Up From Dragons

Those of you who announced your dislike of City of Quartz were right. Reading on the train home last night, I grew increasingly annoyed with what I felt was Davis’ pretentious literary style and by the time I got home, I was annoyed enough to give up the book.

So I picked up another book from my dusty shelves, Up From Dragons by John R. Skoyles and Dorian Sagan (son of Carl Sagan). I originally got this book five years ago and began reading it just after I moved to the D.C. area, but was sidetracked with too many other things at the time and gave it up after only a few pages. Yet those few pages always fascinated me. That, coupled with the fact that the book was really written as a kind of sequel to Carl Sagan’s brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning The Dragons of Eden (which is on my list of all-time favorite books), convinced me I needed to give it another try. So far, I’m glad I have.

The first two chapters develop a fascinating theory of consciousness and dreams which, unlike Freudian theory, are based on concrete experiments and studies. The argument made is that human consciousness evolved from reptilian consciousness, but that because evolution must build on what already exists, we still have that “reptilian” consciousness buried within our brain stems. Studies and experiments show that brain wave patterns of conscious (awake) reptiles are strikingly similar to that of mammals in slow-wave sleep. Furthermore, the brain wave pattern of sleeping reptiles is strikingly similar to that of mammals in R.E.M. sleep. Thus, slow-wave sleep (which we almost never remember) is what consciousness “feels like” to a lizard. As if that wasn’t enough, reptiles don’t control their body temperatures except by their environment. When sleeping, therefore, their temperatures tend to drop. The same is true in mammals. When in R.E.M. sleep, we become poikilothermic. For some reason, I find this just fascinating.

There is also confirmation (and cited studies) that the evolutionary value of dreams is primarily for learning new things: skills or memories. A person who is constantly woken during R.E.M. sleep has difficulty learning new skills. A person constantly woken during slow-wave sleep has difficulty with memory. The brain does not appear to care in what order this learning takes place which is often why dreams can seem random. I love this kind of stuff. When the brain processes these events, it takes a lot of juice. In fact, we tend not to remember our dreams because the bulk of the brain’s processing power is required for learning the skills and processing memories and can’t be spent on recursive activities like remembering the dreams generated in order to remember the events of the day.

The randomness of it, I feel, is yet another blow to Freudian theory. It seems to me that for Freudian theory to work, there has to be subconscious meaning to the particular thoughts that trigger dreams with all their alleged symbolism. Yet if the triggers are entirely random, if the brain does not care about the order in which the thoughts are processed, then the “meaning” given to the thought being process seems greatly devalued. It becomes no less random than picking a card from a Tarot deck at random and being told that there is significance to what you randomly picked. The significance may be there, but if so, it is nothing more than coincidence.

In any event, so far, this is a great book, and after I finish it, I may have to go back and re-read The Dragons of Eden, which I read for the first and only time in late December 1996.