Neurobiology of Dreams and Revelation


The Muslim Times has the best collection of articles for Religion & Science

Source: Muslim Sunrise Winter 2018 Volume.

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

In, “Ancient Greece and ancient Rome — people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then, OK? People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity ‘daemons.’ Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar.” Says Elizabeth Gilbert in her famous Ted talk, Your elusive creative genius, “The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.” [1]

So, are our best intuitions our very own or a gift from the All Knowing God?

While, I leave you pondering about this question, let me talk about our physical world and what the holy Quran has to say about this, for example, let us say, the flight of the birds. In Surah Nahl we read: “Do they not see the birds held under subjection in the vault of heaven? None keeps them afloat save Allah. Indeed, in that are Signs for a people who believe.” [2] When the modern humans think about birds, they think of physical laws of physics and aerodynamics and generally don’t pause to attribute every flight of birds to the First Cause, the All Knowing and All Powerful God of the Abrahamic faiths. In other words, we need to make a distinction and be mindful of style of our modern communication and style of the scriptures, whether the holy Quran or the holy Bible. By substituting one for the other, the mundane processes for the Divine source, we sometimes confuse the discussion. At one level every event on our planet earth, whether a flight of a bird, a wave in the ocean, a gentle breeze, a thought, a romantic emotion, an epic making intuition, a true dream, a wonderful prophetic revelation while awake, have physical explanation in the natural laws and at another level have a detailed theological explanation behind the natural that meets the eyes.

True dreams of every human being and the revelations of the saints and the prophets of God have a Divine source, but they share the neurobiology of sleep of every mammal, be they chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, horses, cats, dogs and mice. It is not a blasphemy, only a discussion of biology of the mammals, some 5416 kinds and counting. [3]

A rare sleep disorder, namely narcolepsy, has given us a detailed understanding of not only the neurobiology of sleep and dreaming, but also for revelation while awake.

Joyce was still a child when she knew that something was wrong. Growing up in Rhode Island should have been idyllic, except that something was not quite right. At the age of four she would see the clothes moving in the closet. It seemed that every night she would be screaming for her parents to come and get the monster hidden in the hangers. The only thing worse than that was the monster under her bed. That one would keep her awake by tickling her feet. Even in the summer heat, it was only by covering feet with blankets that the tickle monster could be held at bay. Her parents would turn on the lights, shake out the clothes, and check under the bed.

“Go back to sleep,” they would tell her. “You’re having a nightmare.”

Even at a young age, she knew that it was something else. How could she be having a nightmare if she was still awake?

As Joyce got older, she found the closet monster replaced with colorful visions of dancing figures with fanciful faces and festive hats. The tickle monster has stayed for life. To read more about Joyce’s story please go to the reference. [4] But, the point I want to make here is that in narcolepsy, some of the features of the dreaming sleep, referred to as REM sleep, intrude into the waking hours and daytime revelations of the prophets are similar in biology, without some of the negative consequences seen in narcolepsy.

There is a commonly known Hadith that true dreams are 1/46th part of prophethood. So, at least in that sense every Muslim should believe that prophethood, at least a part of it, is continuing. The dreams we experience during our sleep are mostly during REM sleep, the full name being rapid eye movement sleep. The other type of sleep is NREM sleep or non REM sleep. Humans seem to have three states of existence, awake, REM sleep and NREM sleep. If we experience some of the dreaming physiology during awake state then it could be called revelation, if it be true and a message from All Knowing God, the Arabic word for the experience is ‘Ilhaam.’

Such an experience in a diseased state will be called visual hallucination, when it does not serve any useful purpose.

For the neurobiology of dreaming, one can go to any textbook of biology and I have presented a reader friendly version in a previous article: True Nature of Divine Revelations. [5]

Neurobiology of revelation while awake can be understood by reading about narcolepsy. I believe revelation, of course, does not have the accompanying pathological components of narcolepsy.

Is the source of the content of one’s dream or revelation only one’s subconscious mind or the All Knowing God, is not decided by biology. For the criterion to distinguish the two, I suggest a chapter, The Nature of Revelation, of a book by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IV (rh), Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth. [6]

Incidentally, Quantum physics allows for revelation from All Knowing God, without violating any laws of physics as we understand them. I have previously written and collected in the Muslim Times, articles about Quantum physics and theology. [7, 8, 9, 10, 11]

  2. The Holy Qur’an, (16:80)

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