Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Update 8A

Trauma & Therapy

Nightmares & Nightlights:
Waking and Sleeping States

The Gestalt Effect

As we delve deeper into the subject of trauma, we have to consider the matter of sleep and dreams. As I have researched PTSD patients, I found that a commonality among these sufferers was nightmares, but as I explored the larger study of dreams in the scientific community, I also found that everyone experiences more bad dreams than good. What was the distinction from nightmares based in trauma to those borne of a bad meal? The differences were quite startling.

In order to simplify the research, I've organized each portion into a coherent structure and titled each section. My three primary sources of information were "NIGHT: Night Life, Night Language, Sleep, and Dreams" by Oxford Professor A. Alvarez, the Psychology Today essays on dream by Patrick McNamara, PhD, and ILLUSIONS, Seasons One and Two, from the Curiosity Stream Channel, hosted by Professor Arthur G. Shapiro, American University, PhD in Psychology.. Although I read other books and watched other documentaries on various science Streaming Channels, the information was redundant and my three main sources fit more conveniently with my own thesis on the utility of dreams (rather than the "meaning" of dreams, which was, has been, and still is a polemical topic of contention) on PTSD. I thought it best to focus my findings in the subject matter at hand, which is Trauma and (when possible in this essay) Therapy.

1. Sleep as Subjective

If we look back far enough, we can find that sleep was believed to be a rest period for the body and mind. After a long hard day at work and play, the body relaxed into a sleep state and the mind followed with a shutdown of neural activity. The muscles were replenished as the mind played in its dream states. Nowadays, we find that while the body sleeps, the mind is alert, operating at 50% capacity. Imagine a house at night with all the lights turning off as the family goes off to sleep, one room at a time; this would represent the mind and body. Once the body is at rest in sleep, however, the brain begins to turn the lights back on one at a time until half of the house lights are back on. Why does the mind wake up while the body rests? The answer is, It dreams.

What, then, are dreams?

Before we address that, let's consider what waking reality is. Reality is what the mind construes from neural input via all the sensory intake (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch). The alarm wakes us, we smell the coffee brewing, the radio plays some rock and roll, we eat scrambled eggs and bacon, and we feel the heat from the hot summer day as we begin our day. We see clouds, feel humidity, hear the traffic backing up on the freeway, smell the exhaust from the older cars, taste the burbs of bacon and coffee, and so on and so forth. We gather information from our environment. The intake is stored in the brain as memories. In our waking state, we refer to memories to make decisions to deal with possible new neural input. Those clouds look like they may bring rain by late afternoon, so we carry an umbrella. We make sure the umbrella is sturdy because the winds that brought in that cloud-front may turn the umbrella inside out (as we remember from older memories of buying cheap umbrellas for what turned out to be a vicious storm that eats umbrellas for lunch. We utilize our memory as a resource to ascertain the possible experiences that are most likely and plan accordingly to deal with them. That smile from the co-worker seemed a bit friendly. Maybe today we can ask her out. We experience sensory data, add it to our memory bank, collate the data, and plan our next course of action. It's called the waking life.

In dreams, the waking life is 50% turned off. There is no new neural input. As the body rests, the mind works as half capacity to access the memory bank to continue to ascertain possible new neural input and make plans to anticipate that possibility. Only the mind does not add new input to the memory to make decisions and determinations about a course of action. Instead, the brain accesses the current and older memories and create new memories by combining previous memories. Since there is no new sensory images, the brain makes images from multiple images already in the memory bank. The memories of memories are what we know as dreams. The mind lives a waking life by recreating new memories, that is, new images of a pseudo-waking experience based only of memories, with recent memories taking priority but with older memories that correspond to the new memories combining to form that new memory. For instance, we fall asleep, slip into a deep sleep when both the body and mind turn off, that is, rest. Then the mind turns back on and turns half of the lights in the house back on, or more specifically, it accesses the memory bank because there is no new neural input coming from the senses.

Let's follow one pattern. We go to bed, fall asleep, access the memory bank, and dreams begin (commonly known as Rapid Eye Movement, because the eyes move back and forth as they follow the memories of some activities, like watching a ping pong match or a football game). Before we went to sleep we watched a horror movie with a chainsaw wielding madman. Once REM sleep emerges, it may (or may not) access the chainsaw killer; it may access the element of fear we experienced during that scene of brutality, with its accompanying buzzsaw noise and screaming victim. Or it may put you in the point of view of the killer. There is not much research about how and why dreams start where they do. But once they do start, the next step in the dream is corresponding the memory of whatever starting memory triggered the dream--let's say you have the killer POV. Your mind now associates this new memory of your being the killer with a memory of a possible victim from the memory bank. Perhaps a bad boss from a previous job that you were fired from. Now you are chasing your old boss with the chainsaw. The chase is the new memory from the old memory of the boss combined with your mind's new take of this POV. The chase can then connect to other possible victims from your memory associations with people you similarly do not like, people like your boss, as your mind collates the old memories to add to the dream sequence and keep it moving. This association and new memory development continue until your sleep cycle reenters the deep sleep state, where your 50% mental collation shuts down again until the next REM cycle comes round.

