By Guest Author RTW
Many of us live in a busy world, at least to the point where multitasking is something that we are more or less familiar with. How many tasks can you complete at the same time, all whilst trying to share your attention between various and often completely unrelated interests? For some of us it might be an excuse to scroll through memes on our phones in a boring meeting. To other’s it might even a game, testing how much we can squeeze into our fast-pace lives. However, there seems to be a limit to how much the human mind can focus on at any one time.
The concept of ‘short-term memory’ is something we’re all familiar with – the ability to hold a small amount of information in the mind for a short period of time. During this period, information can be actively recalled. A ‘working memory’ is a continuation of this theme, but instead involves the active manipulation of such short-term information. Take mental arithmetic for example. where you can remember numbers in your ‘short-term memory’ and manipulate them in your ‘working memory’. In itself, working memory is concerned primarily with immediate conscious perceptual and linguistic processing – which is most important for reasoning.
It’s currently established that your working memory can only withstand a total of about seven items! This might not seem like much, but even this upper limit is not regularly achieved. We are all severely limited in how much we can remember and work with at a given moment – which is why it’s always a good idea to have a pen and paper handy.
Beyond simple tasks like adding up your weekly shop, the working memory is much more significant than it first appears. At any given moment we are bombarded with a sensory overload sourced from the world around us. Your brain has to choose what it wants to focus on, deciding and prioritising between activities we are aware of. This is handled by the aptly named ‘central executive’ which actively decides what information needs to be processed and in which parts of our working memory. In effect, it allows us to pay attention to the world around us – though only small bits at a time. Such central control is really important, especially in situations where there are a multitude of different things that require your constant attention.
When we have a conflict in our current activity, such as a choice between actions, the central executive prioritises what we concentrate on. This is why you stop walking when texting. In part, our conscious experience is continually being assessed; our waking tasks labelled and assigned in order of importance. All of this because there is only so much we can focus on at once.
The working memory is a really neat thing. Your body has an in-built safety mechanism to manage just how much information it can be consciously aware of at any one time. Our attention to detail is fairly limited in scope and has to be assigned to relevant and engaging tasks – largely beyond our conscious control. That is, until we are met with tasks that our unconscious hardwiring can’t deal with.
However, for those with a compulsive wish to control every aspect of their lives, there is an even bigger dilemma to hand. This was revealed by a 2016 study with the rather hefty title of ‘Homing in on consciousness in the nervous system: An action-based synthesis’ by Morsella and friends (Morsella et al., 2016). The aim on the research was to develop a model in which to explore (with a genuine context) data collected previously in the field. In effect, the researchers needed to a new hypothesis to test and thus ‘Passive Frame Theory’ was developed. This theory proposes what some truly mind-bending arguments which (put simply) explain that almost everything you do isn’t conscious at all!
In a statement released at the same time at their paper Morsella clarified the following:
“The information we perceive in our consciousness is not created by conscious thought, nor is it reacted to by conscious processes. Consciousness is the middle-man and it doesn’t do as much work as you think.”
The Passive Frame Theory suggests that nearly all of the work completed in your brain (conducted in various different regions and lobes) occurs at an unconscious level. For all practical purposes, consciousness is a bit slower than it needs to be. In the majority of the situations we experience in our lives it’s much simpler (and less risky) to have in-built responses that govern our behaviour for us. For instance, it makes sense to have a jerk reaction when touching something hot! Consciousness takes the limelight only for a small number of situations where there is conflict in a given situation. When a decision needs to be made between options (that might end up with equally bad or rewarding outcomes), our awareness makes the call – and then takes all the credit for the work. We believe we are in control of much more then we actually are!
In a way, Passive Frame Theory has taken us in a full circle back to the idea of working memory. The function of our short-term memory appears to be critical for consciousness itself. If anything, it might be an early prod towards the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ which is a rather fuzzy paradoxical review of issues regarding the study of consciousness from a purely physicalist viewpoint.
Although the idea might be a little disturbing, we humans are just very complex biological machines.
Having as many processes as possible churning away in the unconscious is really just a method for streamlining our experience. Humans don’t have to focus on everything from breathing to digesting our food. Instead, such things have been coded into our programming, running commands in the reality of our daily lives. This has given our conscious minds more time and energy to concentrate on the abstract things in life – like poetry, art, music, and invention. We can focus on the things we want to…but to what extent?
How Focus Shapes Our Dreams
The idea that we are very much limited in our focus on the world around us is something which translates into the realm of our dreams. Although in typical non-lucid dreams we lack the activity in our prefrontal cortex for awareness – this area of the brain is also responsible for working memory, along with the ability to decide what to focus on out of a multitude of sensory information. So from the word go we can expect our ability to manage and prioritise tasks to differ.
