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Predictive brains, dreaming selves, sleeping bodies: how the analysis of dream movement can inform a theory of self- and world-simulation in dreams

  • S.I. : Predictive Brains
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Abstract

In this paper, I discuss the relationship between bodily experiences in dreams and the sleeping, physical body. I question the popular view that dreaming is a naturally and frequently occurring real-world example of cranial envatment. This view states that dreams are functionally disembodied states: in a majority of dreams, phenomenal experience, including the phenomenology of embodied selfhood, unfolds completely independently of external and peripheral stimuli and outward movement. I advance an alternative and more empirically plausible view of dreams as weakly phenomenally-functionally embodied states. The view predicts that bodily experiences in dreams can be placed on a continuum with bodily illusions in wakefulness. It also acknowledges that there is a high degree of variation across dreams and different sleep stages in the degree of causal coupling between dream imagery, sensory input, and outward motor activity. Furthermore, I use the example of movement sensations in dreams and their relation to outward muscular activity to develop a predictive processing account. I propose that movement sensations in dreams are associated with a basic and developmentally early kind of bodily self-sampling. This account, which affords a central role to active inference, can then be broadened to explain other aspects of self- and world-simulation in dreams. Dreams are world-simulations centered on the self, and important aspects of both self- and world-simulation in dreams are closely linked to bodily self-sampling, including muscular activity, illusory own-body perception, and vestibular orienting in sleep. This is consistent with cognitive accounts of dream generation, in which long-term beliefs and expectations, as well as waking concerns and memories play an important role. What I add to this picture is an emphasis on the real-body basis of dream imagery. This offers a novel perspective on the formation of dream imagery and suggests new lines of research.

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Notes

  1. Specifically, Bradley argues that to explain the failure of outward movement, it is not enough to appeal to a general weakness of ideas in dreams—dream imagery and emotions are, he notes, often quite intense. Instead, Bradley thinks the problem lies in a vagueness that is specific to ideas of movement. Motor ideas often remain indeterminate in dreams, and their lack of specificity results from our inability, in standard cases, to perceive the position of our actual limbs in sleep. Without the detail that is grounded in own-body perception, the ideas of movement in dreams are too vague to cause movement in the sleeping body. Thus there is, for Bradley, a complex story to be told about the relationship between dream imagery, the way we experience our physical bodies in sleep, and outward motor activity.

  2. Note that the distinction between the two types of embodiment is already implicit in Bradley’s (1894) discussion of the problem of dream movement. Dream movements illustrate the distinction quite clearly, because they often appear to contrast starkly with seeming inertia of the sleeping body (as in dreams of flying or falling while lying still in bed).

  3. A problem that immediately comes to mind is that the phenomenological equivalence claim leaves open what exactly the phenomenological profile of waking bodily experience is supposed to be.

  4. As a further example, consider the example of flying in dreams. While examples of dream flying may be loosely modeled on swimming or observed flight in birds, the experience of unsupported flying has no straightforward waking model. Yet, flying dreams are striking for their high degree of subjective realism and vividness (Windt 2015a, p. 454f); during the dream, they seem completely convincing. Here, I am proposing that to explain this seemingly realistic quality, we need not appeal to rich phenomenal embodiment or phenomenological equivalence.

  5. Another way to extend this research is to consider cases in which spatiotemporal self-location as the crucial structural feature of dreaming is lost. A precise concept of dreaming as defined, minimally, by its immersive, here-and-now structure can be used to develop a precise framework for describing different kinds of dreamless sleep experience (Windt 2015b; Windt et al. 2016). This framework can then guide the investigation of transitions between nonconscious sleep and more complex kinds of dreamless and dreamful experience.

  6. There may also be variation both between and within sleep stages. It is common to distinguish between phasic and tonic REM sleep, where the former is associated with bursts of rapid eye movements (see Ermis et al. 2010 for discussion and further references). Arousal thresholds are different for the two substages, suggesting that phasic REM sleep is a state of heightened seclusion from the environment, whereas tonic REM sleep is characterized by higher sensitivity to external stimuli (Ermis et al. 2010). In an fMRI study investigating thalamocortical reactivity to auditory stimulation during REM sleep, Wehrle et al. (2007) found different patterns of reactivity during tonic and phasic REM sleep: tonic REM sleep was associated with residual activation of the auditory cortex, suggesting that some processing of external stimuli was preserved. By contrast, phasic REM periods were associated with heightened activity of a thalamocortical network that appeared to be functioning as an isolated and closed intrinsic loop. Throughout sleep and even within REM sleep, we thus appear to cycle between periods of heightened responsiveness to external stimuli and periods of stronger environmental seclusion, which are carefully orchestrated by spontaneous fluctuations in brain activity. There is also some evidence for differences in dream imagery, with visual imagery being rated as clearer and more vivid following awakenings from phasic (as compared to tonic) REM sleep (Rechtschaffen and Buchignani 1983). However, other studies failed to find differences in dream imagery between the two substages (Hodoba et al. 2008).

