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In order to understand how our minds work it is necessary to understand why we have dreams, why humour works, how it is that music affects us and what the basis of effective hypnosis is. These are litmus tests for a theory of mind. These are aspects of the mind not currently well understood. A theory of how thought works should shed some light on them.

The suggestions I put forward in this article may be a step towards explaining these aspects of thought. The suggestions seem to be pointing towards a common basis of what initially appear to be distinct and anomalous aspects of thought. Finally, at the end of this page there are link(s) to other discussions of thought.

Four Tests

There are four aspects of thought which I find particularly puzzling:

  1. Dreams Why do we have them? What function could they possibly serve?

  2. Humour Why do we laugh at some things? What good does it do us?

  3. Music Is there a survival advantage in music influencing our moods?

  4. Hypnosis Does anyone understand it? What is it for?

The 'easy' solution in explaining each of them is to dismiss each as serving 'no useful function whatsoever':

"They are mere artefacts of a complex system and not an integral and essential part. We don't need to put them under the spotlight because they will be understood later 'once the more central aspects of thought have been tackled'"

My own feelings pull me in the opposite direction. I think they are important and quite extraordinary aspects of the mind. I see the four problems as test cases. If one has a theory of the mind, and it does not explain these, then something vital is missing. Moreover I feel that:

"If one has an explanation for dreams, humour, music, hypnosis one may be that bit closer to understanding the mind."
I am interested in ascertaining the function of these aspects of thought. At the moment, as I see it, no one is sure what benefit these aspects of thought have and it is vastly more difficult to work out how a mechanism works if one does not know what it does.

TopDown To Humour


Recurring nightmares suggest one role for dreams. They are in some way connected with recovery from traumatic events. Let me elaborate this before moving on to normal dreams which have less of an emotional charge.

It is a fact that traumatic events take time to recover from, sometimes years. A violent car crash can leave a person with a fear of getting into a car, or a more general fear of any enclosed space. This has a strong adaptive advantage.

Fears and phobias lead to avoidance of related situations. The reaction away may seem 'over the top' to someone who has not experienced phobias and has never had nightmares, however it makes survival sense. It's a very broad protective defence mechanism. Of course it is also constraining. The ideal is to clearly and with total accuracy identify the dangers of a past situation and how to avoid them in future - and to know it at a deep emotional level so that it is almost instinctive. In the hypothetical car crash example this resolution could lead to:

  • Never again travelling in a car driven by someone who has been drinking, or
  • Not travelling in cars which look rusty and make rattling noises.
Until the actual source of danger is identified it makes sense to be overprotective.

Nightmares may seem like devices designed to increase one's fear of certain situations, however I claim they are for the reverse effect. They are there to help explore the situation, to sort the fear into its components. These dreams help us to focus the fear so that it applies to the correct situations and not others.

As with all dreams, there can be a level of symbolic representation, spiders-webs substituting for rust, a jolly red cheeked Father Christmas for a drunkard - they will be symbols that the subconscious can work with even if they don't 'make sense' to the awake conscious mind.

There are other causes for nightmares. Difficulty in breathing whilst asleep can lead to nightmares of suffocation. In that case the nightmare does not correspond to a past fear being processed. Similarly events around one when asleep, such as noises, can and do get worked into a normal dream, so my statements about the role of non-nightmarish dreams which follow aren't intended as being hard and fast applying to every dream.

The description of nightmares suggests a role for other dreams with complex emotions. The role is one of 'preparing for the future'. The (emotional) reactions to a situation are subtly modified by having the dream.

In other cultures this idea would get taken further, for many cultures believe in prophetic dreams. I don't absolutely rule out the possibility of precognition in dreams, though when it happens I might well try to explain it in terms of past experience.

It's harder to pin down what dreams which do not have a strong 'mood' to them are for. Often they seem to have a kind of 'free wheeling' quality to them. It's a different state of mind, but what does it accomplish that we can't achieve in a normal waking state?

The normal waking mind filters experience. If something we see doesn't fit what we are looking for we have a strong tendency to change our perception of it to make it fit, or to ignore it.

In dreams we care much less about incongruities and things that 'don't make sense'. It is a different mental state that has some advantages. It doesn't censor in the same way. It allows us to look again at things we might have ignored with our mental blinkers on. It's not just external 'things' it allows us to look at, it also allows some internal process to be visible, some of the assumptions and connections we make. In dreams, by looking at strong connections which we make when free-wheeling we can come to change those connections.

