In the Ask Brains Column of the Nov 2010 issue of the Scientific American Mind magazine, a reader asked the question, “How we can “see” in our dreams when our eyes are closed (since the retina is inactive)?“. The answer given over there was that these dream visions originate either in the visual centers within the brain or in the latent memories residing in the brain which in turn stimulate the visual cortex. You can read the question and the response over here. That answer is based on current model of the brain in neuroscience; it assumes that the brain is equivalent to the mind and that consciousness is the result of brain activity. In this post, we present the answer from the perspective of “yoga psychology”.
In the Yoga psychology model, there are supposed to be five sheaths of increasing lucidity which constitute the human consciousness. During dreams, the subtle body detaches from the physical body and sojourns into the corresponding vital and mental worlds, all the while relaying a transcription of the subtle world experience to the brain. It is this transcription which we denote as a “dream”. These are a couple of letters wherein the Mother Mirra Alfassa discusses the capricious manner in which this cerebral transcription occurs:
When you wake up it is a sort of interpretation of your dream which you remember. It is very rarely that one is conscious at the time the experience occurs and conscious of the experience as it really is. For that one must be very wakeful during the night, quite awake in one’s sleep. Usually this is not the case. There is one part of the being which has an experience; when that part of the being which had gone out of the body re-enters it, brings back the experience, the brain receives a contact with this experience, translates it by images, words, ideas, impressions, feelings, and when one wakes up one catches something of this, and with that makes a “dream”. But it is only a transcription of something that has happened – which has an analogy, a similarity, but which wasn’t exactly what one receives as a dream. 
The cerebral transcription of the activities of the night is sometimes warped to such an extent that phenomena are perceived as the opposite of what they really are. In our sleeping brain, the subtle vibrations of the suprasensible domain can affect only a very limited number of cells; the inertia of most of the organic supports of the cerebral phenomenon reduces the number of active elements, impoverishes the mental synthesis and makes it unfit to transcribe the activity of the internal states, except into images which are most often vague and inadequate.
The Mother also answered another question which often boggles us. Why is it that sometimes in our sleep, we desperately want to wake up but we can’t because the body seems to have become stiff ? In medical terms, this is called postdormital or hypnopompic REM sleep paralysis. This mystifying rigidity is experienced when the subtle body has not yet completely re-entered the physical body.
Question: Sometimes when one is asleep, he knows that he is asleep but he can’t open his eyes. Why?
Answer: This happens when one has gone out of his body…. Sometimes the eyes are a little open and one can also see things….And one can’t move! It means that only a fragment of the consciousness has come back… you must not shake yourself, because you risk losing a bit of yourself. You must remain quite still and concentrate slowly, slowly on your body….
The cerebral transcription of dreams improves when the links between the various sheaths are strengthened and the transition between sleep and waking consciousness becomes fluid. These were her suggestions for improving dream recall capability:
Someone who wishes to recover the memory of a forgotten dream should first of all focus his attention on the vague impressions which the dream may have left behind it and in this way follow its indistinct trace as far as possible. This regular exercise will enable him to go further every day towards the obscure retreat of the subconscient… and thus trace out an easily followed path between these two domains of consciousness. The absence of memories is very often due to the abruptness of the return to the waking consciousness. (The waking should not be too abrupt…. If possible, do not make any abrupt movements in bed at the time of waking.) Where there is no consciousness, there can be no memory. Consequently, … we must work to extend the participation of the consciousness to a greater number of activities in the sleeping state. 
- How do we “see” with our eyes closed when we are dreaming? Scientific American Mind, Nov 2010. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-do-we-see-with-our-eyes-closed (accessed Jan 21, 2010)
- Mother Mirra Alfassa. Collected Works of the Mother, vol 6, p 146
- Champaklal. Visions of Champaklal, pp 14-19.
- Sleep disorders : somnambulism and somniloquy
- Towards more conscious sleep and dreams
- The existence of vital signs during sleep or coma
- Sleep and Dreams
- The brain is not the mind as per Yoga psychology
- Embodied cognition in Yoga psychology
- Explaining out-of-body and near-death experiences
- All thoughts come from outside
- Constitution of Man
- Symbols seen during spiritual experiences