  7. This contradicts the standard view that NREM parasomnias are examples of unconscious automatisms—essentially zombie-like behaviors occurring in the absence of phenomenal experience. See Revonsuo (2006) and Windt et al. (2016) for discussion.

  8. This is why Freudian dream theory, which emphasized the psychic sources of dreaming, was strongly opposed to this view.

  9. Again, my proposal that dreams are weakly phenomenally-functionally embodied states does not bring with it any metaphysical commitments. Here, I am interested only in the causally enabling conditions for certain types of dream experience but don’t make any strong claims about the constitutive supervenience base of dreaming.

  10. This dichotomous treatment of the sensory input and motor output blockades corresponds to the classical distinction between perception and action. In this conception, perception is conceived of as a largely passive, receptive process of synthesizing incoming, bottom-up stimuli into a coherent image of the world. By contrast, action is viewed as involving intentional, top-down control of body movements. This classical perception-action dichotomy is now rejected by leading theories in cognitive neuroscience and philosophy as oversimplified and outdated (see Hohwy 2013, chap. 4). I return to this issue in Sect. 5.1.

  11. Considering these cases, we can ask, what is the required degree of correspondence between outward behavior and dream experience for an episode to count as dream enactment behavior? In cases where body movements bear no obvious relation to dream content, it seems more apt to speak of dream-associated behaviors. For example, in nightmares associated with indiscriminate leg movements or tossing and turning, motor activity seems only loosely associated with dream experience but lacks any direct and easily identifiable correspondence to specific dream contents. For dream enactment behavior, a tighter link between experienced and outward movement seems required.

  12. Note that if the cranial envatment view fails and dreams are not functionally disembodied, but weakly phenomenally-functionally embodied states, then it might not be quite correct say that prediction errors fail to be processed in dreams. At least a subgroup of dreams may involve higher-level models attempting to make sense of prediction errors. If dream bizarreness and instability are indeed a result of attenuated processing of prediction error signals, then we might also expect varying levels of bizarreness in dreams to be associated with the varying degrees to which prediction error signals continue to be processed in sleep. I do not want to speculate more on this issue here, but only to point out that this would fit in nicely with the fact that bizarreness seems to be unevenly distributed over different types of dreams (Domhoff 2007).

  13. In one study, participants whose eyes had been taped open were presented with illuminated objects such as books and coffee pots during REM sleep (Rechtschaffen and Foulkes 1965). Independent judges were able to match the presented objects to the dream reports only at chance level, and there was not a single unambiguous case of incorporation. There is some evidence that light cues can be incorporated in dreams, and this is sometimes suggested as a method for the induction of lucid dreaming (see Stumbrys et al. 2012 for discussion and further references). But even such cases of clear incorporation of visual stimuli are limited in their ability to explain specific contents of dreaming.

  14. For an insightful discussion of imagining and perceiving from this perspective, see Kirchhoff (2017).

  15. More recently, the debate between internalist and externalist-friendly predictive processing accounts has moved on to more specific issues. Both Hohwy and Clark agree that predictive processing emphasizes the importance of internal models—their disagreement hinges on whether these models are rich (Hohwy in press) or sparse, involving “computationally frugal, but more behaviourally interactive” (Clark 2016, p. 11f) solutions that carry less “reconstructive baggage” (Clark 2016, p. 10); whether the boundary between internal models and the worldly causes they predict is strict and immutable, with cognitive processing occurring “wholly behind a sensory veil, segregated from the world” (Hohwy 2016, p. 120); whether there is genuine or merely causal continuity between the environment and the brain (Hohwy 2013, p. 239); and whether the process of prediction error minimization involves hypothesis testing in any literal sense (Clark 2016). According to Hohwy (2013, p. 228), the right response to questions on the evidentiary seclusion versus openness of perception is to not force a choice,

    but try to reconceive the perceptual relation to the world such that we do not have to choose between perception being ‘direct’ or ‘indirect’ in the first place. Instead, we should be able to retain the grain of truth in both sides of the debate.

    Here, I will leave these issues to the side, as I am more interested in a more basic point. Where the internalist, emphasizing the seclusion of the brain, might construe perception as an instance of online hallucination or online dreaming, the externalist will claim that dreaming is a form of offline perception, phenomenologically different from waking because the characteristic openness to the world has been temporarily lost (Clark 2015, p. 196). My main point is that both sides mischaracterize the functional relation between dreaming and the body—or at least have not given it the theoretical attention it deserves.

