Bulleting “The Organized Mind”—I Must Have Been Dreaming

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For the last several posts I’ve been pulling bullet points from Daniel Levitin’s 2014 book entitled The Organized Mind—Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. I thought my last post Nuts & Bolts would be my final installment. But an astute reader asked me why I did not pull a bullet point centered on the dream process. Yes, Levitin does talk a lot about how the dream process helps keep the mind organized. And I did wish to cover this bullet point, but I simply forgot. Obviously my mind isn’t as organized as I thought. And then another reader asked why Levitin did not talk more about how such things as spirituality, meditation, and yoga help to facilitate an organized mind. I’m not sure I have the answer. In this post I would like to take a quick look at the dream process bullet point, and, hopefully, in some small way, address the spiritual side of an organized brain.

Levitin points out that a lot takes place in the mind as the mind tries to assimilate new information. [1] Let’s listen in as Levitin uses the event of meeting a friend for lunch as an example of information assimilation:

[T]here are a variety of ways that a single event such as a lunch with an old friend can be contextualized. [2] For all of these attributes [i.e., last time I saw my friend, other lunch experiences, do I like the food I ate, etc.] to be associated with the event, the brain has to toss and turn and analyze the experience after it happens, extracting and sorting information in complex ways. And this new memory needs to be integrated into existing conceptual frameworks [such as Bowlby’s Inner Working Models], integrated into memories previously stored in the brain….

Levitin—and this is the first time I have heard this idea, a very intriguing one—simply argues that the dream process is largely about the mind trying to assimilate new information. Before I continue by quoting Levitin on how the dream process works, allow me to speculate by saying that such things as spirituality, meditation, and yoga may also aid in the assimilation process. One benefit of using spirituality, meditation, and yoga to assimilate new information stems from the fact that these things can be done without having to enter a sleep state. OK, enough of my speculations. Here’s how Levitin describes the dream process:

In the last few years, we’ve gained a more nuanced understanding that these different processes [of information assimilation] are accomplished during distinct phases of sleep. These processes both preserve memories in their original form, and extract features and meaning from the experiences. This allows new experiences to become integrated into a more generalized and hierarchical representation of the outside world that we hold in our heads. Memory consolidation requires that our brains fine-tune the neural circuits that first encountered the new experience. According to one theory that is gaining acceptance, this has to be done when you’re asleep, otherwise the activity in those circuits would be confused with an actually occurring experience.

Fascinating stuff hey Maynard [Krebs]? I’ll leave you to read Levitin’s detailed description of the dream process. Probably the big point to keep in mind is that the old notion of memories as existing on a cassette tape one after the other no longer holds water. According to this new thinking, memories are stored in different parts of the mind and are effectively assembled during recall. This is why we can increase our recall by trying to pull in other associations that might help assemble the memory from a few fragments (a technique Levitin talks about). This also goes along with what neurobiologist Antonio Damsio tells us. Damasio suggests that imagination is very much about using the mind in “as if” or “what if” virtual ways. In other words, to imagine, the brain must use the various brain centers to assemble the imagined scene. And Levitin is right. If the brain centers are being used to process actual information, then they cannot be used effectively to create virtual scenes. This explains why you should not use major motor skills (like walking around) first thing in the morning if you wish to write your dreams down. Using major motor skills will purge the virtual information that may still be there from last night’s dream activities. Now, can you see a possible connection back to spirituality, meditation, and yoga? Yup. They all prepare the mind to more effectively assimilate new information and engage in creative imagination. The same could be said of pretend play (which, sadly, is a skill that schools are increasingly devaluing). And running what if or as if scenarios are part and parcel of Executive Function skills (i.e., mental time travel, focusing attention, shifting attention, mental modeling, empathy, etc.)

