States of Consciousness: Dreams, Literature, and the Neurochemistry of the Brain.
Isabel Jaén

    The unconscious: elusive ingredient we still like to pour into our bowl of literary criticism. Whether we look for the repressed author hidden behind the leaves of text or search for a more sophisticated "social unconscious" by tossing in sociology, history, anthropology or linguistics, we keep acknowledging the existence of a mental and textual substratum that exercises a powerful force on the surface of our minds and cultural manifestations, shaping our identity and giving us our consciousness.

    Here is the key question: How close are these assumptions to the way our minds really work? Back in the beginning of the twentieth century, when psychoanalysis was born, we did not have many reliable ways of exploring the human brain. Only in the last two decades a major breakthrough could be made, thanks to technological improvements such as fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging)[1]  or PET (Positron Emission Tomography)[2]  that allow us to see the brain "at work." We have been provided by neuroscience with at least a 20-year margin to reconsider the validity of our conceptions of the human mind in every field, from psychology to linguistics or literary studies. It is perhaps time, in the light of the new discoveries about our brains, to reconsider two of the main tenets of psychoanalytic theory as it exists today: the nature of consciousness and the interpretation of  "unconscious mind outcomes" such as dreams or the literary texts themselves.

Beyond binary models of consciousness

     Regardless of the number of identities or phases we decide to divide ourselves into and of their physiological or mirroring nature, in the psychoanalytic mind model that we unquestionably employ when practicing literary criticism we find a binary representation of consciousness, one with the "unconscious" as the subordinate, repressed, significant content of our minds, to which we access by means of interpretation. Next to this model we can now find other views, more consistent with what science has been telling about the anatomy and function of the human brain. I will now try to review some of the most relevant of these new understandings. Hopefully this brief account on recent approaches to consciousness will leave a pool of thoughts in our salad plates, inviting us to update some of our old conceptions on the issue.
Are we conscious or aware?

     A central point of agreement in contemporary models of consciousness revolves precisely around the concept of the unconscious, which today abandons the "folk" misconception of  "repressed-deep-mind-structure" and is more accurately redefined as the low-level-processes occurring in our brains (such as the neurotransmitters passing from neuron to neuron in the curse of our brain’s synapses) without our consciously being aware of them. We are aware of certain mental events, let us say the effort we make when trying to remember something, and simply cannot keep track of others, maybe in an "economic" effort of our brains for restricting and selecting the vast amount of information that we receive from the environment. What things are we aware/conscious of and how does our consciousness work?

Consciousness as multiple processes

     An innovative and influential explanation on the subject was provided in 1991 by Daniel Dennett, who  proposed in his Consciousness Explained the "multiple drafts" model as an alternative to the unified Cartesian "theater of consciousness" conception we had basically assumed so far. For Dennett, consciousness had no central site, but was distributed and constantly "drafted" in our minds in a sort of continuous "editorial process." Consciousness never gets to be static or unified, since it is basically a dynamic chain of events. A little Lacanian voice could now be whispering in our ear: "We psychoanalysts talked about the non-unified split subject long before that!" Well, there is a fundamental distinction to be made here: According to what we have recently learned from neuroscience, there is not such thing as a split subject and an unconscious bunch of repressions shaping our conscious mind, but rather a set of neural basic processes (of chemical and electrical nature) going on in our brains and giving rise to higher processes, some of which we get to be aware of. Later on, in his 1996 Kinds of Minds Dennett would develop his multiple-drafts brain model, converting it into a "neural darwinism" one: From all those mental processes going on in our minds, all those endless multiple drafts, some become "conscious" by winning the competition with others. Going from the unconscious to the conscious becomes in recent neuroscientific views a matter of our minds "setting their attention" on particularly relevant neural events, such as, for example, the process of reading a book or learning to drive. Some time later, Susan Greenfield would adopt and sophisticate this "multiple processing" model. Like Dennett, Greenfield stated that there is not a permanent unified theater for consciousness but rather, temporal sites in which different groups of neurons take over at different times. Thus, consciousness would be the process of propagating a stimulus through a network of connected neurons. A "gestalt" would be a dynamic group of neurons created by arousal localized in an epicenter. Consciousness develops when those epicenters spread around the brain in a "ripples in a pond" fashion. When an experienced reader dives into Cervantes, everything starts with a nearly unconscious process of perceiving the printed letters (visual stimuli) which gives rise to a more symbolic and less automatic (depending on how good our skills to interpret the text and its context are) language processing, that in turn triggers other cognitive events related to imaginery, memory, emotion, etc. in such "ripple" dynamic. The notion of consciousness as a set of dynamic processes that give rise to subjective experiencing of the world has, in turn, been supported by Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi, who emphasize the connection between our neuroanatomy (more precisely what they call the "dynamic core[3],"  and our consciousness in their A recently published A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination.

