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Dreams and Conciousness

“Dreams are mere productions of the brain, and fools consult interpreters in vain”
-Jonathan Swift

Written by Santiago Suarez-Rubio

The nature of dreams has marveled numerous ancient civilizations for hundreds of years. Dreams and their interpretations have puzzled from the Achuar Indians in the Amazon, who collectively share their dreams before sunrise as a guided map of the challenges to come, to practitioners of Ayurveda and Yoga in India who understand dreams on the basis of psychological and physical imbalances. In this paper, I wish to discuss the nature of dreams using as the foundation Ayurvedic teachings in an attempt to deepen our understanding of the content of the dream, and possible corresponding neurological relationships. I will conclude by elaborating on the nature of consciousness as understood within Ayurveda and how such system of thought can guide positive changes in sleep research methodology.

     Ayurveda is a philosophical and medical system born in ancient India that has been practiced for over 5,000 years. This system is unique in that it promotes an integrated approach to prevent and treat illnesses through changes in lifestyle and diet and the use of natural therapies. It emphasizes the strong connection between the mind and the body, including the role of the brain, and the nervous system in the various states of consciousness such as sleeping and dreaming. Ayurveda sees that physical diseases are caused by three main imbalances classified as Vata, Pitta and Kapha.
Underneath this classification of disease is the understanding that illnesses are the result of metabolic imbalances or improper coherence of the autonomic nervous system, especially in its corresponding sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions.

      According to Ayurveda, dreams are related to the Majja Dhatu, referring to the nervous tissue and the bone marrow. In particular, this philosophy supports the notion that dreams are associated with nervous discharges related with mental impressions acquired throughout the day. In other words, dream activity results from “incomplete thoughts, actions and feelings” and is the natural way of bringing those thoughts to completion (Lad, 2002). Interestingly, this view is compatible with more modern theories of dreaming. In particular, there are parallels to theories involving daily residue and dream lag (Nielsen et al, 2002) as well as the amygdalar and hippocampal replay. Furthermore, the attributed memory consolidation effect of sleep and dreams can be understood in similar terms, since the process of creating memories is “completing the thought.”

     Interestingly, Ayurvedic thought states that dreams are further evidence of the strong connection between the body and the mind. In addition, as a system of alternative healing, Ayurveda emphasizes that dreams often contain strong indications about the underlying causes of diseases, and thus, by studying them, one can begin the process of psychological and physical healing. In other words, since in Ayurveda all illness are thought to come from imbalances in the mind, by understanding the patterns of movement of thoughts during dreams one can understand the illness in depth and eventually cure it. From this, it is not surprising that Ayurveda categorizes dreams with the same terminology used to diagnose disease. Namely, dreams are also classified as Vata, Pitta and Kapha, each with particular characteristic attributes.

    The first category, Vata, is characterized by dreams that include activity and movement (or alternatively, the lack of such factors). In more modern scientific terms, Vata dreams often include strong vestibular and motor activation.  In this category are dreams that include sensations such as falling and flying, being frozen with fright, or alternatively, dreams of being attacked, pursued, or locked up. Associated with these dreams are Vata emotions such as fear, and anxiety and confusion, which suggest that the amygdale has marked activity during these types of dreams. Similarly, characteristic of Vata dreams would be movement between numerous locations, and disambiguation of objects. In summary, the following dream would be categorized as Vata:

     “I dreamt I was soaring through the air over “Ithaca”, although it was in fact a very different place. It looked more like one of those maps they give out in which the building are caricaturized.”

     The second category, Pitta, includes dreams characterized by intensity and focus. This can include the intensity of intellectual activity, manifesting as dreams about problem solving, studying or teaching. Similarly, Pitta dreams often include strong emotions such as shame (e.g. being naked in public), and aggressive behaviors. Associated with these dreams are Pitta behaviors such being overly critical and judgmental and emotions such as anger. For instance, consider the following dream with Pitta characteristics: 

I was caught in the middle of a gang fight. I was coming out of a small grocery shop, when the opposing group arrived, and started taking bottles of wine and throwing them on the floor. There was a lot of violence and at one point someone crashed a bottle in someone’s head near me.

     Finally, Kapha dreams include emotions such as love (e.g. romantic dreams), satisfaction of desires (particularly those that are deeply unconscious), and finally material and emotional attachment (e.g. attachment to money). For instance, the following dream has Kapha characteristics.

     “It was a very vivid dream in which I was petting my dog. He stayed still in the same spot, enjoying it immensely. I was happy that I could share my love with him…”

     Interestingly, Ayurveda does not understand dreams as originating uniquely based on brain activity but instead in the context of the body, as well as their mental origins. In other words, it is not the case that dreams originate from “spontaneous neural activity in populations of cholinergic neurons” (Porte, 2007) but that such activity arises in specific and well defined patterns, often determined by mental predispositions and behaviors, and includes their strong emotional components. In particular, individuals that exhibit particular types of behavior in the day-time are likely to exhibit dreams of the related mental and emotional qualities of the corresponding dream category.
     There have been a few attempts to correlated neuroanatomical structures with Ayurvedic concepts. For instance, as interpreted by Lad (2002), each of the three qualities in Ayurveda has a corresponding center in the frontal lobe in the brain. Namely, Vata is associated with superior frontal lobe, Kapha with inferior frontal lobe, and finally Pitta with the areas in between.  Unfortunately, the author did not expand on the nature of such neuroanatomical connections. Furthermore, other attempts to equate Ayurvedic understanding suggests that Pitta dreams are related to excess activity of the sympathetic nervous system whereas Kapha dreams are associated with excess activity in the parasympathetic nervous system. Future research could elucidate further on the possibility of anatomical correlates that would narrow the gap between western science and ancient traditions.

