How to live an extra life

Reading Sidarta Ribeiro’s The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams for the Times, 2 January 2022

Early in January 1995 Sidarta Ribeiro, a Brazilian student of neuroscience, arrived in New York City to study for his doctorate at Rockefeller University. He rushed enthusiastically into his first meeting — only to discover he could not understand a word people were saying. He had, in that minute, completely forgotten the English language.

It did not return. He would turn up for work, struggle to make sense of what was going on, and wake up, hours later, on his supervisor’s couch. The colder and snowier the season became, the more impossible life got until, “when February came around, in the deep silence of the snow, I gave in completely and was swallowed up into the world of Morpheus.”

Ribeiro struggled into lectures so he didn’t get kicked out; otherwise he spent the entire winter in bed, sleeping; dozing; above all, dreaming.

April brought a sudden and extraordinary recovery. Ribeiro woke up understanding English again, and found he could speak it more fluently than ever before. He befriended colleagues easily, drove research, and, in time, announced the first molecular evidence of Freud’s “day residue” hypothesis, in which dreams exist to process memories of the previous day.

Ribeiro’s rich dream life that winter convinced him that it was the dreams themselves — and not just the napping — that had wrought a cognitive transformation in him. Yet dreams, it turned out, had fallen almost entirely off the scientific radar.

The last dream researcher to enter public consciousness was probably Sigmund Freud. Freud at least seemed to draw coherent meaning from dreams — dreams that had been focused to a fine point by fin de siecle Vienna’s intense milieu of sexual repression.

But Freud’s “royal road to the unconscious” has been eroded since by a revolution in our style of living. Our great-grandparents could remember a world without artificial light. Now we play on our phones until bedtime, then get up early, already focused on a day that is, when push comes to shove, more or less identical to yesterday. We neither plan our days before we sleep, nor do we interrogate our dreams when we wake. It it any wonder, then, that our dreams are no longer able to inspire us? When US philosopher Owen Flanagan says that “dreams are the spandrels of sleep”, he speaks for almost all of us.

Ribeiro’s distillation of his life’s work offers a fascinating corrective to this reductionist view. His experiments have made Freudian dream analysis and other elements of psychoanalytic theory definitively testable for the first time — and the results are astonishing. There is material evidence, now, for the connection Freud made between dreaming and desire: both involve the selective release of the brain chemical dopamine.

The middle chapters of The Oracle of Night focus on the neuroscience, capturing, with rare candour, all the frustrations, controversies, alliances, ambiguities and accidents that make up a working scientists’ life.

To study dreams, Ribeiro explains, is to study memories: how they are received in the hippocampus, then migrate out through surrounding cortical tissue, “burrowing further and further in as life goes on, ever more extensive and resistant to disturbances”. This is why some memories can survive, even for more than a hundred years, in a brain radically altered by the years.

Ribeiro is an excellent communicator of detail, and this is important, given the size and significance of his claims. “At their best,” he writes, “dreams are the actual source of our future. The unconscious is the sum of all our memories and of all their possible combinations. It comprises, therefore, much more than what we have been — it comprises all that we can be.”

To make such a large statement stick, Ribeiro is going to need more than laboratory evidence, and so his scientific account is generously bookended with well-evidenced anthropological and archaeological speculation. Dinosaurs enjoyed REM sleep, apparently — a delightfully fiendish piece of deduction. And was the Bronze Age Collapse, around 1200 BC, triggered by a qualitative shift how we interpreted dreams?

These are sizeable bread slices around an already generous Christmas-lunch sandwich. On page 114, when Ribeiro declares that “determining a point of departure for sleep requires that we go back 4.5 billion years and imagine the conditions in which the first self-replicating molecules appeared,” the poor reader’s heart may quail and their courage falter.

A more serious obstacle — and one quite out of Ribeiro’s control — is that friend (we all have one) who, feet up on the couch and both hands wrapped around the tea, baffs on about what their dreams are telling them. How do you talk about a phenomenon that’s become the sinecure of people one would happily emigrate to avoid?

And yet, by taking dreams seriously, Bibeiro must also talk seriously about shamanism, oracles, prediction and mysticism. This is only reasonable, if you think about it: dreams were the source of shamanism (one of humanity’s first social specialisations), and shamanism in its turn gave us medicine, philosophy and religion.

When lives were socially simple and threats immediate, the relevance of dreams was not just apparent; it was impelling. Even a stopped watch is correct twice a day. With a limited palette of dream materials to draw from, was it really so surprising that Rome’s first emperor Augustus found his rise to power predicted by dreams — at least according to his biographer Suetonius? “By simulating objects of desire and aversion,” Ribeiro argues, “the dream occasionally came to represent what would in fact happen”.