The stream of consciousness

The "multiple processes" model we have just described may be consistent, I believe, with its competitor and second major view on the nature of our conscious mind: the "stream of consciousness" view. Following philosopher William James’ tradition, this notion is defended by investigators such as Richard Carlson. It has often been considered in literary studies, and turns to be particularly relevant when examining the works of Virginia Wolf, or Maria Luisa Bombal, for this approach assumes that our minds are in constant "flow," occasionally broken by conscious attention to particular events. In Experienced Cognition, Carlson talks about this phenomenon in neurophysiological  terms ?slightly rawer than the philosophical and literary discourses we are used to as literary scholars,— but conveying basically the same idea: When dealing with routine we act in an unconscious way; we have learned the basic everyday cognitive or motor skills we need to get by and we live in a constant unconscious flow of them. Consciousness is only necessary when we are in the earlier phases of acquiring a new skill, when we are learning it. An example would be me, Spanish speaker, trying to read my first Shakespearean tragedy in English and doing the conscious effort to adapt myself to the vocabulary and the conventions of seventeenth century English drama. As I progressively acquire the "skill" of interpreting those conventions, my reading becomes more and more "unconscious," ?"automatic" if we will— and I enter the "stream of reading," the characteristic cognitive flow that makes aesthetic reading such an enjoyable experience.
We have been talking about lower brain processes that give rise to higher cognitive ones (such as symbolic engagement in reading). What is the nature of those processes and what do they have to do with consciousness?

The physiology of consciousness

    Our brain works thanks to electricity and chemistry. The membranes of our neurons are electrically charged  (membrane potential). A slight change of that membrane potential in one of our neurons will produce an electrical signal (action potential) that is carried by the axon (the long "wire-like" part of the cell) and gets to the "next individual" in the complicated web of interconnections that our neurons form. Those changes in the electrical charge of the membranes depend on the concentration of positive (Sodium and Potassium) or negative (such as Chloride) ions to be found in them. When our neurons are "resting" (not communicating) forces of diffusion[4]  and electrostatic pressure[5]  keep chemical balance in their membranes. However, when suddenly a stimulus causes that balance to be altered, tiny passages (ion channels) to be found in the "edges" of the cell open. This allows more positive charged particles to come inside the neuron, producing the action potential (the signal to be communicated) namely a dynamic bunch of positive charged "fellows"  that travel down the axon in a "spark" fashion known as neuron "firing." When they reach the other side of the neuron, its terminal buttons, only a little fluid gap separates them from the membrane of the next cell. It is precisely in this small gap (the synapse) where the actual communication between the neurons takes place. Chemical substances stored in little vesicles at the end of the neuron will be released and will in turn bind to specialized receptors of the neuron to which they aim, changing the chemical properties of its membrane. By producing those changes in the chemical balance of the "next" target cell, these substances have the ability to excite (speed up) or inhibit (slow down) our neurons communication, the movement of action potentials among them. Some of the typical substances that serve this purpose are bodily-produced neurotransmitters like GABA (which has inhibitory properties and causes neurons to fire less frequently, thus slowing down neuron communication) hormones like testosterone (that typically increases aggressive behavior in male mammals) and laboratory produced drugs such as Prozac[6].