In essence, that is dreaming. A cycle of sleep surrounded by a cycle of dream collation. What's amazing about this cycle within a cycle is that all the new memories are stored with all the routine waking memories as well as the older experiences. Which is why when we dream, we can pick up on an old dream sequence because the mind associated real memory with the dream memory. Our memories of dreams are as real as our waking memories, and so too are our new memories created from the new memory combinations.

So, where does the subjectivity in? Well, one man's dreams is another man's nightmares, and vice versa. Just because the body rests doesn't mean the mind rests; and if the mind does not rest, the body does not rest. Let's look back at our chainsaw killer again. If you kill all the bad people in your memories, you will feel relieved and wake up refreshed (whether or not you recall the dream). However, if you murder all those terrible people in your dream and wake up feeling guilty, your body will feel tired, and with a tired body comes a mind bothered by headaches, fatigue, or depression. You may dream of finding the perfect mate in a dream and wake up sad for the pathetic love life you have in waking. Many people will be happy in the dream and wake up happy, but this is not a given. It is also possible to be happy in REM sleep and awaken angry or bitter or regretful. Each individual responds to dreams in different ways in the waking world.
Thus, we must treat sleep as subjective. Some people like nightmares and wake up full of stories to share, while others will have good dreams and feel exhausted from the boring experience.

2. Sleep as Objective

When we think of sleep and dreams as objective, we must turn to the experiments where empirical data is collected to determine the electro- and bio-chemistry of the brain and nervous system. Patrick McNamara, in his many works on dreams, has written on the concrete findings on the "problem of the nature and function of dreaming. His initial interest in dreams was on how dreams represented the self or the ego of the dreamer. The self in dreams often displays a striking lack of insight" (from "What Dreams Are Made Of: Understanding Why We Dream" By Patrick McNamara, PhD, Columnist at Psychology Today). McNamara argues that dreams play out the same biochemistry as waking thinking but without the organization. It is not unlike daydreaming gone awry. When we fantasize while awake, we control the flow of neuro networks; we can create new thoughts from scratch or tap into the memory bank for inspiration. Remember, in REM sleep, only 50% of our memories and biochemistry is at work, thus limiting our dreams to fantastic and unreal experiences where fictions like flying can be experienced. In the waking state, we do not experience the daydream; we imagine it (as in create an imaginary scenario). Of course, we can fly in a daydream, but the sensation of flight eludes us because the mind at 100% working capacity "knows" it is not real. At 50% capacity, the mind believes we are really flying and we experience a corresponding sensation, the sensation missing from imagined scenarios.

In other experiments with humans, scientists monitored volunteers who slept inside an MRI scanner while hooked up to EEG electrodes that measured brain wave activity. When the EEG indicated they were dreaming, the participants were awakened and asked what images they had seen in their dreams. The investigators were later able to match certain patterns of brain activity to certain images for each person. “There’s a crude correspondence between the brain scan and the image. Despite the primitive state of this dream decoding, the ability to actually glean content from a dream is getting closer" (Dreams, McNamara). The hippocampus stores memory. The neocortex associates memories to each other. Beneficial sleep stores memories. Bad sleep does not store memories. It strengthens healthy memories and stores new memories into the healthy dream matrix while new memories that contradict the healthy matrix are discarded or overwritten like a computer deleting unnecessary files. In other words, the empirical study of dream and sleep suggest that adverse memories are incorporated into dreams in a healthy way while any memories that do not fit with any other dreams in a healthy way are discarded.

Nightmares can thus be beneficial of one's mental health as much as good dreams can hinder the healthy growth of the healing mind during sleep. For instance, if I remember my college years as good times, they will be stored in the hippocampus as positive emotions. In sleep, the neocortex (which does not experience new memories) turns to the hippocampus to interpret the most recent memories. If during my normal day, I have a pleasant experience at a restaurant, this recent memory may be used by the neocortex in association with the cafeteria memory from college. Even though my dream shows me eating at the college cafeteria, the trigger here was the restaurant memory from earlier that day. The dream may then shift between college and other memories of the campus, but at all times, the neocortex is merely recording the pleasant emotion of my restaurant experience in terms of the emotions stored in the hippocampus. The commonality is the emotion of both restaurant and cafeteria. Within the dream, a new memory is then created, namely, eating at restaurants is pleasant. The setting is the experience in the dream. The particulars then conform to the setting, as far as whom I'm eating with, what I'm eating, the music on the jukebox, and so on. When the particulars conflict with the setting, the nightmare is a failure of the neocortex to recreate linear pleasant memories from the day's events. The rude waitress at the restaurant doesn't fit the setting of the college cafeteria. Therein lies the bad dream state and the bad rest of the sleep outcome.