Whilst this description is general I have three specific dream examples:
  • In one dream I turned and faced a Tyrannosaurus Rex that was chasing me. I know this dream was really important to me concerning how I do or don't face into fear.
  • Another dream was essentially one of reassurance. On the surface it was about meeting an alien. The emotional resolution I got from it was that I may not succeed at something I feel to be important, but that's only one viewpoint, and possibly not the right one. It wasn't the alien's.
  • A series of dreams has been on the surface about 'algorithms', shared libraries, memory allocation, hackers, new and old machines. These haven't seemed to have strong emotions with them, but I somehow know these dreams were helping me use my knowledge of algorithms in new ways and that this is of value to me.
Not all dreams have powerful outcomes, but I think most dreams are working with connections and changing them.

At a more hum drum level, the fact that dreams 'are' visual hallucinations suggests they also tie in with refining how we look at things, where we look, what we expect to see, a tidying up of our internal programs of expectations.

TopDown To Music


So why do we laugh?

Laughter interrupts breathing. In a joke we hear a story, then at the punchline, we see it in a new light. A good joke teller gets us really involved in the story, working hard to guess what comes next. Even then it comes as a surprise.

Jokes work best when they tie in to things that are important to us.

I  see thought as a process of following 'links' between associated ideas. I see laughter as a physical mechanism for breaking connections when the connections are very strong. Certainly the interrupted breathing of laughter has an effect on thought. It creates a distracting pattern in the mind.

In much comedy we laugh at other people's pain. Perhaps we feel it too keenly in ourselves, and laughing is a part of reminding ourselves that it is not happening for real, and it is not happening to us. Laughter helps us break a link that is too strong.

Sheer joy can lead to laughter too. Joy brings huge quantities of emotional energy with it. All links in action get supercharged. In that context laughter is a way to discharge some of the excess, for one doesn't actually want to use the energy to do something, to change the situation.

Children tend to find 'puns' funny, and even laugh at them, whereas adults more often smile wryly. The laughter helps to break an un-useful connection. It's a part of acquiring language.

We are more likely to laugh when we are nervous, when things are new to us, when we are least sure of our ground. When we have 'been there before', the connections have been more combed out. A joke is funniest the first time round.

TopDown To Hypnosis


The problem with music is why bother? Why should it have an emotional effect at all?

Patterns and Movement

Language has complex recursive patterns in it related in many ways to movement patterns. In language and movement we have two systems that are sensitive to and which 'appreciate' recursive structures.

Music has complex recursive patterns in it too. Emotions also have complex patterns and flows.

I see the mind's ability to handle different kinds of recursive pattern as ultimately arising from a fluency with movement patterns.

Structure in Emotions

I argue first for a shift in perspective of what emotions really are. Emotions are not static things.

Every emotion has a purpose.

The effect of some of the most basic emotions is to set the body in the right state for action. Emotions should not be seen as something abstract and ethereal - in many cases emotions are closely related to physical functions.

I fully expect that in time emotional patterns will be recognised as having a basis in varying movement patterns - including the rhythms of breathing, the heartbeat, the rhythms of running.

I see emotions as complex and structured. As important as the 'states' such as apprehension - fear - relief, are the transitions between them. There is micro structure in emotions too. When I'm running I feel a different emotion as my foot is about to land from the emotion I feel as I push off.

Common Patterns

When music affects mood I believe there is a crossing over of information patterns from the realms of sound to the realms of emotion. My claim is that there is similar structure in music and in emotion which makes this possible. Both kinds of pattern are derived from movement patterns. My belief is that the skilled composer intuitively uses those patterns.


Perhaps the notion that music patterns cause a resonance with movement patterns and emotional patterns is too vague? Well, it can be tightened up somewhat by looking at how music is used traditionally.

A lot of traditional music is for dancing to, for moving to. When one moves with the rhythms of the music, the movement brings emotion with it, excitement, calm - depending on the tempo of music and movement. Few would dispute that rapid movement goes with excitement and slow graceful movement with calm. Few would find that link between movement and emotion a particularly extraordinary or puzzling one. It isn't much of a jump to claim that the music captures the tempo of the movement and so also has the potential to affect mood. The reason music can have more subtle effects as well is that emotion like music and movement has both large scale qualities and fine structures too.

Medium vs Pattern

As I see it, a difficulty in explaining why music affects mood is that we are misled by the medium. We expect an explanation to depend absolutely on the auditory nature of music. We focus on the sound rather than the pattern. From my perspective there is a real possibility of 'visual music' where patterns of changing shape and colour affect our mood. Underneath though, the emotional power would come from the link with patterns of movement. If patterns of various kinds have the power to affect mood, it is less of a strange thing that music can.

Music has a useful function

Besides making a plausible connection between music and emotion, I find it also necessary to argue that a link between emotion and music is advantageous rather than just an accident. This is required if one holds, as I do, that the mechanism by which music affects mood has been 'noticed' and further refined by evolution.