Consciousness as chemistry

On all those "small" chemical events (far too simplified by me here) of which we are not aware, depend the higher cognitive processes involved in our human activities such as reading, writing, or criticizing literary texts and, ultimately, the mystery of consciousness itself, according to the "chemical view" supporters such as J. Allan Hobson. I find this view particularly interesting, for not only seems to rest in neurophysiological facts, but also can be again consistent with the "multiple" nature of consciousness as Dennett and Greenfield presented it. A chemical explanation of consciousness would tell us that the difference between experiencing a literary event, driving a car or tasting a gourmet meal depends on the level of different substances to be found in particular regions of our brain at particular times. In the Chemistry of Conscious States, Hobson talks about the wide variety of mental states we humans can experience, as resulting from all the possible combinations of two main neurotransmitters types: cholines and amines. The former controls our brain during sleep and the latter is to be profusely found in our neurons when we are awake. Between and those two poles (sleeping and being awake) all intermediate states of consciousness occur. The difference between the cognitive events that take place when we are awake and the ones we experience while asleep seems to rest on the chemical mix our brain comes up with at every particular moment. Yet, an interesting feature: Although when we enter "Morpheus realm" our body is static and our nervous system controlled by cholinergic chemicals, we are able to experience sleeping events such as REM dreaming[7] in the same intense and vivid manner we experience the "real world," to the point of being disoriented and falling in the paradox of  "life is a dream," as it has been accounted for in literature and philosophy. Following Descartes’ preoccupation ?recently revived by Flanagan— how can I tell that I am not dreaming of writing this article?  Hobson showed us how the waves that our brains emit when dreaming ?measured by a Electroencephalograph (EEG)— are amazingly close to the waves produced when we are awake.  The key to the vividness and life-resemblance of our dreams continues under investigation, with the help of brain imaging technologies that can keep track of the cortex areas that get activated when our brains function. Recent studies are also pointing to the basic role of emotions, as responsible for the intensity of our life, our dreams and our knowledge, in whatever consciousness we might be.

Consciousness is emotional

The idea of emotions constituting an essential part of our cognitive activity is supported among others by Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux. The importance of this emotional perspective is enormous, for it reconciles body and mind (traditionally separated in our inherited Cartesian views) as both co-sites and co-producers of our cognitive activity and our consciousness. Emotions are born as a response to our environment. Our sensory systems perceive an external stimulus and then take that information to the brain, that sends to our body proper instructions to cope with the situation. Those instructions lead to changes in our muscles, autonomic nervous system and endocrine system. The emotional feeling is completed by the physical response being coded in our brain as a feeling (the conceptualization of emotion). When I read a shocking passage on chapter thirteen of Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, my brain asks my stomach to contract. Such unpleasant emotion goes back to my cortex, where I can match it to any previously coded feeling of similar consternation (if existent) or leave a trace of my physical reaction to those pages, for future reference. In literature and life, emotions are a basic feature of our embodied minds that preside our cognitive understanding of the world. Our consciousness (our awareness of the environment and of our relationship to us) consists, according to Damasio, of a number of sensory inputs that are transformed into a continuous flow of sensations, creating a "movie in the mind," a first narrative on our selves with respect to the context that surrounds us.

Consciousness gives us an evolutionary advantage

    Yes, consciousness is dynamic, emotional and, moreover, it greatly has helped us adapt to the environment, multiplying our chances for survival. According to evolutionary views such as the one supported by Nicholas Humphrey, the ability of humans to think of themselves as individuals and to perform self-observation represents a first step to the acquisition of one of our most fundamental features: social intelligence. Being social animals by nature, we also become "born psychologists"—as Humphrey puts it— "Men know how to anticipate ?and work upon— the behaviour of fellow members of their species" (3). This "psychological" expertise turns to be central to our survival and consciousness would be Mother Nature’s school on the subject, providing us with "the power and inclination to use a privileged picture of ourselves as a model for what it is to be another person" (6).