    According to Ayurveda, to truly understand dreams including their origin and meaning, one cannot ignore several important environmental and psychological factors.  Among such factors are breathing patterns, levels of relaxation (both during the day and night time, diet, and even posture. Furthermore, with its deep understanding of circadian rhythms, Ayurveda proposes that to reduce disturbances during sleep one must follow a daily routine, avoid meals several hours before going to sleep, exercise properly during the day among others, and do not sleep during the day. If any of these are not followed, the sleeper is prone to sleep of bad quality, and restless dreams. For instance, Ayurvedic thought supports that sleep deprivation would lead to an increase of Vata dreams, whereas over-sleeping (which is considered to be equally detrimental to health) leads to an increase of Kapha dreams. In contrast to current scientific findings regarding REM sleep deprivation (refer to Rechtshaffen et al), Ayurveda states that REM deprivation is not detrimental to health, and definitely does not lead to death. Rapid eye movements characteristic of dream states are thought to be a response to thoughts and emotions, and be closely associated with various levels of anxiety and stress. Thus, experiencing too many or too frequent dreams is considered unhealthy as it deprives the mind of true rest and relaxation (Akhandjyioti, 2004).

      Alternatively, Yoga and Ayurveda propose that a technique called Yoga Nidra (literally “Yogic Sleep”) be practiced to substitute normal sleep in which one may obtain all the sleep benefits without losing conscious awareness or the harmful effects of either REM or nREM sleep deprivation. One interpretation of this practice based on sleep research is that Yoga Nidra is a technique that lengthens the time spent on the hypnagogic and hypnopompic stages, that is, the stages between wakefulness and sleep.  Yoga Nidra in its deepest state is a dreamless sleep with highly relaxing and rejuvenating effects that substitute the need for ordinary sleep. Among the key components of this practice, the sleeper constantly examines their thought patterns, practices deep relaxation, and finally develops proprioceptive awareness throughout the body in the absences of external stimuli.

     The practice of Yoga Nidra bring into light several key aspects of the nature of consciousness. First of all, it states that dreams may be substituted, and that ideally, one should not dream or have REM-like periods of activity. Second, it proposes that by entering a state of deep relaxation without the loss of consciousness characteristic of deep sleep, one can gain the same benefits from sleep (and potentially consciously producing delta and theta rhythms). Both of these ideas have eluded scientific research, with the current understanding being that either total or partial REM-deprivation is detrimental to health and potentially fatal.

      In summary, Ayurveda proposes an alternative framework in which to understand the nature of dreams, and how they related to the homeostatic and circadian qualities of sleep. Ayurveda thoroughly expands on what the nature of sleep is, and how factors often not considered or understood yet in modern science (especially mental factors) affect the quality and quantity of dreams and sleep.  In my opinion, two aspects lend Ayurvedic insight particularly relevant to modern scientific investigation. First, it takes into account and explains numerous factors and how they affect dream and sleep processes. Many of these extend over long periods of time and interact in complex ways, making even more challenging the investigation about the effects of these factors. Second, Ayurveda sees dreaming as nature’s way of restoring physical and mental homeostasis. However, through the use of particular techniques, dreams and even traditional sleep can be substituted, thus altering our notion of what dreaming and sleeping are and their ultimate role. I believe that research practitioners of Yoga Nidra would enhance sleep research by introducing a series of apparently paradoxical understandings of dreaming and sleep.

    According to Ayurveda, understanding one’s dream is part of the process of introspection, which eventually leads to complete mental health and physical well-being. Unfortunately, no research has been carried out to corroborate or refute Ayurvedic understanding of dreams. Nevertheless, I believe that by introducing an Ayurvedic orientated methodology into the study of dreams would lead to great insight. For instance, scientific research into the nature of how physiological aspects of the body, including metabolic and autonomic nervous system activity affect our dream content, would enhance our understanding of dreams. Furthermore, apart from Freudian-like interpretations of dreams, Ayurveda proposes that dreams must be understood in the context of each individual, including specific daily activities, emotions and thoughts that can change the dream content and experience, as well the individual’s psychological and emotional tendencies.

     Ayurveda proposes going beyond a neurological understanding of brain activity during dream, to understanding dreams based on the human body and mind, and their complex interactions. By gaining insight from the Indians amidst the Amazon, or from Indian Ayurvedic doctors, both possible specialists at understanding the nature of consciousness and dreams for thousands of years, sleep research would expand its frontiers to possibly understand in more depth the physiological and psychological nature of dreams and sleep.

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