The Discovery Channel, in collaboration with IBM and the Quantum Physics lab in Los Alamos, has created an exciting new series which combines the latest technological advances in thought scanning, along with high speed, high definition photography, to bring you an amazing view into the inner workings of the human mind.
In episode one “From Dreams to Reality”, we take a rare and in-depth look at what happens on a typical Monday morning as our subject, Pam Driscoll, wakes up.
Brain wave activity has been studied and recorded for decades, with predictable changes occurring at each level of consciousness. Here we see the typical change from alpha waves to beta waves as Pam leaves the sleep state and enters the waking state. Now, using our new technology, we can get an insiders look at the details of this transition, and can actually experience the thoughts, images and emotions that Pam experiences as she wakes up.
The first thing we see here, is a truly remarkable feat, the ability of the brain to perform a seemingly conscious act – hitting the snooze button on an alarm clock – before our subject has actually left the alpha wave stage of sleep. Amazing.
She’s apparently attempting to re-enter the dream she was experiencing just before the alarm clock went off. Ah, yes, she’s sailing, of course, one of her favorite and most pleasant dreams: iridescent turquoise water, the sounds of gulls overhead, she can even feel the wind on her face. Pam is what we call a highly sensate dreamer, able to incorporate memory and experience into her dream state in a way that involves all the senses. Watch what happens now as the alarm clock goes off again. Yes, she doesn’t come completely out of the dream, she fumbles for the snooze, makes contact, slips back onto the boat, but wait. A part of the brain that we’ve now come to call the ‘Executor’, is becoming active. This is a part of the brain that evolved during the period in human evolution when cultural roles and rules were developed. It’s newer than the ancient reptilian brain, whose purpose is to perform the basic functions of breathing, responding to physical stimuli, and sensing danger. The executor seems to have developed as a way to encourage culturally acceptable behavior, and to inhibit unwanted traits in tribal societies. Today, it acts primarily to help us remember appointments, dates, faces, deadlines, social obligations, etc. It’s been triggered now by the repeated hitting of the snooze alarm.
The mechanism at play here is still not understood. But the results are astounding. In Pam’s case, the executor is aware that the dream state is too appealing, and is distracting her from the more pressing need to get up on time and go to work. In an evolutionary breakthrough, the executor is able to hijack the dream, changing the theme or events or sensations in a way that effectively makes Pam want to wake up. This morning it’s chosen the scenario in which Pam’s sailboat is suddenly enveloped in a fog bank. Her heart rate is increasing, breathing is becoming shallow, but still she doesn’t wake up. Instead, she’s trying to navigate, sail the boat to safety. The executor then moves to phase two – in which the formerly calm sea begins to boil, with waves growing to over twenty feet in height. Pam grips the wheel more tightly. Oh, my, the steering wheel of the boat vaporizes. Pam is no longer able to control the outcome of the dream. We see the look of abject terror on her face as a monster wave builds...her heart rate and breathing rate both increase...and now the adrenal glands kick in, and there she is, fully awake.
Now, comes a most interesting period of time for Pam, in which she is awake, but appears unable, or unwilling, to get out of bed. It’s as though her motor control is not yet on-line. Let’s check in with those thought processes and see what’s holding her up.
It may seem paradoxical, but the lack of physical activity seems to be associated with an abundance of mental processes, all apparently waking up at the same time. In a computer model, this could cause even the most robust system to crash, but the human brain is much more resilient than any piece of hardware. Thoughts, memories, emotions are all vying for her attention, probably fueled no doubt by the adrenaline rush of a good dream gone bad. We can only speculate that her executor knows what it’s doing - but clearly, this method is taking a toll on all of her systems.
Let’s try to filter through some of these thoughts. This is where our high speed camera is able to slow down the action. It’s interesting to note here that each subject who has been part of this study uses different images to represent thoughts and emotions. In Pam’s case, the images are often related to the Earth’s oceans, and so this morning we see her thoughts represented as an underwater coral reef – beautiful, full of life; and yet there is always the lurking presence of shadowy predators. Her thoughts, like agile and brightly colored fish, are darting to and fro, first into the light, then into sheltered caves, then in a panic they flee from a hammerhead shark. If you are at all squeamish, you may want to look away.
Just what are these thoughts? Let’s take a closer look. Upon awakening, Pam’s brain is performing a systems check – first scanning the physical being for any aches or pains. It makes note of the slight headache forming behind her eyes, which almost immediately spawns an emotion of regret over having had a glass of red wine last night, followed again, almost immediately with a tinge of anger – why can’t she have a single glass of red wine without her body rebelling? In a fascinating chain of events her body has picked up on the communication, and is reacting with a defensive stance, which manifests as muscle tension in her back and neck, which is causing the headache to throb even more. There appears to be some sort of problem here in the feedback loop – a common occurrence in all of our subjects living in so called advanced civilizations. Pam is no exception.
Now, the brain moves on to the physical world outside Pam’s body and tries to orient her to time and space. Yes, it assures her, she’s in her bedroom, it’s morning, it’s time to get up, it’s Monday. Now, that was an interesting reaction, an entire school of seals is now swimming for its life, with a great white shark in close pursuit. The awareness that it is Monday morning creates an almost universal reaction in subjects who are gainfully employed. A list of activities begins to play out in Pam’s mind, as she mentally opens her day book and checks the appointments, conference calls, and deadlines she must respond to today. Again, her body reacts with fatigue and more muscle tension. No wonder she is unable to move.
At this vulnerable and defenseless moment, old memories and their associated emotions appear, almost as if a cloud has covered the sun, blotting out all light. She replays scenes of unpleasant events, reaching back into childhood for some of them, just yesterday for others. And in a surprising turn, the mind creates situations that have not yet occurred and worries over them. This again is a phenomenon seen in all the human subjects in the study, but rarely appears in other mammals.
As if to allow her a respite, the executor loosens its grip and allows Pam to have a small yet pleasant daydream. She’s imagining that she’s a writer, not a software engineer. She is imagining what it might be like to wake up at peace, anchored in some protected harbor in a warm climate, with a day of writing and sailing ahead of her. She begins to embellish on the day dream a bit – and introduces a new character – her perfect mate and companion. Once again, her body is responding, but in more pleasant ways, heart rate slower, breathing deepening, there’s a gentle smile on her face, her jaw is no longer clenched. The executor senses that this pleasant daydream has veered off now into fantasy, and if it doesn’t step in now, all will be lost. It creates a gentle voice that whispers in her ear “Just get up and go to work and keep writing, keep writing, keep writing”.
This gentle encouragement, along with the fact that her dog is now awake and licking her face, and an urgent signal from her body that her bladder is quite full; is enough to trigger the required motor activity to get her out of bed. Although the system may not be perfect, it is effective, and demonstrates the fine balance between mind and body.
This series has been made possible by grants from The Cruising Life magazine, Starbucks Coffee and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.
Join us next week as we explore what happens when Pam hits an emotional and physical slump later in the day. Will she turn to caffeine and sugar for a pick me up, or will prayer and meditation guide her?