In Jiri Kilian's 'Return to the Stamping Ground' we see how each Australian tribe has a different rhythm for stamping, for dancing, which helps maintain the tribe as one cohesive unit. A musical sense, a link between emotion and music and movement becomes a positive asset, for it actively helps communication and cohesion within the tribe. People who share emotional patterns through music can act as one.

Music has come to be part of our tribal identity. It is one way we define who we relate to and who we do not. Its effect on emotion has its roots in movement and the rhythms of our heart and our breathing.

TopDown To Common Basis


Hypnosis is a puzzle. It seems a weird anomalous thing with no connection to everyday life. It also seems counter-survival to have a mechanism that apparently allows someone else to control your mind.

My view of hypnosis rests on taking a reversed view and claiming that we actually need and have very active mechanisms that protect us from internalising other people's commands to us. We need to clearly distinguish ideas flying around our head that are 'our own intentions' and those that come 'from outside'.

A better understanding of hypnosis should lead to a better understanding of these mechanisms. They are tied up with personal identity and the other filters we maintain on our perceptions.

In essence, a hypnotist asks a client to let down the defences. Relaxation methods help a client feel safe in doing this. 'Surprise' methods and 'embedded command' methods attempt to use tricks to evade the normal decision process. Part of the trick is that 'Rapport' established between the client and the hypnotist has the effect of making the client's filters mis-identify the commands as if they were his own.

I  can document the above in a lot more detail . This amounts to describing how techniques can evade defences and illustrates limitations in the filter(s).

A second side to understanding hypnosis is understanding what changes occur when you are in a hypnotic trance.

Under hypnosis people are more creative, can be less inhibited, can remember things more easily and also fabricate more readily. Self limiting beliefs may be reduced. These 'extra abilities' are all consistent with changes in self censorship.

If the filter idea is right, there still remain questions about why the filters aren't better. Is there an advantage in having a filter which is imperfect? Is there a useful role in some forms of hypnosis in everyday life?

Possibly there is. There could be an advantage where people must work together under a leader, or where more experienced people (parents) are giving urgent instructions to their children.

The utility more generally of altered states of mind, trance states, where accepting someone-else's suggestions is not the central issue, is also worth consideration. To say there is 'trance state' and 'non-trance state' is a bit misleading, for really we are talking about different filters. We use different filters when we choose to pay attention to a particular sense, the body, an emotion, some music, a daydream or to put our focus into looking at a particular problem. Each of these states could be said to be a different state of mind.

Finally, it is worth noting that modern hypnotists do not see hypnosis as something anomalous. They see trance states as part of a spectrum of conscious states. Recognition that trance states happen in everyday consciousness makes the fact that hypnosis exists at all less of a puzzle.

TopDown To Links


I used to see Dreams, Humour, Music, Hypnosis as separate phenomena, each needing it's own independent explanation. My current view makes them much more closely allied, and is worth spelling out:
  • The mind uses links or 'associations between ideas', A leads to B leads to C; Sequences of these associations can be strung together to build recursive structures; Movement Sequences are a fundamental example of this.
  • The mind has 'filters' that determine how much attention is paid to information of particular types. The 'filters' determine how far and where information can travel to.
With this viewpoint:
  • In dreams the 'makes sense' filters are less active. Information that 'doesn't make sense' can travel further. Apparently incongruous patterns of associations can string together into stories much more readily.
  • In hypnosis a 'protective' filter that prevents external commands being internalised is less active. Commands to behave in particular ways link up with the ideas necessary for putting them into action much more readily.
  • In letting oneself 'go with the music', a filter that prevents patterns of sounds crossing over into emotional realms is voluntarily relaxed.
  • In humour, some filter recognises that a link or association that is being used is inappropriate or stronger than it should be. Laughter provides a very powerful interfering pattern to change that link.
I am very aware that the 'devil is in the detail'. The above is at best an alternative description of dreams, hypnosis, music, humour. A mechanistic explanation would need to explain in quite some detail how the filters themselves work and what shapes them, what associations are and how they are formed.

A Common Function?

A second common trend also comes out of the discussion. For me it was totally unexpected.

Two of the arguments, the ones describing music and the one describing hypnosis, in part rest on suggesting that there is a utility in mental mechanisms that help people act together as one. In this light the role of laughter in communicating changes in how one thinks becomes important. The fact that laughter is not a silent inner process, becomes very relevant. This leaves only 'dreams' out in the cold, for in our society we tend not to share dreams as a way of communicating our deepest least understood thoughts with each other.

© James Crook, June 1998.



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"Thought" page last updated 5-July-2003