So far...

     We have discussed the non-hierarchical and definitely non-binary nature of consciousness as it is viewed today. It seems not to be just a matter of conscious/unconscious oppositions, but rather of a variety of different states of mind at different physiological levels. Consciousness seems to depend on chemical and electromagnetic processes we cannot be aware of that give rise to higher cognitive events, more than it does on depth repressed contents emerging to the surface so that they can reveal the obscure regions of the mind from where they come. There also seems to be a clear connection between our emotional system and our cognitive processes, among them consciousness, which might have emerged as an adaptation feature to our social environment. We have briefly mentioned dreams as a cognitive event  taking place when our bodies embrace the cholinergic physical state.

But what about dreams?

    The psychoanalytic view of the dreaming phenomenon rests on the "creative" way in which Freud once borrowed the classical conception of "dreams as the outcome of inner mental processes." Early used by Roman physicians to search for the cause of illness, dreams come to us via psychoanalytic theory ?since the beginning of the twentieth century— as the road to the unconscious, the key to our hidden and repressed desires.  In our contemporary times when the notion of the "unconscious," as we saw, has been completely redefined, we need to ask ourselves about the validity of those psychoanalytic views. The central questions would perhaps be: Do dreams have a function? What is the function of dreams?

    An evolutionary perspective, supported by Hobson among others, conceives dreaming as a survival strategy: In dreams we rehearse the actions we will be performing when engaging in the "real world," where human relations are ruled by our social intelligence, more precisely, by our Theory of Mind (the ability to predict the states of mind and possible behaviors of others), thanks to which we can adapt our own behavior and get by without being harmed. This interesting view, that connects with Humphrey’s ideas on the function of consciousness, clearly differs from the psychoanalytic conception, for it is oriented not towards past repressed events, but towards future practical situations of everyday life. There is not an obscure unconscious to be revealed in dreams, but different future states of consciousness being rehearsed in another conscious state, possibly an equivalent of when we fantasize in front of the window about how we will tell our boss we are not going to put up with that, only with our motor function almost suspended and cholinergic chemistry taking over our nervous system. On the other hand, neurobiologists portray  dreaming as directly related to a phenomenon called Long Term Potentiation (LTP). In LTP, a kind of pragmatic brainwash   our organism carries out, some of the neural connections that were formed when we were engaging in cognitive activities are fixed and strengthen while other "weak" ones are cleared away. Scientists believe LTP plays a role in memory stabilization and it is possible thanks to the cholinergic neurotransmitters that flow in our sleeping minds, particularly acetylcholine. This view is subscribed by Crick and Mitchinson, among others.