Other studies involve the use of animals and birds to correlate sleep patterns. Birds have similar REM sleep to humans so their sleeping brain waves are aligned enough that studying the Canadian goose has been helpful to understand human dreaming (The Science of Sleep, 2015 documentary). For example, in research with rats trained to run through mazes to get rewards, investigators were able to record neuron activity in sleeping rats and determined that the rats were running the same mazes in their dreams. This type of study corresponded with research on sleep memory with infants. Babies at two to three years of age were held on the laps of their parents while researchers show the children a stuffed teddy bear doll wearing a mitten. The doll was held in front of the children, the mitt was removed and shaken, then replaced on the arm of the doll. Half the kids were then set down to nap, while the rest were given another toy to play with. After nap time, all the children were shown the same doll. The children who napped "all" took off the mitt, shook it, and replaced it on the arm of the doll. "All" the rest did not replicate the removal and donning of the mitt. Just as the rats who slept ran the maze after sleeping, the children who slept succeeded in remembering how to work the mitt. These empirical studies showed that a brain that dreams vitalizes the memory pathways, while brains that lacked sleep did not have the memories at hand to work with.

What’s been discovered so far, however, suggests that such studies could reveal an enormous amount about what role dreams play in our lives, and how important they are for biological, psychological or social reasons. With this research, McNamara believes, scientists can find out if what shrinks have been saying for years is true — that reflecting on our dreams is useful and can give us insight into ourselves. Psychologists say so, and many people think so. But this research, he says, gives us the potential to know.

Such investigations could also reveal more about nightmares, and potentially lead to ways to control or avoid them. Knowledge in this case could lead to the right therapy for trauma sufferers by deconstructing the nightmares biochemically and empirically prior to counseling or treatment. Then, maybe, Shrinks would not be so reliant on drugs to deal with trauma.

3. The Problems with the Brain

The problems with the brain affect the experiences within our daily memories and the recreated memories of the neocortex. The primary issue with memory is the manner in which the perception of the object of the memory is recorded. I see a woman walking toward me from afar. As she nears, I see it is a man with long hair. How would the memory be stored if I never learned it was a man. I see the shadows on the moon and make out a face looking at me. I hear someone say, "Anthony, go home." Later, I hear the same person say "antilom". The hippocampus has already stored the memories as a "lunar face" and as someone telling me to go home. The neocortex does not distinguish "errors" of memory with "real" memories. Thus, both types of memory play a role in dreams. The woman at a distance, the face on the moon, the voice telling me to go home become as real as the memory of the first time I burned my fingers on a lit match.

For instance, I remember when I was a boy playing in the attic of that old house where we lived in Boyle Heights. There was a small window that I could fit my thin frame through to reach the rooftop. When I tired of playing in the stuffy attic, I climbed onto the roof via the window. Once a huge blimp (not unlike the Goodyear Blimp) passed overhead, so low that I could tip-toe and reach up and touch it. The memory of the attic is real, as is the  window, and the roof. Problem is, I don't remember when the blimp became part of the "real" memories. I know now that it would be impossible for a blimp to fly so low, what with the telephone pole wires and huge trees around our two-story house. Yet to this day, I still dream the same sequence of events, from playing in the attic, climbing through the window onto the roof, and reaching up to touch the blimp. The memory is as real as my youth growing up in that house. Still, I know it didn't happen. But it is a real memory just as real as the house itself.

So when did the extended memory include the blimp? How did that become a part of my reality of memories? The answer lies, of course, in the way the brain works. At this point, we will now turn to the problems with perception of the brain and the common ways that false memories become real memories. We turn to "Illusions" by Professor Arthur G. Shapiro, American University, PhD in Psychology, for our thesis; he states, "An illusion is a perceptual or cognitive experience that does not match the physical reality (namely, the perception of motion where no such motion physically exists)." Reality does not change, our brains are trying out different configurations to figure out what reality is. The views of reality change. The brain changes. Reality is constant, and as we've discussed earlier, subjective, not objective. Misread memory in dreams is as real as, well, "real" memory.

