Psychobiology and Neuroscience

Dreaming, Creativity, and TNGS

by Pia Abelli (PM, June 6th 1997)

Daytime integrated information, activated by night-time stimuli which are themselves information carriers, undergoes further organization in the dream process.
Sets of stimuli are structured into sequences of sensory-emotional units (SEUs) which are represented through dream images, resulting into sequences of sensory-emotional units and images (SEU-Is). Where spoken language is added, we got a SEU-I,S.
SEUs made up during sleep make use of similar, previously stored SEUs corresponding to dynamically activated images (see Edelman G.M., 1989; Edelman G.M., 1992; and Edelman G.M., Tononi G., 1995 on TNGS concepts such as neuronal maps, perceptual categorization, reentry, degenerancy, and value-dependent learning). The resulting ongoing activation of interrelated maps constitutes an endless source for the production of new images and new scenes. Thus, in the dream process, previous dynamically interacting memories, together with present stimuli, provide the basis for new representations.
Transformation of all information into image patterns, possibly a process necessarily connected to that of memory storage, seems to be the rule in the dream process. Spoken language too, when included, is at the service of the dream scene, and sometimes refers directly to images. After all, thought itself stems from a combination of sensations-emotions and images, which then results into a combination of sensations-emotions, images, and words.
Our feeling of wonder towards dreams arises from this extraordinary feature of our mental functioning, that is the ability to express all information gathered both from the outside world and from the inside of our own body through visual images and visualized words.
Dreams, in particular, seem to be the place where the up-dating of our memories occurs. From dreams we awake with moods and views of the world which are consequences of the night-time events, and which we know to be affected also by the immersion into memories of previous events, since memory itself is ongoing perceptual recategorization.

More specifically:

1) The dream process consists of SEU, SEU-I, and/or SEU-I,S sequences.

2) SEUs, SEU-Is, and SEU-I,S' are function of:
a. current night-time stimuli;
b. previously stored objects, contexts, behaviors, and thoughts;
c. personally developed (or otherwise acquired) ideas on, and theories of, the world
and the self.

3) The intensity and quality of emotion - with values ranging, respectively, on a min/max scale and a pleasure/pain scale - allow, though only for heuristic purposes, the drawing of diagrams illustrating the course of emotions during dream (see Abelli P., 1997). It is worth noting that, from a psychosomatic point of view, illness is often seen as connected with a 'psychobiological disorder of emotional regulation'.

4) Images, scenes, and possible instances of spoken language are all intrinsically related to the occurring SEUs. Physical sensations and emotions seem to be leading the dream process at a very basic level. SEUs, SEU-Is, and SEU-I,S' can thus be seen as connected to specific, individual features of neurophysiological functioning during sleep/dream.

5) It is well known that, during REM sleep, typical, particularly intense bodily stimulations occur. Dreaming, thus, may be seen as showing the integration of new (daytime and night-time) information into memory in the presence of stimuli/demands which are particularly relevant to the psychobiological self. A process which, probably, involves the establishing and/or strengthening of patterns related to "value-dependent learning ... essential in the selection of adaptive behaviors in somatic time" (Edelman G.M., Tononi G., 1995, p. 85).

6) The kind of images and words actually exploited by dreams depends on the level of global development (information processing abilities, reasoning abilities, and communicative skills) attained by single individuals. To the above-mentioned level is also connected the possibility of reading dreams as auto-representations of global mental functioning. This is a kind of top-down reading, which takes place only after all incoming information has been 'personally' perceived, categorized, and stored in memory.

7) I remarked above that transformation of all information into images seems to be a process necessarily correlating that of memory storage. If this is the case, dreams could bring us closer to the workings of interconnected neuronal maps in the brain, which, during night-time stimulation, would show themselves in the form of visualized configurations.

8) Processes of reentrant signaling and the phenomenon of degenerancy, as described by the TNGS (Edelman G.M., 1989; and Edelman G.M., 1992), may account for the production of dream scenes and the peculiarly creative potential of the dream process. The leading role played by SEUs in organizing sequences of representations under non-intentional conditions could be described in terms of "a selective, dynamic, stochastic, and parallel process which, on the base of the present context and behavioral state, continuously includes new elements into the temporal evolution of the whole system. ...As shown by Tononi et al. (1994) ... by means of computer simulations, configurations of reentrant connectivity costitute an ideal neuroanatomical substrate for the emergency of properly complex neuronal activities. This is a clear demonstration of the creative role played by reentry in the nervous system." (Raffone A., 1997, p. 131).

