Archive for the ‘dreams’ Category

Light and lighthouses

June 3, 2019

I recently had the idea that I should improve my university web pages. The most important thing was to give a new presentation of my research. At the same time I had the idea that the picture of me on the main page was not very appropriate for attracting people’s attention and I decided to replace it with a different one. Now I have a picture of me in front of the lighthouse ‘Les Éclaireurs’ in the Beagle Channel, taken by my wife. I always felt a special attachment to lighthouses. This was related to the fact that as a child I very much liked the adventure of visiting uninhabited or sparsely inhabited small islands and these islands usually had lighthouses on them. This was in particular true in the case of Auskerry, an island which I visited during several summers to ring birds, especially storm petrels. I wrote some more about this in my very first post on this blog. For me the lighthouse is a symbol of adventure and of things which are far away and not so easy to reach. In this sense it is an appropriate symbol for how I feel about research. There too the goals are far away and hard to reach. In this context I am reminded of a text of Marcel Proust which is quoted by Mikhail Gromov in the preface to his book ‘Metric structures for Riemannian and non-Riemannian spaces’:

‘Même ceux qui furent favorables à ma perception des vérités que je voulais ensuite graver dans le temple, me félicitèrent de les avoir découvertes au microscope, quand je m’étais au contraire servi d’un télescope pour apercevoir des choses, très petites en effet, mais parce qu’elles étaient situées à une grande distance, et qui étaient chacune un monde’

[Even those who were favourable to my perception of the truths which I wanted to engrave in the temple, congratulated me on having discovered them with a microscope, when on the contrary I used a telescope to perceive things, in fact very small, but because they were situated at a great distance, and each of which was a world in itself.]

I feel absolutely in harmony with that text. Returning to lighthouses, I think they are also embedded in my unconscious. Years ago, I was fascinated by lucid dreams. A lucid dream usually includes a key moment, where lucidity begins, i.e. where the dreamer becomes conscious of being in a dream. In one example I experienced this moment was brought about by the fact of simultaneously seeing three lighthouses, those of Copinsay, Auskerry and the Brough of Birsay. Since I knew that in reality it is impossible to see all three at the same time this made it clear to me that I must be dreaming.

The function of a lighthouse is to use light to convey information and to allow people (seafarers) to recognise things which are important for them. Thus a lighthouse is a natural symbol for such concepts as truth, reason, reliability, learning and science. These concepts are of course also associated with the idea of light itself, that which allows us to see things. These are the elements which characterize the phase of history called the enlightenment. Sometimes I fear that we are now entering a phase which is just the opposite of that. Perhaps it could be called the age of obscurity. It is characterized by an increasing amount of lies, deceit, ignorance and superstition. Science continues its progress but sometimes it seems to me like a thin ray among gathering darkness. A future historian might describe the arch leading from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century. I recently watched a video of the Commencement speech of Angela Merkel in Harvard. In a way many of the things she said were commonplaces, nothing new, but listening to her speech and seeing the reactions of the audience it became clear to me that it is important these days to repeat these simple truths. Those of us who have not forgotten them should propagate them. And with some luck, the age of obscurity may yet be averted.


Lucid dreams

March 22, 2009

A lucid dream is one in which the dreamer is conscious that he or she is dreaming. The name arose by translation from the French ‘rêve lucide’, a concept which was introduced by Léon d’Hervey de Saint-Denys. When I was a student I was very interested in dreams and I came across the idea of lucid dreams in a book by Celia Green. I would not recommend that book since it contains too much parapsychology for my taste. In 1992 I spent a term as assistant professor at Syracuse University and I enjoyed exploring the university library. There I found a scientific book on lucid dreaming by Stephen LaBerge. There it is described how this phenomenon has been studied under controlled conditions. A technique available in that context is monitoring the movement of the eyes. A correlation was discovered between the actual movements of the eyes of a dreaming person and the visual impressions they see. After a subject had reported dreaming about watching a game of ping-pong it was noticed that during this time the dreamer’s eyes had shown regular side to side motions. This opened up a possibility of the dreamer to signal to the outside world. It could be agreed that under certain circumstances (for instance when a lucid period began) they would give a signal by consciously moving their eyes in a certain regular way. This could then be recognized on the trace of the machine recording the eye movements. At that time I spent a lot of time concentrating on my dream life and managed to have a number of lucid dreams. Now I have had none for a long time, which is probably due to lack of attention.

During my stay in Bures sur Yvette in 1994-95 I was a frequent visitor in the library of the Centre Pompidou. I was happy to find a copy of the book ‘Les rêves et les moyens de les diriger’ (dreams and ways to direct them) by d’Hervey de Saint-Denys. I knew his name from my previous reading on dreams. d’Hervey de Saint-Denys studied his own dreams intensively starting at a young age. In 1855 the ‘Académie des Sciences morales et politiques’ in Paris had a prize competition on the subject of sleep and dreams. He did not take part but his dissatisfaction with the essays submitted led him to write a book criticizing them and explaining his own ideas. Later the book was reprinted and I was able to buy a copy. It is available from d’Hervey de Saint-Denys was a well-known sinologist in his day and I find it remarkable how few traces he left. (I now learned from Wikipedia that his translations of Chinese poems were the source of the texts of the songs in ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ by Mahler. I also discovered that he is mentioned in Proust’s ‘Sodome et Gomorrhe’, in connection with China rather than dreams.) It is no doubt typical that it is very difficult to get information about any individual from a hundred or more years ago apart from a rather small number of exceptions. With the computer age it will presumably happen that, concerning individuals, the time we can see into the past will increase steadily.