In one misreading of the brain, Kokichi Sugihara, a Japanese mathematician and artist, refers to an illusion that can only be seen from a singular point of view, which he call the "accidental viewpoint". Here is an example:

The Sugihara Cylinder

In the foreground, the object appears as eight triangular figures, while the same object in the mirror in the background, the same object appears as six cylinders. Sugihara found that our brain will interpret objects based on perspective; change the perspective, and the interpretation will change as well. The object was designed to appear as triangles from one perspective and as cylinders from another perspective; however, when the object in placed before a mirror, the brain sees two distinct images, two different objects. Yet here is the actual object the mind is seeing (without interpretation):

The Ambiguous Cylinder

Note that neither the triangle or circular shapes can be seen here, and yet, both are there. Which, then, is the true object? The waking mind will store the memory as only one image, not both. But the sleeping mind can dream both images because the neocortex can replicate the mirrored images as a new memory. You will remember the circle or the triangle, but the dream will create both as the ambiguous figure above.  

Let's look at another ambiguous image. This one by Akiyoshi Kitaoka,  a Professor of Psychology at the College of Letters, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan.

The Kitaoka Effect

When you gaze upon the Kitaoka image above, you should experience the sensation of motion, even though the image is fixed and two-dimensional. As one who has experienced this effect while driving, I can tell you the effect is quite scary. While waiting for the red light to change to green, the car next to me may move, but my mind believes that I am moving and I slam the brake. Then I realize my foot never left the brake pedal and that I wasn't moving at all. Still, my queasy stomach says otherwise as motion sickness kicks in. The motion was real to my mind and body, but it wasn't real in reality. 

Here's another scary image for your consideration. 

Remember, the movement you experience is only in your mind, not in reality. The colors of the squares alternate between blue and yellow so that it appears that the blue and yellow squares are shifting positions, but your brain perceives motion. Focus on one square and watch it change color, back and forth. With all the squares changing color, it appears a sequence of motion is occurring rather than a blinking effect of alternating colors. The more you try not to see motion, the more you see it. 

In addition to perspective, ambiguity, and motion, there is the problem with grouping. Our brains tend to see groups of images, such as dots, lines, colors, shades, shapes, and so on. Look at this grouping below.

The Grouping Image

Do you see the dark and white areas in any pattern? Your brain will fight to perceive "order", but if it fails to make something objective in this chaos, you will only remember the dots, blotches, and thick shadows. However, some, if not many, of you will discern order and see the dalmatian dog. See below.

The dalmatian in purple shading. 

When the brain cannot see the dog, it remembers only the chaos of the black and white spots and blotches. But once it sees the dog, the chaos is gone, and the brain remembers the dog always. In this instance, the dreams based on chaos may inadvertently see the dog, while many may argue that it is because of dreams that we see the dog through the chaos. Still, let's not forget that the memory of chaos may also simply be viewed in dream form as dots and blotches without order. Such is the problem with the brain and objective chaos. Sometimes we see something that isn't there, and sometimes we don't see the something that is there.

The last problem with the brain and its interpretation of reality is dualism. What happens when there are two objects there at the same time? The brain is wired to only select one reality. It's a she loves me, she loves me not world, and the brain will choose what is real. All the subjective and objective coaxing will prove futile; only the brain can select what your reality is. Case in point, the dualistic object. Two images that make one. Here are a few examples that are quite popular, so I will not discuss this too much. They should be obvious. But we all know "obvious" is a loaded word.

Trees or old men?

Front room or forest?

Cavern or builders?

In these images above, there are two interpretations available. This is known as the Gestalt Effect. And the reason I saved this brain problem for last is because these images are the closest we have to how dreams work. There is only one image for each of the three images above, but the mind chooses one interpretation per image. In dream, the brain adds a new image (neocortex) to an old image (hippocampus) and creates a third image with elements of the both the new and old. Just as we can see a cavern or builders in the above image, we are actually seeing both at the same time and neither at the same time. When we see one, we don't see the other; when we see the other, we don't see the one; yet the one and the other together make dreaming possible. The brain is constantly trying to overcome its problems of perception, whether in the waking state or the sleeping state.

For the victim of trauma, it is mostly the waking state that therapy concerns itself with, but I would like to continue to pursue the sleeping state, namely the dream state, in our next update, part 8B, where we will have a guest dream interpreter analyze a handful of dreams sent in to the blog by current PTSD patients. Until next time, thank you for visiting the Servante of Darkness Blog.


The Latest Poetry from Jaye Tomas now available: 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Views from a Troubled Mind
Scene #7

Only one interpretation can exist

The Abyss is a Doorway,
Not a Mirror
by Anthony Servante

Delving into dreams
Light without beams
Darkness without shade
Memories that fade,
Faces at the window
Strangers in the shadow
Visitors watch you sleep
Spidery hands stealthily creep,
A weeper under the bed
The neighbor's dog is dead,
The curtains hide a lip-less man
A madam waves her Chinese fan.
Dreams are not a mirror
Nor smile or sneer,
Nor too much food or beers, 
Nor proud temples to your fears, 
You seek the Abyss 
In nightmares of bliss,
When you stare into the night
You enter the doorway to light,
As you exit the room,
You pass into the mirror of doom.