The Mechanism of Dreams
First Published 1898
First, then, as to the physical part of the mechanism. We have in our bodies a great central
axis of nervous matter, ending in the brain, and from this a network of nerve-threads radiates in every direction through the body. It is these
nerve-threads, according to modern scientific theory, which by their vibrations convey all impressions from without to the brain, and the latter, upon receipts of these impressions, translates them into sensations or perceptions; so that if I put my hand upon some object and find it to be hot, it is really not my hand that feels, but my brain, which is acting upon information transmitted to it by the vibrations running along its telegraph wires, the nerve-threads.
It is important also to bear in mind that all the nerve-threads of the body are the same in constitution, and that the special bundle of them that we call the optic nerve — which conveys to the brain impressions made upon the retina of the eye,
and so enables us to see — differs from the nerve-threads of the hand or foot only in the fact that through long ages of evolution it has been specialized to receive and transmit most readily one particular small set of rapid vibrations
which thus become visible to us as light.
The same remark holds good with reference to our other sense organs; the auditory, the olfactory, or the gustatory nerves differ from one another and from the rest only in this specialization: they are essentially the same, and they all do their respective work in exactly the same manner, by the transmission of vibrations to the brain.
Now this brain of ours, which is thus the great centre of our nervous system, is very readily affected by slight variations in our general health, and most especially by any which involve a change in the circulation of the blood through it. When
the flow of blood through the vessels of the head is normal and regular, the brain (and, therefore, the whole nervous system) is at liberty to function in an orderly and efficient manner; but any alteration in this normal circulation, either as to quantity, quality, or speed, immediately produces a corresponding effect on the brain, and through it on the nerves throughout the body.
If, for example, too much blood is supplied to the brain, congestion of the vessels takes place, and irregularity in its action is at once produced; if too little, the brain (and, therefore, the nervous system) becomes first irritable and then lethargic.
The quality of the blood supplied is also of great importance. As it courses through the body it has two principal functions to perform — to supply
oxygen and to provide nutrition to the different organs of the body; and if it be unable adequately to fulfill either of these functions, a certain
disorganization will follow.
If the supply of oxygen to the brain be deficient, it becomes overcharged with carbon dioxide,
and heaviness and lethargy very shortly supervene.
A common example of this is the feeling of dullness and sleepiness which frequently overtakes one in a
crowded and ill-ventilated room; owing to the exhaustion of the oxygen in the room by the continued respiration of so large a number of people, the brain does not receive its due modicum, and therefore is unable to do its work properly.
Again, the speed with which the blood flows through the vessels affects the action of the
brain; if it be too great, it produces fever; if too slow, then again lethargy is caused.
It is obvious, therefore, that our brain (through which, be it remembered, all physical impressions must pass) may very easily be disturbed and
more or less hindered in the due performance of its functions by causes apparently trivial — causes to which we should probably often pay no attention
whatever even during waking hours — of which we should almost certainly be entirely ignorant during sleep.
Before we pass on, one other peculiarity of this physical mechanism must be noted, and that is
its remarkable tendency to repeat automatically vibrations to which it is accustomed to respond. It is to this property of the brain that are to be
attributed all those bodily habits and tricks of manner which are entirely independent of the will, and are often so difficult to conquer; and, as will
presently be seen, it plays an even more important part during sleep than it does in our waking life.
It is not alone through the brain to which we have hitherto been referring, however, that impressions may be received by the man. Almost exactly
co-extensive with and interpenetrating its visible form is his etheric double (formerly called in theosophical literature the linga sharira), and that also has a brain which is really no less physical than the other, though composed of matter in a condition finer than the gaseous.
If we examine with psychic faculty the body of a newly-born child, we shall find it permeated
not only by astral matter of every degree of density, but also by the different grades of etheric matter; and if we take the trouble to trace these inner bodies backwards to their origin, we find that it is of the latter that the etheric double — the mould upon which the physical body is built up — is formed by the agents of the Lords of karma; while the astral matter has been gathered together
by the descending ego — not of course consciously, but automatically — as he passed through the astral plane, and is, in fact, merely the development in that plane of tendencies whose seeds have been lying dormant in him during his
experiences in the heaven-world, because on that level it was impossible that they could germinate for want of the grade of matter necessary for their
Now this etheric double has often been called the vehicle of the human life-ether or vital force (called in Sanskrit prana), and anyone who has developed the psychic faculties can see exactly how this is so.
He will see the solar life-principle
almost colourless, though intensely luminous and active, which is constantly poured into the earth's atmosphere by the sun; he will see how the etheric part of his spleen in the exercise of its wonderful function absorbs this universal life, and specializes it into prana, so that it may be more readily assimilable by his body; how it then courses all over that body, running along every
nerve-thread in tiny globules of lovely rosy light, causing the glow of life and health and activity to penetrate every atom of the etheric double; and how, when the rose-coloured particles have been absorbed, the superfluous life-ether finally radiates from the body in every direction as bluish white light.
If he examines further into the action of this life-ether, he will soon see reason to believe that the transmission of impression to the brain depends rather upon its regular flow along the etheric portion of the nerve-threads than upon the mere vibration of the particles of their denser and visible portion, as is commonly supposed.
It would take too much of our space to detail all the experiments by which this theory is established, but the indication of one or two of the simplest will
suffice to show the lines upon which they run.
