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Active Inference: Toward a Unified Model of Mind, Dreaming, and Waking Consciousness

By Anthony K. Shin

[This exploratory essay aims at connecting Horneyan theory with Tershakovec's SLP/PDP model of the mind and with J. Allan Hobson and Karl J. Friston's model of consciousness by active inference. It offers a three-dimensional, visuo-spatio-temporal model for understanding the relationship between primary, secondary, and tertiary awareness. Following this introduction, I discuss some reasons why it might be desirable to connect Horney, Tershakovec, Hobson, and Friston. - AKS]

Below is a working introduction to my essay:

“Anxiety, elation, and anger are three emotions that are so prominent in dreams as to further justify their status as instincts. We do not have to learn them. Although we can reduce their power over our behavior and understand their inappropriate associations with important aspects of our waking behavior, we cannot unlearn them and we cannot live without them. If Freud had recognized the instinctual nature of dream emotion he need not have been concerned by his inability to understand anxiety dreams (Freud, 2001). Because of their prominence in dreams, I propose that anxiety, elation, and anger be considered primary emotions that have positive survival value.”

  — J. Allan Hobson (2015), Psychodynamic Neurology: Dreams, Consciousness, and Virtual Reality

I. Introduction

The noted dream researcher J. Allan Hobson has called dreaming a form of primary consciousness, and observed that three emotions predominate over all others in dreaming consciousness: anxiety, elation, and anger. What purposes might be served by having just these three emotions dominate in dreaming, how can they be understood in relation to neurophysiology, and how might primary consciousness be connected with higher levels of consciousness? It is important to investigate these questions because connecting emotions with neurophysiology and the different levels of consciousness will help reconnect knowledge of how the mind works (from psychology) with knowledge of how the brain works (from neurobiology), and it will also help update and unify synchronic and diachronic theories in psychology. To investigate these questions, I will consider the relationship between the three basic emotions and the three-way branching of neurotic tendencies identified by Karen Horney (1945, 1950); the dual-system model of information processing in the brain-mind, found in Tershakovec (2007) and by Kahneman (2011); and the unified model of dreaming and waking consciousness by “active inference,” proposed by Friston and Hobson (2012, 2014).

In this paper, I link Karl J. Friston and J. Allan Hobson’s concept of "active inference," as the driver of dreaming and waking consciousness (2012, 2014), with Andrew N. Tershakovec's model of the mind (2007), from the perspective of information processing. Connecting active inference with Tershakovec's model of the mind addresses the problem of what emotions are fundamentally, which has intrinsic significance and is of special relevance to consciousness studies:

(T) The top-level question is, what are emotions? It is important to investigate this question because information processing gives us a tantalizingly simple answer, in terms of the generation and testing of hypotheses, but this account seems hamstrung by linearity. Hence we need to ask how a linear explanation can be expanded into the second and third dimension. This will enable us to see how intuitive emotions can be coupled with logical thoughts and to become aware of a third dimension of awareness.

To investigate what emotions are, I will start at the most basic level, where emotions consist in the three possibilities for processing unpredicted sensory input. The three options can be described as negation ("no, false"), affirmation ("yes, true"), and indeterminacy ("I don't know"). However, this elegant definition, expressed linearly, cannot itself provide a basis on which to assign a truth-value to any given hypothesis. To see how a closed system can be opened to the environment, we must step into the next higher dimension, where emotions determine how we react to different kinds of stimuli. The basic emotional responses can be characterized as compliance, fight, and flight. Once we recognize that this three-way branching enables us to transcend linearity in primary consciousness, we can easily see how another branching takes us into secondary consciousness. Then, by comparing the reports from primary and secondary consciousness and storing the results in memory, we can gain access to tertiary consciousness. This becomes possible when we keep track of how the composite picture has changed over time, make inferences about, and become aware of how variability over space (geography) and time (history) may account for otherwise irresolvable inconsistencies.

In order to see how hypotheses can be tested — i.e., corroborated or disconfirmed — we must look at how the third option of indeterminacy enables hypotheses generated within a closed system to be opened to the larger context and tested by comparison with sensory input. This explains how primary consciousness represents first dimension of awareness, and may be associated with parallel processing, while secondary consciousness arises as the second dimension of awareness, and may be associated with serial processing. Note, however, that the serial system cannot be separated from and is predicated upon the existence of input from the parallel system. Although primary and secondary consciousness cannot be reduced to parallel and serial processing, it should be kept in mind that secondary consciousness depends very heavily on receiving the report of the primary system. Without it, the secondary system may unwittingly fall into serious error. Finally, tertiary consciousness compares the reports from primary and secondary consciousness, projects a third, composite picture in its own plane of awareness. This enables us to generate and test inferences about and become aware of how that picture seems to have varied over time and space.

My overarching hypothesis is that the three most basic emotions enable consciousness to become open to and learn about the environment by interacting with it. I will break this question down into six others, each of which is intended to work toward providing a partial, heuristically useful view of the overall shape of primary, secondary, and tertiary consciousness.

