From Sleep Consciousness to Pure Consciousness
This is my presidential address given to the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Dreams in 1988 in London, England.
For the past five years I have been engaged in research examining the relationship between various forms of consciousness in sleep. In this talk I will argue that the form of consciousness in sleep we have come to identify as lucid dreaming is but a starting point or perhaps only a bridge to what has been called higher states of consciousness. This bridge leads from the formal operational dreams of adults to post-formal operational sleep and dream experiences.
Foulkes (1982) argues that the development of mentation in sleep parallels that during waking so that dreams of young children reflect preoperational thinking whereas those of adults reflect concrete to formal operations. Furthermore, cognitive models of sleep mentation stress the continuity of waking type mentation into sleep (Foulkes, 1985). But adult dreams differ in degrees of self-awareness with its full emergence in lucidity. This is illustrated by a nine point scale culminating in lucidity designed by Moffitt and colleagues (1986). At it's lowest level on their Self-Reflectiveness Scale the dreamer is not in the dream. This moves to level 3 where the dreamer is completely involved in the dream then at level 5 the dreamer thinks over an idea. At level 7 the dreamer has multiple levels of awareness simultaneously participating and observing. Finally, at level 9 the dreamer consciously reflects on the fact that he is dreaming. However, several scholars, including myself, have argued (Gackenbach, in press) that lucidity is only the beginning and that consciousness in sleep, when it arises as part of the natural growth cycle, is both psychologically and biologically a developmentally advanced form of dreaming.
The concept of post-formal operational functioning is not new among developmental psychologists (Alexander & Langer, in press) but most such theories focus on qualitative advances in adulthood. In other words, typically it is thought that physiological growth stabilizes in late adolescence or early adulthood and significant movement after that point is lateral, infrequently observed and a variation on operational thought (Alexander et al., in press). Many such models postulate the integration of the intellect with the emotions as an advanced developmental state in a maturely functioning adult. However, these models of development keep experience within the capacity to represent, if in an increasing abstract form. A few recent theories move past representation to post-representation. These use consciousness as the focus or driving force for development.
Although most post-formal operational approaches continue to emphasize all of development as a function of the dynamic interaction between biology and environment, Kagan (1984) has recently hinted at the domain of consciousness as a third potentially important domain. When considering a developmental perspective on lucid dreaming the role of consciousness in development becomes paramount. After all lucid dreaming is, at its simplest, the emergence of consciousness in "unconsciousness". Thus post-formal operational models which focus on the role of consciousness are the most appropriate for our purposes.
Recent theorists in both developmental (Alexander et al., in press) as well as transpersonal psychology (Wilber, 1987) have postulated stages of development beyond the traditional Piagetian endpoint of formal operations which focus on the role of consciousness and especially higher states of consciousness. They see the next major shift in development as post-representational. According to developmental psychologist Charles Alexander such a level of processing would not only fulfill Flavell's (1970) five criteria for major developmental changes: inevitable, momentous, directional, uniform, and irreversible, but would in additional show other criteria. These include neurophysiological maturation and differentiation from and hierarchical integration with the representational level. Alexander and colleagues (in press) argue that such post-representational stages of development can be empirically verified along more than 20 psychophysiological parameters and numerous psychological variables.
Such post-representational models characterize consciousness in sleep as an illustration of "the Self becoming de-embedded from and hierarchically integrated ("[that is] witnessing") all previous, representational levels of mind (Alexander et al., in press; p. 33)," including dreaming. In other words, consciousness in sleep, or in this case the lucid dream, is an early manifestation of postformal operational functioning in sleep. During the lucid dream the representational capacity is still dominant even though there seems to be a de-embedding from normal orientation of the dream ego. After all although we know it is a dream, the dreamt representation remains and in fact the awareness of dreaming does not hinder the "felt reality" or "otherness" of the dream experience. Only when the focus of awareness in sleep de-embeds even further. That is, full differentiation yet integration from the representational level results in a true experience of higher states of consciousness and thus the post-representational stage of development.
But what is meant by post-representational stages of development. At its simplest the phenomenal experience of such higher states of consciousness is that the "self" transcends the limits of representing its lived world experience to the source of being or that point of contentless consciousness. Here awareness is turned back on itself and is aware only of itself. This state has been called pure consciousness and Alexander has characterized the major task of the post-representational stages of development as "subject permanence". Furthermore, just as one needs the mental technology of language to move from pre-representational thought, i.e., sensory-motor, to representational thought, i.e., operational, so too Alexander argues that in order to reliably move from representational to post-representational thought one also needs a mental technology. One technology, but by no means the only, is meditation.
To return again to our concern with sleep, Meirsman (1989) has argued that the effect of meditation on REM sleep is the same as its effect on waking activities, that is an enhancement of both physiological and psychological functioning. The phenomenal experience of an enhanced REM sleep moves one past the self-reflective continuum identified by Moffitt et al. to post-formal operational levels of consciousness as evidenced by awareness of dreaming while dreaming. This psychological and biological enhancement of REM is especially evident with the further de-embedding from lucid dreaming to the sleep consciousness of "witnessing", where the silent, blissful experience of pure consciousness is experienced.
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