When a finger becomes entirely numbed with cold, it is incapable of feeling; and the same
phenomenon of insensibility may readily be produced at will by a mesmerizer, who by a few passes over the arm of his subject will bring it into a condition in which it may be pricked with a needle or burnt by the flame of a candle without
the slightest sensation of pain being experienced.
Now why does the subject feel nothing in either of these two cases? The nerve-threads are still there, and though in the first case it might be contended that their action was paralyzed by cold and by the absence of blood from the vessels, this certainly cannot be the reason in the second case, where the arm retains its normal temperature and
the blood circulates as usual.
If we call in the aid of the clairvoyant, we shall be able to get somewhat nearer to a real explanation, for he will tell us that the reason why the frozen finger seems dead, and the blood is unable to circulate through its vessels, is because the
rosy life-ether is no longer coursing along the nerve-threads; for we must remember that though matter in the etheric condition is invisible to ordinary sight, it is still purely physical, and, therefore, can be affected by the action of cold or heat.
In the second case he will tell us that when the mesmerizer makes the passes by which he
renders the subject's arm insensible, what he really does is to pour his own nerve-ether (or magnetism, as it is often called) into the arm, thereby driving
back for the time that of the subject.
The arm is still warm and living, because there is still life-ether coursing through it, but since it is no longer the subject's own specialized life-ether, and is therefore not en rapport with his brain, it conveys no information to that brain, and consequently there is no sense of feeling in the arm. From this it seems evident that though it is not
absolutely the life-ether itself which does the work of conveying impressions from without to a man's brain, its presence as specialized by the man himself is certainly necessary for their due transmission along the nerve-threads.
Now just as any change in the circulation of the blood affects the receptivity of the denser
brain-matter, and thus modifies the reliability of the impressions derived through it, so the condition of the etheric portion of the brain is affected by
any change in the volume or the velocity of these life-currents.
For example, when the quantity of nerve-ether specialized by the spleen falls for any reason
below the average, physical weakness and weariness are immediately felt, and if, under these circumstances, it also happens that the speed of its circulation is increased, the man becomes supersensitive, highly irritable, nervous, and
perhaps even hysterical, while in such a condition he is often more sensitive to physical impressions than he would normally be, and so it often occurs that a person suffering from ill-health sees visions or apparitions which are imperceptible to his more robust neighbour. If, on the other hand, the volume
and velocity of the life-ether are both reduced at the same time, the man experiences intense languor, becomes less sensitive to outside influences, and has a general feeling of being too weak to care much about what happens to him.
It must be remembered also that the etheric matter of which we have spoken and the denser
matter ordinarily recognized as belonging to the brain are really both parts of one and the same physical organism, and that, therefore, neither can be affected without instantly producing some reaction on the other.
Consequently there can be no certainty that impressions will be correctly transmitted through this mechanism unless both portions of it are functioning quite normally; any irregularity in either part may very readily so dull or disturb its receptivity as to produce blurred or distorted images of whatever is presented to it.
Furthermore, as will presently be explained, it is infinitely more liable to such aberrations during
Still another mechanism that we have to take into account is the astral body, often called the desire-body. As its name implies, this vehicle is composed
exclusively of astral matter, and is, in fact, the expression of the man on the astral plane, just as his physical body is the expression of him on the lower levels of the physical plane.
Indeed, it will save the theosophical student much trouble if he will learn to regard these different vehicles simply as the actual manifestation of the ego on their respective planes — if he understands, for example, that it is the causal body
(sometimes called the auric egg) which is the real vehicle of the reincarnating ego, and is inhabited by him as long as he remains upon the plane which is his true home, the higher levels of the mental world: but that when he descends into the lower levels he must, in order to be able to function upon them, clothe himself in their matter, and that the matter which he thus attracts to himself furnishes his mind-body. Similarly, descending into the astral plane, he forms his astral or desire-body out of its matter, though, of course, still retaining
all the other bodies; and on his still further descent to this lowest plane of all, the physical body is formed in the midst of the auric egg, which thus
contains the entire man.
This astral vehicle is even more sensitive to external impressions than the gross and etheric bodies, for it is itself the seat of all desires and emotions — the connecting link through which alone the ego can collect experiences from
physical life. It is peculiarly susceptible to the influence of passing thought-currents, and when the mind is not actively controlling it, it is
perpetually receiving these stimuli from without, and eagerly responding to them.
This mechanism also, like the others, is more readily influenced during the sleep of the
physical body. That this is so is shown by many observations, a fair example of them being a case recently reported to the writer, in which a man who had been a drunkard was describing the difficulties in the way of his reformation.
He declared that after a long period of total abstinence he had succeeded in entirely destroying the physical desire for alcohol, so that in his waking condition he felt an absolute repulsion for it; yet he stated that he still frequently dreamed that he was drinking, and in that dream state he felt the old horrible pleasure in such degradation.
Apparently, therefore, during the day his desire was kept under control by the will, and casual thought-forms or passing elementals were unable to make any impression upon it; but when the astral body was liberated in sleep it escaped to some extent from the domination of the ego, and its extreme natural susceptibility so far reasserted itself that it again responded readily to these baneful influences, and imagined itself experiencing once more the disgraceful delights
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