  16. This idea nicely complements Blumberg’s own proposal. To elucidate the developmental role of twitching, he uses an example that is similar to Dennett’s robot control room thought experiment (Blumberg 2015; Blumberg et al. 2013b). In it, we are asked to imagine being

    imprisoned in the control room of a giant robot. Each light, when it turns on, provides rich and relevant information about the robot’s circumstances; these lights are all outputs from highly sophisticated neural net analyzers of the raw inputs streaming from the robot’s high-definition video eyes and microphone ears, touch sensors, and olfactory sensors. The buttons initiate robotic actions, all coordinated and ready to execute. (Dennett 2013, p. 102)

    To figure out which switches initiate which actions, it would be necessary to sample them in a systematic and highly selective manner, rather than by randomly throwing different switches or even turning all of them on and off simultaneously. According to Blumberg (2015), this type of selective sampling corresponds to the spatiotemporally organized character of twitching in sleep.

    For the sampling process to be efficient, the formation and optimization of internal models or testable hypotheses is crucial; clearly, what is needed is a theory-guided kind of sampling. And ideally, these models will not just be fitted to the input—the lights turning on and off—but to control the robot and use it to interact with the world, a stable body model will be needed. The system will have to figure out, in other words, which lights indicate worldly changes, and which ones indicate own-body movement. Again, bodily self-sampling is a condition for active inference: in bodily interaction with the world, the system is not only aiming to achieve a better fit of environmental stimuli to existing world models, but also continuously optimizing its own body model.

    Bodily self-sampling in sleep may also be crucial for acquiring the ability to mentally simulate motor actions in wakefulness by taking them partially offline. Such internally generated action sequences may play an important role in memory consolidation, but also in future planning. See Pezzulo (2017).

  17. Though I have not offered a detailed discussion of this here, it is instructive to consider that in wakefulness, interoceptive predictions are thought to be closely linked to the experience of presence (Seth 2013). Not much is known about interoception in dreams, but this is another area in which we might expect continued own-body perception to modulate dream experience. This is particularly promising as interoception may be closely linked to emotions (Seth 2013), and emotions play a central role in the phenomenology of dreaming (Sikka et al. 2014). See Windt (2015a, p. 370ff) for a discussion of dream emotions in relation to weak functional embodiment; for a discussion of interoception and emotion in dreams from the perspective of predictive processing, see Bucci and Grasso (2017).

  18. One aspect of this account will be to make sense of the association between dreams and spontaneous thoughts, daydreams, and waking imagination. Based on neurophysiological and phenomenological similarities, it has been suggested that dreaming is closely related to spontaneous thought and mind wandering during wakefulness and that both are expressions of the same cognitive processes (Fox et al. 2013).

  19. Certain cases of heautoscopy, in which the sense of self-location either alternates between a visual double and the physical body or the subject feels simultaneously located in both, may be an exception (Blanke and Mohr 2005). But as one would expect, such cases of bilocation (Furlanetto et al. 2013) and simultaneous identification with two body models appear to be rare.

  20. Tellingly, Wiese (2016) discusses attenuation for the sensory consequences of self-generated movements, as in self-tickling, to propose that systematic but evolutionarily beneficial misrepresentation plays a central role in predictive processing accounts of movement and action generation. More generally, attenuation of self-generated stimuli plays an important role in predictive processing accounts: to enable action, we need to attend away from our current bodily state. For example, when intending to move, proprioceptive prediction errors need to be suppressed and the expected precision of ascending sensory prediction errors from lower to higher levels needs to be attenuated. An intriguing observation is that this process may be closely related to the phenomenology of bodily action in standard wakefulness. In a recent publication, Limanowski (2017, p. 5) writes, that “to be able to interact with the world, I need to withdraw attention from my body’s current state and focus it on what I predict sensing in my desired state. This conclusion is very similar to that of classical phenomenology, namely, that the ‘experiential absence’ of the body is necessary for action in the world—being a lived body-environment—and that attention directed towards the objective body is detrimental to normal performance.” It might also explain why sometimes, attention can disrupt performance.

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Acknowledgements

I wish to thank two anonymous reviewers for their extremely thorough comments and helpful suggestions. I am grateful to Melanie Rosen for some great discussions and for raising important questions about the dream body at the 2017 Pacific APA meeting in Seattle. And I would like to thank Jesse Buck for valuable comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.

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Windt, J.M. Predictive brains, dreaming selves, sleeping bodies: how the analysis of dream movement can inform a theory of self- and world-simulation in dreams. Synthese 195, 2577–2625 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1525-6

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