative that adult family members can be trusted.
Which child’s perceptions are correct? Neither, of course. It’s just how they perceive the world, based on their minds already being shaped by previous experiences.
I would imagine the dreams of the first child are far different than the second child.
We must not necessarily trust narratives our minds construct for us. Ideas – or dreams – that come to us may come from inside us or they might come from outside of us. The question is to critically consider where the dreams are coming from, why they take the shape they do, and then carefully consider what message, if any, the dreams have.
Our brains are brilliantly designed. They greatly impact how we think, but our thinking greatly impacts our brains!
Whether we intend to or not, our brains are being reshaped, remolded, reprogrammed by the stimuli around us.
I had a dream this week about being in a World War I battle. Of course I did. I’m reading A Farewell to Arms by Earnest Hemingway.
Once I consider that my brain is using the input from a fiction novel set during the First World War, I can consider the narrative it constructed. The dream might just be my brain recycling what I’m reading, using the imagery to work out the stress of my day, deep desires or fears I have, or using Hemingway’s imagery to convey a message that has come from outside myself.
Because our brains are so easily shaped and reshaped, programmed and reprogrammed, it’s important to consider what stimuli we are bombarding it with, so we can purposely reshape our thinking and perceptions about the world so we can think about things like Jesus did.
We want the narratives our brain constructs to be as accurate as possible.
Ultimately, this is what repentance is all about. See this article for more about that.
Next time, we’ll consider why we remember some dreams and tactics to try when we don’t remember dreams, but we want to. Then we’ll wrap all these threads together into the different kinds of dreams and how to parse them.