Decoding the dreamy consciousness
Reviewed by B.L. Chakoo

Communing with the Gods: Consciousness, Culture and Dreaming Brain 
by Charles Laughlin. Daily Grail Publishing, Australia.
Pages 586. $28.10

We all dream; we do not understand our dreams, yet we act as if nothing strange goes on in our sleep minds, strange at least by "comparison with the logical, purposeful doings of our minds when we are awake." What actually Erick Fromm meant by this is that the most common alternative state of consciousness among all of us is dreaming. All humans sleep, and during sleep they dream, whether or not they attend to their dreams when they are wide awake. Yet as common as dreaming is among human species, it is still a phenomenon of mystery, complexity and confusion and of "fascination" to scientists (such as, neurophysiologists whose study tell us what is happening in the brain when we sleep and neuropsychologists who try to find "the parts of the brain that mediate the experience of dreaming." Dreaming consciousness is a dynamic interplay among myriad "neurophysiological systems" in the brain.

Communing with the Gods: Consciousness, Culture and the Dreaming Brain —whose captivating dream study provides an insightful analysis of dreams that unfold as a stream of consciousness, not as a physical appendage — is a multi-disciplinary book. While primarily centred upon the anthropology of dreaming, it critically presents the research findings, explanations and theories of dreaming brain in other concerned disciplines, especially in neuropsychology and other neurosciences. Innovative, well-written and persuasively argued, it is the most accessible book on the evolutionary and biocultural account of dreaming, dream cultures and culture of cognitive neuroscience.

Dreaming comprises one or more "state of consciousness," so in a sense Communing with the Gods is about the nature of consciousness with the focus upon those states that arise during sleep. Thus the book argues — quite rightly in my estimation — that "states" of consciousness are often conflated with contents of consciousness, and shows that our dreaming in the brain is not simply a reaction to our biological processes, but a cultural phenomenon deeply tied to social and ritual values of "individualism and limitless achievement."

Marvellous, immensely interesting and often profound, the book opens with "Towards a Neuroanthropology of Dreaming," which, though fascinating and an important read, is a hasty introduction to the range of dreaming experiences and "dream cultures around the planet." Chapter two, "The Anthropology of Dreaming," is more sober, but may prove useful for the present generation to know the history of anthropological interest in dreaming. The third chapter, "Modern Anthropological Theories of Dreaming," undertakes to examine quite precisely the state of the art in contemporary anthropology. Without being vast it has much detail: It registers efficiently how approaches to dreaming have changed with "different theoretical orientations" and elegantly summarises some of the more interesting contemporary ethnological theories of dreaming. In Chapter four, "Experience and the Dreaming Brain," the writer — who though is an anthropologist and is also trained in brain science and who is himself a "lucid dreamer" and Tibetan Tantric dream yoga "practitioner"—turns to neuroscience by contemplating upon what we know about the dreaming brain and sleep deprivation. Lenient, ambulatory and pragmatic, chapter five, "Lucid Dreaming," elaborately discusses lucid dreaming—a dream is lucid if we are aware within the dream that we are "dreaming" and that we are not "awake."

Part Two is prodigiously and generously interesting on a range of subjects such as phenomenology of dreaming, dreaming in religion, shamanism and healing, transpersonal dreaming, dream yogas, and dreaming in the modern age. A fantastically well-informed neuroanthropologist, Laughlin here penetratingly examines the great wealth of ethnographic evidence about dream cultures around the world "collected by many fieldworkers over the past century." Dream cultures — meaning societies in which people consider "dreams to be very important" in their lives —guide the individual’s understanding and also determine how "dreaming is used in a practical way to attain socially valued ends."

The concluding part can be read as a very interesting Laughlin miscellany, interspersed with disquisitions on the evolution of sleep and dream, covering the functions of dreaming in "non-human animals and other primates."

In short, Communing with the Gods is a great book about dreaming, archetypes in dreams, the spiritual and ritual dimensions of dreaming and the evolution of dreaming. It has honesty, a classical elegance, and a meditative gaze so unhurried that the sharpness of intelligence is more surprising when it come.