So how does our ability to focus manifest in dreams?
A recent dream of my own tackles such a question with some interesting results. The non-lucid dream was based within a natural history museum approaching to closing time. Walking between aisles of exhibits, I was becoming increasingly concerned about the need to leave – only I was unable to find the exit. However, in my dream the exhibits came to life, including the previously model dinosaurs. In what could only be described as Jurassic Park-like mayhem ensured. Yet for some reason or another, I was completely uninterested in the reptilian killing machines chasing me down various corridors. I was far more concerned with the need to exit the attraction. This got rather ridiculous with my dream self even getting into a car whilst the vehicle was being bashed around by the scaly terrors. Nevertheless, I was so focused on getting home that I didn’t feel afraid at all. I was more concerned with the possibility that they might lock the carpark in the evenings.
Upon recalling this dream, it immediately became clear that even though I was effectively in a dinosaur horror film, I was simply too fixated on the need to leave the museum. In the given situation, this might appear utterly absurd – you might even shake these dreams off as being unrealistic compared to how your waking self would react. However, there might be a much simpler explanation to this!
Quite simply, I was so engrossed within one aspect of the dream that everything else was subsidiary.
This idea can be neatly summarised as ‘focus-driven dream interpretation’ whereby my emotional experience was derived from the subset of the scenario I was focusing on. Only the part of the dream I was concentrating on shaped my experience, even if this was in contradiction to the remaining dream content.
Such focus-driven interpretation can decipher previously non-systematic dream content. As long as the dream is creating a illusion to fulfill your focus-driven craving for experience-based content, the rest of the dream is (to some degree) irrelevant.
I’ve witnessed this first hand in many following dream scenarios. For example, during one rather ordinary non-lucid dream I switched on the radio playing through an old boombox. Deciding that instead I’d rather play a few old cassettes, I went through the whole process of rediscovering, unboxing, and slotting in the tapes. At last I played the music and continued on with the rest of my dream. But, upon waking I clearly remember that the entire situation had been silent with no music playing whatsoever! My focus had been entirely centred on the process of playing a cassette rather than the music recorded on the old technology.
I’ve experienced similar ‘shortcuts’ in my dreaming experience with dream characters. Here I’d find myself talking to old friends, only to realise upon waking that they looked like complete strangers. Having been so focused on the verbal conversation itself, apparently it didn’t matter what the person looked like at all!
Manipulation of my attention is something I’ve also played around extensively in lucid dreams.
Nothing has yet provided me with a steeper learning curve then trying to transform my own body into various things whilst dreaming. It was only upon first starting to focus on my body in a dream that I realised I didn’t really possess one – at least, not until I started actively concentrating on it. Transformation was a different matter. Switching my whole frame of reference (e.g. from my normal human self into a bird) involved so much consideration that it seemed near impossible to achieve a perfect body swap.
Putting considerations of Thomas Nagel aside (notably his 1974 paper, ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’), I seemed completely unable to create the subjective experience I wanted.
At this stage, it’s worth noting something important. My trials in testing the impact of my attention in dreams varies significantly from a concept which is popularly known as the ‘expectation effect’. Using the latter, it is possible to influence dream creation based upon likely outcomes we’d expect in a given situation (or based around common associations we have for given emotions and scenarios). The two concepts are linked however, with focus-driven dream interpretation acting as a precursor to the expectation effect. Our attention dictates which aspect of the dreaming experience may be most vivid – while everything else is filled in at low resolution.
So how about when I tried to make ‘Fly Like a Bird 3’ a reality?
When I forced a visual change in my own appearance, the world looked and felt no different. When I tried to focus on the internalised feeling of being a bird (and everything that involved) nothing happened apart from feeling a little flighty! The dream was creating the experience I was directing whilst lucid, yet it was near-impossible to focus on everything involved in the transformation. When I wasn’t actively concentrating on one aspect of my experience, the dream slipped into autopilot and I looked (and felt) like I always have done. In truth, my initial attempts for transformation were a resounding failure!
Perhaps I’d come across a limit in my ability for dream control?
Whether this was true or not, it appeared that there still seemed to be an inherit limitation to the scope of attention within the dream environment. At least for the internalised experience of the dream, it’s possible that there is a constraint for the extent to which one can influence their senses and self-image. Either that, or (just like everything else in the world of lucid dreams) there’s just a better way of doing things.
Still, we may only be touching the tip of the iceberg here. But most importantly, it proves just how much you can discover within the comforts of your own bed!
About the author:
Arty is friendly writer and blogger from the UK. A practiced lucid dreamer, he runs a popular blog under the pseudonym RTW. You can visit his site here: RTW on Tumblr