Growing social complexity enriches dream life, but it also fragments it (which may explain all those complaints that the gods have fallen silent, which we find in texts dated between 1200 to 800 BC). The dreams typical of our time, says Ribeiro, are “a blend of meanings, a kaleidoscope of wants, fragmented by the multiplicity of desires of our age”.

The trouble with a book of this size and scale is that the reader, feeling somewhat punch-drunk, can’t help but wish that two or three better books had been spun from the same material. Why naps are good for us, why sleep improves our creativity, how we handle grief — these are instrumentalist concerns that might, under separate covers, have greatly entertained us. In the end, though, I reckon Ribeiro made the right choice. Such books give us narrow, discrete glimpses into the power of dreams, but leave us ignorant of their real nature. Ribeiro’s brick of a book shatters our complacency entirely, and for good.

Dreaming is a kind of thinking. Treating dreams as spandrels — as so much psychic “junk code” — is not only culturally illiterate — it runs against everything current science is telling us. You are a dreaming animal, says Ribeiro, for whom “dreams are like stars: they are always there, but we can only see them at night”.

Keep a dream diary, Ribeiro insists. So I did. And as I write this, a fortnight on, I am living an extra life.

David Jane: Inner visions

A virus that robbed David Jane of his language and memory left him struggling to understand what had happened to him. His salvation was to recreate his condition on canvas. For New Scientist, 10 January 1998

 

DAVID JANE’s studio in south London is falling to pieces. Plaster has come
off the walls, revealing the wattling and brick beneath. Felt sags from a hole
in the roof. Every fractured surface frames another deeper, broken layer. It is
easy at first—and painful—to see parallels between the dereliction
of Jane’s studio and his paintings, which are based on magnetic resonance
imaging (MRI) scans of his own, damaged brain. “It can be a very heavy
experience to be drawing things that you know are inside you,” muses Jane. “They
look like animals—like they have separate lives.”

Jane calls his work self-portraiture, albeit of a unique, and at first
disturbing, kind. Wax surfaces bleed away to reveal other surfaces beneath.
These frames within frames reflect the way the medical scanner slices his brain
into a sequence of flat, two-dimensional images. But Jane’s fusion of art
and science is not about deterioration. It is about understanding—and more
than that, it is about recovery and regeneration.

Until 1989, Jane enjoyed a growing reputation as a painter. But that year,
while on holiday in Rio de Janeiro, he collapsed. When he woke up in London some
weeks later, he could not speak, write or recognise his family or himself. At
first he had no memory, and no awareness of the passage of time. Days, minutes,
months all seemed of equal duration, so that even when some memories did return,
he could make little sense of them. On one occasion he left the hospital in his
dressing gown and boarded a bus to visit his mother, who was dead. Much of his
recovery since then has been spent organising his experience into some kind of
sensible order.

What Jane didn’t know during his stay in hospital—what nobody could
tell him—was that he had contracted herpes simplex encephalitis. For
reasons that are still unknown, the virus has a predilection for certain areas
of the brain in some people. The body’s response is to dispatch immune cells to
the site of infection. This causes swelling which, together with the virus, can
kill off neurons and literally leave holes in the brain. In Jane, the virus
targeted the left temporal lobe, which is responsible for memory and
language.

Jane’s basic faculties began to return within a few weeks and he was able to
leave hospital. But it was not until June 1990—when new MRI scans were
taken—that he began to understand what had happened to him. Because he had
lost his language skills to the virus, Pat, his wife, realised that pictures
would be the easiest, most direct way of explaining to him what had happened. It
was she who first showed him the brain scans.

“The doctors were reluctant to show me them,” he remembers. “But the fact is,
I found them beautiful.” Jane could also see from the scans that the left-hand
side of his brain was different from the right. “So I began to understand what
had happened inside my brain.”

Jane began to use his skills as an artist to make simple ink and pencil
copies of the pictures he was shown. The copies were crude and amorphous,
literal reflections of the scans. But in the eight years since the virus struck,
Jane has made a remarkable recovery—and it’s all there in his work. His
drawings of tissue have given way to paintings that depict images of the mind
and then to full-scale exhibitions. Visceral and urgent, Jane’s images are an
amalgam of abstract style and biography, combined in ways which he could never
have imagined before his illness. And his originality is attracting attention:
the canvases have fired the enthusiasm of critics and collectors.

Jane’s growth as an artist has coincided with a burgeoning ability to face
hard truths. “I’ve been using a computer lately to manipulate some recent
scans,” he says. “It’s been depressing, seeing so clearly how much brain I’m
missing.”