A recent dream

Theme of the days preceding the dream.
I have been absorbed for quite a long time in the theme of mental functioning during dreams, that is, the idea that dreams offer a unique opportunity to access the workings of our mind-brains. Identifying sequences of sensory-emotional units possibly possessed of different values of intensity has brought considerable help to my research, allowing for the retrieval of similar units in what I had experienced during wakefulness in the days preceding the dreams I have worked upon. Now, finally, the hypothesis of a link between dream images and neuronal configurations in which they are possibly originated seems to yield some insights into the processes and sources involved in the production of dream scenes. The game is more than exciting: a new hypothesis on the role played by dreams in our very mental functioning is at stake. It is stimulating, invigorating.
In his paper on evolutionary epistemology and scientific creativity, Vittorio Somenzi mentions Poincaré's subjective report on mathematical invention. Somenzi writes: "Poincaré emphasizes the feeling of certainty which accompanies such insights; even if not always confirmed by the following, detailed control of their validity..." (Somenzi V., [1978] 1997, p. 3). As for me, feelings of alleged 'insight' alternate every next moment with fears of false 'certainties', while reason acts as a restraint on the aesthetic pleasure that this game cannot fail to arouse. It is no coincidence that, being aware of the inadequacy of my scientific background, I have decided to approach, in future, fields of research and related languages in which science can effectively aid the desire for knowledge.
Further inspiration has come from my recent reading of Merlin Donald's book on human cultural evolution and language (Donald M., 1991). In particular, Jerome S. Bruner's distinction between a 'narrative-mythical' kind of language/thought (particularly used in literature and, it is worth adding, in psychoanalysis) and an 'analytical-theoretical' one (mainly used in art and science, and called by Donald 'visuo-graphic') shed more light on the train of thoughts I've been intuitively following up to now. 'Visuo-graphic' language/thought, in fact, makes use of visual symbolic representations and thus helps to objectify the processes under investigation and to verify hypotheses.
I am well aware, due to my previous experience on this subject, of my tendency to dream everything I perceive, think, and feel. On my agenda, one of the major open questions is about the way in which, in the dream process, the translation of all experience into images is actually realized.

Dream scenes remembered after awakening.
1. I got pregnant 'by myself', and I am on the verge of delivering.
2. I am waiting with some excitement for a meeting with a friend who is a scientist.
3. I am so excited that I fear I may affect the baby, but then the fear abates.
4. I am taking off a diaper, the old-fashioned type that also women used to wear during the menstrual period. I'm messing about with a safety pin. My friend, too, has something to take off, maybe an armor.
5. My ex-partner makes his appearance. Rather to my own surprise, I perceive that he is willing to take care of me. I will be careful to avoid putting him down or upsetting him.
6. I look around me and do not see the things women in labor are usually provided with for the delivery. I get slightly anxious, but somehow I got the feeling that I will work my way out of the problem.
7. I see, or perceive, something like a gray shadow or body. I feel tired, and, for a moment, almost discouraged. When I remember this after awakening my mind goes immediately to my mother, who is old and suffering.
8. A male figure appears. It is a little red man, restless, disheveled, hardly in control of himself.

Some remarks on the dream sequences (SEUs and SEU-Is)
After awakening, memories of the dream scenes are usually strictly tied in my mind to memories of the related sensations and emotions. However, as far as the present dream is concerned, I realize that, in addition to the above-mentioned SEUs, more specific sensations related to my heartbeat are involved. Moreover, I can also detect some intellectual tenseness (see the diagram shown in figure 1).

1. ...on the verge of delivering.
I am physically and intellectually engaged in the attempt to give an answer to something unknown. I am doing this all by myself. There are times in which I feel to be very close to a sudden solution. Having no children, there cannot be any memories of actual delivery in my experiential maps. In fact, there are no detailed images related to this theme in the dream, which, moreover, clearly lacks any perceived reference to biological reproduction in a couple context.

2. ...a meeting with a friend who is a scientist...
This SEU-I clearly mirrors the information I acquired from my recent reading of Donald's book. The arrival of a friend-scientist and the underlying feeling of excitement represent my decision and my desire to approach scientifical fields of research and the related analytical-theoretical-'visuo-graphic' language.

3. ...I fear I may affect the baby...
The pleasure caused by our own thought activity is not at all of an abstract sort. As for me, sometimes the feeling is so strong that my heart starts to beat faster and I am forced to make a stop. In order to give its best, our mind activity needs to rest on a good, harmonious brain-body interaction, in which bodily signals are taken into due consideration.

4. ...taking off (a diaper, an armor)...
By means of a personal, 'narrative-mythical' apparatus of symbolic images (too much complex to be exposed here), these SEU-Is seem to mirror the process related to the emergence of thought from its biological basis. They mirror the removing of barriers between mind and body, between thought and its bodily roots, exposing the way in which mental activity necessary relies on ongoing physiological activities. Mind arises from a biophysical basis, and by means of this basis acts and represents itself.