Let me end with one potential bug-a-boo. From the world of trauma research (i.e., the work of Bessel van der Kolk) we learn that most people have a tough time assimilating events of a traumatic nature, say, experiencing the atrocities of war. Some emotion can help assimilate new information because appropriate emotion makes information (and its various components) salient. We remember our first kiss, or the birth of a child. But when we are not able to regulate emotion in the face of a traumatic event, these memories are often stored in fragmented and distorted ways. Van der Kolk will often say that the “body remembers all.” What this means is that traumatic events are often stored in the brain using those brain centers that are responsible for regulating and moving the body. These brain centers typically are not open to conscious examination. This explains in part why talk therapy may not be effective as far as accessing traumatic memories. Body-based therapies (like yoga) may be more effective.

Now, here I’ll go way out on a limb. Studies suggest that an early history of secure attachment can protect against traumatic events being stored in fragmented or incoherent ways. Why would this be? Well, people who were fortunate enough to have an early safe and secure attachment relationship tend to create an Inner Working Model (as Bowlby called it) that represents that early safe and secure relationship. Then during times of excessive stress or trauma, we can bring that Inner Working Model to mind and the assimilation processes of dreaming can pull information from that model in a way that keeps these stressful or traumatic memories coherent and regulated. [3] In other words, during stressful times it is comforting to have a safe and secure attachment relationship along with us even if that relationship is in representational or spiritual form. I guess this is why they say that there are no atheists in a foxhole. Morale serves the same purpose; it’s like having a sense of security along with you. [4]

Of course, as Bowlby pointed out in his work, an Inner Working Model born from an early safe and secure attachment relationship can only offer up protection to a certain point beyond which stressful and traumatic events are stored incoherently. Like with a vaccination, the hope is that an early secure attachment relationship will buffer the effects of stressful or traumatic events. Similarly, we can look at spirituality, meditation, and yoga as ways of boosting our psychological vaccinations if you will. And of course another way to boost your psychological vaccinations is to maintain a safe and secure attachment relationship with family, a partner, a pet, or even a higher spiritual being. [5]


[1] Assimilating (as well as accommodating) new information was a topic that cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget looked at. Bowlby came into close contact with Piaget through a series of child development conferences that were held back in the 1950s. Transcripts of the four conferences comprising the series can be found under the title Discussions on Child Development co-edited by Piaget’s longtime collaborator Bärbel Inhelder.

[2] I blogged about Levitin’s take on context in an earlier part of this blog series.

[3] I could be way off base but I think this was what Jung was trying to get to by suggesting that our dreams often have archetypal images in them. Myths have archetypal images in them, and may have been written as aids to the memory assimilation process. When Gretel pushes the witch into the oven, this may represent the mind assimilating potentially dark information (the witch) in positive ways. Or Jack outwitting the giant could be looked at in this way. It would be an interesting exercise to view Jung’s dream interpretation from the perspective of information assimilation during dream states. Are not archetypes a form of Inner Working Model? In my mind, it would be hard to pass trauma from one generation to the next (as Bowlby suggests) without using archetypal energy on some level. Just an idea. For more on this idea, see Anthony Stevens’ 2002 book entitled Archetype Revisited: An Updated Natural History of the Self. Bowlby was one of Stevens’ supervisors for his D.M. dissertation. Stevens has a lot to say about the bodily or biological nature of archetypes.

[4] As Lt. Col. Dave Grossman reveals in his 1996 book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, once morale drops below a certain point, military units will begin falling apart. I’m sure the same holds true for morale within business units like a company.

[5] From my bog series on attachment and addiction, we learn that addiction is often used as a substitute for an early safe and secure attachment relationship that was not forthcoming. We also learn that many treatment programs (like Alcoholics Anonymous) begin the healing process by trying to get the addict attached to a new and appropriate attachment figure. In some cases the group itself acts as a new and appropriate attachment figure. Or in other cases a sponsor or therapist may take on the role of a secondary attachment figure. The goal here is to eventually move the addict to an appropriate safe and secure primary attachment figure.