    What if dreams would not have any function at all and they were simply residues, free riders, after effects during our sleep of some experiences and thoughts we had while awake?  Studies prove that absence of REM sleep (the "dreaming stage is not particularly harmful to our organism, at least from the strictly physiological point of view. Dreaming may well be as just the noise resultant of "cleansing" our brains and consolidating connections via LTP as we saw, or it might just be a non-functional evolutionary feature such as the color of our bones, as Flanagan puts it in his Dreaming Souls, "an expectable side effect of selection for creatures designed to have and utilize experiences while they are awake, and which continue to have experiences after the lights go off ?experiences that, during sleep, neither help nor hinder fitness" (5).  Flanagan offers, in my opinion, one of the most open   contemporary explanations on the meaning of dreams and it would probably be the best option for any psychoanalyst wishing to update her/his discourse. It is not necessarily the view I would pick, but I honestly think of it as coherent and, most importantly, consistent with the neurophysiological facts about our brain. Flanagan believes that certain aspects of dreams play a role in our acquisition of an identity ?" a vast store of memories, a certain temperamental style, characteristic emotions, and a set of personal concerns" in his own definition (51)—. The activities internal to the brain that occur during sleep ?he says— "create noise that activates the complex set of memories, emotions, and experiences that are held in the brain and that taken together make us who we are" (51). Fair enough. Maybe instead of talking about a bunch of repressed desires being released in our dreams we can speak of a set of complex emotional and memory features, essential to our identity formation, emerging during our dreaming experience as a consequence of our constant and dynamic neural re-shaping. The appearance of those memory or emotional patterns in dreams does probably not make them mean anything different than what they represent while appearing in another consciousness state, when being awake for example. Therefore there seems not to be any reason why we should interpret them as a hidden sub-text that leads us to discover essential repressed qualities. If we really want to save psychoanalysis from the flames, we may observe them and from them, infer things about the way our mind might be organized or functions. What seems really dangerous to me is to employ those observations as staircases to the cellar of the unconscious, for such notion as we saw, has become obsolete. The worse of all is that, not happy with interpreting dreams to get to the repressed desires and concealed mind of the individual, we have the habit of interpreting texts for the same purpose of finding forbidden and subversive statements, sometimes even the social inhibitions of a whole culture! Maybe (regardless of how hard may be for us to renounce to the creative interpretations psychoanalytic theory allows us to do ?and I very much enjoy this kind of creative freedom in criticism myself) it is time for us to reconsider what literary texts can tell us about, at least if our pretension is to do literary research. If we go for this other type of criticism, creative criticism, the we definitely should not worry about what I said here. Creative literary criticism is as legitimate as literary research, only their purposes are different: the former brings as the aesthetic pleasure of a meta-literary fiction, the latter helps us reconstruct the literary phenomenon by linking it to the embodied minds that produce it in their contexts.


[1] A scanning of the living brain. The patient’s head is placed under a strong magnetic field and radio wave. The response of  brain molecules is then measured in parameters such as blood flow, glucose utilization and oxygen consumption.

[2] Another procedure for measuring brain activity in which a radioactive substance is injected in the patient’s blood stream and then traced in the brain.

[3] The neural activity taking place mainly in the thalamocortical region of our brain, a key site of neural communication situated between both hemispheres.

[4] The phenomenon that pushes molecules to balance density by moving from high concentration regions to low concentration ones.

[5] The phenomenon by which particles charged with opposite electrical sign (positive-negative) are attracted to each other, whereas particles with the same sign (positive-positive or negative-negative) run from each other.

[6] I am following Neil R. Carlson here.

[7] The rapid eye movement phase of dreaming, when we live intense visual and emotional situations.


Carlson, Neil R. Physiology of Behavior. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998.

Carlson, Richard A. Experienced Cognition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.

Crick, Francis, and Mitchison, Graham. "The Function of Dream Sleep." Nature 304 (1983): 111-114.

Damasio, Antonio. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: G.P. Putnam, 1994.

---. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.

Dennet, Daniel. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1991.

---. Kinds of Minds. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Edelman, Gerald M., and Giulio Tononi. A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter becomes Imagination.
    New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Flanagan, Owen. Consciousness Reconsidered. Cambridge: MIT P, 1992.

---. Dreaming Souls: Sleep, Dreams, and the Evolution of the Conscious Mind. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

Greenfield, Susan. Journey to the Centers of the Mind: Toward a Science of Consciousness. New York: W.H. Freeman.

---.The Private Life of the Brain: Emotions, Consciousness, and the Secret of the Self. New York: John Wiley, 2000.

Hobson, J. Allan. The Dreaming Brain. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

---.The Chemistry of Conscious States: Toward a Unified Model of the brain and the Mind. London: Little Brown, 1994.

---. Consciousness. New York: Scientific American Library, 2000.

Humphrey, Nicholas. Consciousness Regained: Chapters in the Development of Mind. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983.

LeDoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Murakami, Haruki. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Trans. Jay Rubin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

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