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Observations placeholder

Tholey, Paul and LaBerge, Stephen - Mental Capabilities and Consciousness of Dream Characters



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Conversation Between Stephen LaBerge and Paul Tholey in July of 1989  - STEPHEN LABERGE, PAUL THOLEY, and BRIGITTE HOLZINGER (Editor)

Mental Capabilities and Consciousness of Dream Characters

LaBerge: Another topic I wanted to ask you about is in this paper (Tholey, 1989). As I interpret it, you are describing the consciousness and abilities of dream characters observed during lucid dreaming. I find it a fascinating series of experiments and a very interesting set of questions about what mental capacities the other dream characters have.

Tholey: The dream figures are able to do more, if they are dreamt by experienced lucid dreamers and if some dream figures have already been investigated. But there are also some dream figures that are not capable of doing anything.

LaBerge: I would agree with that from my experience. Indeed, how dream characters act depends largely on my expectations.

Tholey: That’s wrong! I have had arguments with a colleague about that also. My hypothesis was that dream characters are quite skillful. The doctoral students who had been working on this topic all thought that they weren’t. They were extremely surprised. It can happen that the dream character sits and writes. Yet when I discussed this phenomenon with Krist (1981) and the others they all said that this was impossible. I could name hundreds of cases of unexpected occurrences.

LaBerge: Certainly, but I said largely. What I mean is that it is possible that if I find you as a dream character in my dream and I expect you to be sympathetic, you’ll be sympathetic and if I expect you to be hostile, you’ll be hostile. How dream characters act, not what they can do, is the result of one’s expectations.

Tholey: There are examples that dream figures say something that the dream ego cannot understand. I am thinking of the 3ZWG-example.

Holzinger: This example was described in Tholey, (1989). The dream-ego sits facing a dream figure that is writing something on a paper. Reading it, the dream-ego recognized 3ZWG. In the waking state, the dreamer remembered that he had argued with his fiancee about renting a 3-room apartment (in German this would be called a 3 Zimmer WohnunG, therefore 3ZWG in a newspaper ad). So do you really claim that dream characters have something like a consciousness of their own?

LaBerge: That’s what the major claim of the paper is.

Tholey: I don’t want to approach this question from the standpoint of occultism or spiritism. My explanation is very much like split-brain theory.

LaBerge: Yes, but we have no evidence that split-brain patients have a conscious-ness on both sides of the brain. They only report one consciousness. We don’t know if there is a second consciousness. All we can see are motor responses that might indicate consciousness, but automatic systems are capable of motor responses, too.

Tholey: You will never be able to really prove that, because this is, as I have already mentioned, a metaphysical problem. But now there are our very precise and prac-tical experiments that lead to the questions: do dream characters have their own perspectives, can they look from there; do they have their own access to memory, perception, thinking, productive thinking? Can they rhyme better than I can do it?

LaBerge: Sure, all of that, but none of that requires consciousness!

Tholey: But nothing that happens here proves that Stephen has a consciousness or that Brigitte has a consciousness. Any proof would be metaphysical. You can act exactly the same way as the dream figures, you have your own perspectives, you have your own memory, and your own thinking. Why should I claim that dream figures don’t have a consciousness and, at the same time, claim, that you have one?

LaBerge: Yes, but the answer is: I have a brain, you have a brain, we each have a brain! But dream figures have no brains, except one, the one of the dreamer!

Tholey: When I am in a lucid dream I can have all these talks that I have right now.

LaBerge: Sure, but this does not prove anything about consciousness. My conclu-sion from the information presented here is that dream characters can do wondrous things, but they cannot do cognitive tasks that specifically require consciousness.

Tholey: Phenomenologically it can happen that you look from two perspectives, from under the table and above the table. You cannot imagine that.

LaBerge: Let’s step back. How do you do mental arithmetic? How do you compute 5 times 5? The answer simply appears. It’s not conscious, it’s automatic. But when you have to do arithmetic that involves carrying a number, you store that number in consciousness. Consciousness can be viewed as a global work space (Baars, 1988). It is different from the automatic processors. There is only one area of conscious-ness, at least in ordinary experience.

Holzinger: It seems to me that there is a misunderstanding between the two of you about the definition of consciousness.

Tholey: I have given different definitions of consciousness in a German essay with the title "Consciousness"—"Bewusst sein." I differentiated at first between a phe-nomenological and an epistemological definition and then I differentiated further, so that all together I arrived at twelve different definitions of consciousness!

LaBerge: OK. But we must be using it in a different sense.

Tholey: So, I mean, a machine is able to do arithmetic, a child is not able to do arith-metic. Still I would say, that the child has consciousness, the machine hasn’t.

LaBerge: That’s exactly my point. These examples do not prove consciousness! The fact that the mental arithmetic abilities of dream figures are limited suggests to me that other characters don’t have that global space in which we can hold a result while we continue the automatic processes of the computation.

Tholey: Yes, but the figures did complicated rhymes!6

LaBerge: Yes, but this also could be automatic. Rhymes spring to mind; we don’t know how to do it. It just happens!

Tholey: The figures have to store something in that work space also in order to form longer poems and rhymes. Those poems are sometimes as long as ten lines.

LaBerge: Think of Coleridge and the poem "Kubla Khan." It all just came to him. There is no reason to think that language processes have to be consciously directed. People talk all the time without thinking! See, consciousness and conscious pro-cesses can do some things that unconscious ones cannot. Consciousness is not as efficient. It is slow, but it is flexible. And it allows such calculations as 12 times 17. To do this, you have to store an intermediate result while you do another operation. And we do simple mental arithmetic automatically, as if we had a look-up table. The answer of 5 times 5 is right there. You don’t think about how to do it. You don’t do anything other than set the problem and the answer appears. But there are limits to the number of numbers you can hold in your mind. You can hold about seven, plus or minus two. There are numerical experiments indicating and demonstrating the limitations of conscious processing and the relative lack of limitations of uncon-scious processors.

Tholey: That’s a question of different definitions of consciousness, but if we would start with that it would take a lecture.

LaBerge: Let’s make a rhyme now and notice how it happens! We start with Goethe’s last words: "Licht, mehr Licht" and then rhyme . . . "Nichts als nichts!" Not exactly grammatical, but an idea. How did it happen? It just appeared.

Tholey: I know that. I also know that Stephen knows Goethe fairly well.

LaBerge: OK. So how can we conclude that dream characters have consciousness?

Tholey: I have never claimed that! I only claimed that you will never be able to prove it, as you will never be able to prove that another person in waking life has consciousness!

LaBerge: My impression was that you had concluded that dream characters have independent consciousness.

Tholey: I have to clarify that misunderstanding now. I have never claimed that dream figures have consciousness. But the idea of whether they have consciousness or not has led us to some interesting experiments. I could tell them to sing or to count and we could see if there are changes in the EEG recordings under these conditions. But even this would never prove that they have consciousness.

The source of the experience

Tholey, Paul

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Dreaming and lucid dreaming


Lucid dreaming