5. ...ex-partner...willing to take care of me...
Exactly as the scene in point (2) above, this image mirrors the information I have recently acquired from Donald's book. Just as the friend-scientist stands for the 'visuo-graphic' language, so my ex-partner (a literary-man figure) stands for the 'narrative-mythical' language, that is, the style of language/thought I come from and still cannot help using in my current work. The underlying SEU ('be careful to avoid putting him down or upsetting him') reflects the feeling of respect for something which - though presently perceived as a limit - has played an aiding role in my life. Moreover, since a very specific 'matter of heart' bounds me to this person (his heartbeat, in fact, is remarkably similar to that of my father), this scene parallels, at the emotional level, the one described in point (3). That is, my current thought activities cannot afford to upset something which is somehow basic and necessary (my heartbeat, my previous style of thought).

6. ...(slight anxiety for shortage of adequate means)...
This is, quite literally, my present condition. Since there are no quick remedies for such state, however, I have no choice but to carry on, which is exactly what I am doing.

7. ...a gray shadow or body...
During paradoxical (REM) sleep, 'tempests' in the autonomic nervous system involving a high variability of physiological conditions have been frequently observed. Heart and respiratory activities, and blood vessel pressure seem particularly affected. It could be assumed that, according to the dreamer general state, these fluctuations variously influence the content of dream scenes. In the light of the subsequent scene (see point (8) below), this SEU-I seems to be connected with a temporary decrease in general physiological activity, which, however, does not give way to any definite representation.

8. ...a little red man, restless, disheveled...
A 'graceful' recovery from physically falling is not at all an easy thing to accomplish. Embarassment and a feeling of disorder are quite typical. In order to represent myself in this scene, I have clearly used the features of a character I happened to see recently in a movie.

Conclusions: a working hipothesis.
As I remarked above, I have been aware for a long time of my tendency to dream everything I experience. On the basis of this awareness and with the aid of the results obtained through my work on dreams, I have come to the conclusion that dreaming reflects the 'processing' of both newly acquired and stored information which is necessary to memory up-dating. This involves the transformation of all information into images. At a very basic level, the process is led by sensory-emotional units, which express themselves in the dream scenes and convey the demands of the psychobiological self. As a consequence, we may say that, in the dream process, our physiological and neurophysiological activities show themselves, let us know about them, exactly when they are in the process of making up the objects, the images, through which this communication is realized.
However, I am quite aware of the preliminary status of the present proposal. The following step, thus, involves the developing of the experimental procedures which are necessary in order to properly test this hypothesis. Universally valid 'translation rules' accounting for transformation of information into images should be found through studies on language acquisition conducted in a psychobiological-evolutionary perspective.
Only through subjecting our introspective, 'private' data to scientific methodology and criteria we can really hope to contribute to a better understanding of human mind and cognition. Otherwise, our results - however great their intrinsic value - run the risk of being of no real advantage to other human beings.


Abelli P., 1997, "Il sogno come possibili sequenze di 'unità sensoriali-emozionali'. Ansia e sogno da un punto di vista psicodinamico evoluzionistico", in Bria P., De Risio S. (a cura di), Le due facce della mente. Una prospettiva evoluzionistica, Roma: Società Editrice Universo, pp. 161-84.

Donald M., 1991, Origins of the modern mind, Harvard: President and Fellows of Harvard College (trad. it. L'evoluzione della mente. Per una teoria darwiniana della coscienza, Milano: Garzanti, 1996).

Edelman G.M., 1989, The Remembered Present. A Biological Theory of Consciousness, New York: Basic Books (trad. it. Il presente ricordato. Una teoria biologica della coscienza, Milano: Rizzoli, 1991).

Edelman G.M., 1992, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire. On the Matter of the Mind, New York: Basic Books (trad. it. Sulla materia della mente, Milano: Adelphi, 1993).

Edelman G.M., Tononi G., 1995, "Neural Darwinism: the brain as a selectional system", in Cornwell J. (ed), Nature's Imagination. The frontiers of scientific vision, Oxford, New York, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, pp. 78-100 (trad. it. "Darwinismo neurale: il cervello come sistema selezionistico", in Bria P., De Risio S. (a cura di), Le due facce della mente. Una prospettiva evoluzionistica, Roma: Società Editrice Universo, 1997, pp. 7-29).

Raffone A., 1997, "La matrice selezionistica della cognizione: il rientro e l'attività integrante del cervello", in Bria P., De Risio S. (a cura di), Le due facce della mente. Una prospettiva evoluzionistica, Roma: Società Editrice Universo, pp. 117-44.

Somenzi V., [1978] 1997, "Epistemologia evoluzionistica e creatività scientifica", in Bria P., De Risio S. (a cura di), Le due facce della mente. Una prospettiva evoluzionistica, Roma: Società Editrice Universo, pp. 1-5.