The herpes infection left Jane inhabiting a very strange world. Just how
strange can be gleaned from the fact that he had to relearn many things from
scratch, such as the names of different parts of the body. His regained mastery
of speech is something he can largely credit to his son, Frank, who was born in
1991. The child’s appetite for bedtime stories gave Jane a perfect
reintroduction to words. Reading to his son, he acquired the language by easy
stages, as a child might.

Jane’s recovery is not total. Names still elude him, and reading is difficult
and slow. “Even manipulating images on a computer is taking me ages,” he laughs.
“I can’t follow the bloody menus.” Nevertheless, it is staggering how much he
has relearnt—and how he relearnt it. His damaged brain’s appetite for
learning continues to amaze him. “I remember I wanted to learn English,” he
says, “but what I ended up with at first was something completely different. The
spellings were all wrong, but they had this weird internal consistency. It was
as though my brain knew better than I did how to learn. It was rewiring itself
into a shape that suited itself. Me, I was just along for the ride.”

That sense of alienation—of surfing a healing wave over which he has no
control—has never entirely gone away. “I feel I have a relationship with
what’s inside of me,” he says. “Obviously I can’t actually separate `it’ from
`me’, but there is some sort of dialogue there.” Jane has learnt to harness that
dialogue in his work. “The distance I feel between my self and the brain I see
in the scans—I try to turn that into the distance that an artist has to
their subject,” he says.

Over the past eight years he has continued to succeed at his task. As he got
better, the images from which he works—the scans
themselves—underwent remarkable technical improvement. Unlike the earliest
images of his brain, MRI today generates high-resolution colour pictures. These
advances have helped to fuel Jane’s imagination. “Over time, my paintings get
less and less like illustrations,” he explains. “These days you won’t find
literal correspondences between the paintings and the scans. On the other hand,
thanks to those scans, my understanding of what happened, and what each part of
the brain does, gets more and more precise.”

In 1994, Jane began to add solidity and texture to his works by painting in
wax. For a long time he has wanted to get rid of the signatures in his
work—the array of distinct brush strokes. “You don’t necessarily want to
put your emotion into every stroke,” he says. “The emotion belongs to the piece
as a whole.”

He has found a way to “draw with heat”, often burning holes in a painting
with a blowtorch. By putting several such sheets together, Jane mimics the
effect of looking at the scanned slices of his brain. Behind one layer of tissue
lies another. He turns the canvases as he works, forcing the wax to run in all
directions, creating images that echo the destruction of his own brain. “Looking
at the scans,” he says, “it’s clear my disease wasn’t very interested in
gravity. It moved freely in three dimensions. The damaged shape has a weightless
quality.”

In cultural terms, Jane sees his brand of portraiture, with its scientific
foundations, as a completely natural part of a continuing tradition. “I don’t
think there’s a clear distinction between art and science,” he says. “They
change at the same time.” This progressive partnership has been in evidence
since at least the 16th century, he says. He speaks with authority, although it
is a curious consequence of his condition that he cannot give the names of the
artists who would prove his point. Those memories are no longer there.

But he remains undeterred. His latest venture is also his most ambitious: a
collaborative exhibition with his neurologist, Michael Kopelman of St Thomas’
Hospital in London. Kopelman, together with Alan Colchester’s image-processing
team at the University of Kent in Canterbury, has taken a new series of scans of
Jane’s brain and created three-dimensional images of it. Jane intends to enlarge
these pictures to about 2 metres square and then work wax, pigment oil, charcoal
and other materials into the images to enhance their 3D appearance. Then he will
overlay pages of text taken from reports by doctors, critics and scientific
commentators, so the pictures become a palimpsest of experience and
interpretation.

“We can meld science and art together,” says Jane. “And we’ll do that not to
obscure what’s going on, or prettify it, but to make it clear. Dr Kopelman and I
want to open the doors of understanding into the scientific interpretation and
artistic vision of brain scan images, so that people can see them as things of
beauty as well as knowledge.”

For many critics, however, Jane’s work far exceeds these stated ambitions.
“When you look at David Jane’s work,” says Denna Jones, curator at the
London-based Wellcome Centre for Medical Science, “your reactions aren’t
anything to do with disease. It’s not even to do with that interest in
body-mapping you see so much of these days. It’s simply a continuation of
self-portraiture—part of a tradition five centuries old.” If the
18th-century painter William Hogarth had had access to the technology Jane uses,
“he’d probably have done the same thing”, says Jones.

Jane doesn’t disagree. “I was always considered an abstract artist and I
never felt happy with that,” he reflects. “I certainly can’t be called
`abstract’ now, at any rate. You can’t get more visceral than to paint your own
brain.”