The first three sub-questions are designed to give a sense of the vectors represented by emotions, show the essential role they play in enabling consciousness, as an invisible partner, and offer a visual model for understanding how they not only allow hybridization between primary and secondary consciousness, but also provide access to a third plane of cognition, which I call tertiary consciousness. Although I am aware that others such as Panksepp (2005) and Natsoulas (2013) have written about "tertiary consciousness" in their research, I am using this term in my own idiosyncratic way, having lived in perhaps blissful ignorance of their work up to now.

(U) What do the most basic dream emotions represent, from the perspective of information processing? (V) Why are there only three cardinal dream emotions? (W) How do emotions enable us to overcome the limitations implied in Gödel's incompleteness theorems?

To answer these first three questions, I will appeal to an analogy with complex numbers, depicted in three dimensions of space and one dimension of time. As I explain further below, we can think of the (t, x) plane, in which y = 0 as representing the voice of primary consciousness; the (t, y) plane, in which x = 0, as representing the voice of secondary consciousness; and the moving plane described by w = t as representing the voice of tertiary consciousness.

"Right-handed/clockwise circularly polarized light displayed ... without the use of components" (Wikipedia, caption provided for image in article on "Circular polarization," ellipsis added). This image can be considered to show the same function z = x + iy as shown above, with the x-axis pointing upward, the y-axis pointing leftward, and the t-axis pointing rightward. The vectors (arrows) may be considered to represent the reports of primary consciousness (the x-component), secondary consciousness (the y-component), and tertiary consciousness (the w = t-component).

After invoking this visuo-spatio-temporal analogy, I will turn to three further questions. This second triad of questions uses the mnemonics that emerge from the visual model thus conceived to characterize what voices are being presented to the overall awareness from primary, secondary, and tertiary consciousness:

(X) How do the three basic emotions relate to each other and what voice might they represent in the overall awareness? (Y) How do emotions and feelings connect to but also diverge from logico-rational thoughts? and (Z) How can emotions and feelings be related systematically to dreaming and waking consciousness?

I will conclude with a discussion of how posing these questions may contribute a fresh approach to bridging res cogitans with res extensa. It also ties back to the tercet of interpersonal and intrapsychic tendencies, divided between moving toward, against, and away from people, identified in the mature theory of Karen Horney (1945, 1950). I offer a set of inferences about what is really happening when people seem to lapse into "disordered" patterns of thinking and behavior, and I suggest that this may clarify the role of emotions and feelings in analysis, aimed at psychiatric understanding and restoration to better health.

Why might it be desirable to connect Horney with Tershakovec (2007) and Friston & Hobson (2012, 2014)? As noted by Jack Danielian (2014, p.c.), the last book by Karen Horney that was published within her lifetime, Neurosis and Human Growth (1950), contained her most abstract ideas and was very far ahead of its time. The psychoanalytic establishment did not know what to do with the book, and refused to review it. This was partly because Horney lacked an alternative model of dreaming or of the mind, and so there was no way for brain scientists to know whether Horney's theory of anxiety neurosis was less tautological than Freud's. Horney's theory could not be called scientific, since her premises could not be subjected to corroboration or disproof at the time.

However, Andrew N. Tershakovec offered just such a correct, realistic model of the mind in his book, The Mind: The Power that Changed the Planet (2007). In addition, since 1988, J. Allan Hobson has developed a realistic model of dreaming to supersede the Freudian model, and he and Karl J. Friston (2012, 2014, inter alia) have provided scientifically rigorous, plausible, testable accounts of the mechanism and purpose of what we perceive as waking and dreaming consciousness. In short, the mechanism underlying both dreaming ("primary") and waking ("secondary") consciousness is active inference. Active inference continuously generates and tests hypotheses, during sleep and wakefulness, to discover the hidden causes behind sensory input. The purpose of the biochemical processes underlying dreaming and waking consciousness is to interact with and approximate external reality more and more closely, while reducing the complexity of the overall system of beliefs about the world.

It is not enough, however, to propose an alternative view of dreaming, like Hobson's, which implies that the Freudian model is wrong, or to show that one can account for neurotic conflicts based on different assumptions, as Horney did. It may not be sufficient either to propose a more correct model of how the mind works, as Tershakovec did with his SLP/PDP model, or even to integrate it with Hobson and Friston's work, although these steps also need to be taken. In my view, it is furthermore necessary to show how the Freudian disguise-censorship model can be meaningfully incorporated into Friston, Hobson, and Tershakovec's frameworks of understanding. Freud's models of dreaming and of mind describe the self-reinforcing logic that persists in neurotic thought and behavior. This tautological reasoning arises when consciousness has been thwarted from its goal of learning about the world through active inference, and the brain-mind has thus been turned into a closed system, which can only reinforce itself, not being able to see or correct its own mistakes.


Friston, K. J., and J. A. Hobson (2012). Waking and Dreaming Consciousness: Neurobiological and Functional Considerations. Progress in Neurobiology 98(1) [2012], 82-98. Download PDF from Friston's website

Friston, K. J., and J. A. Hobson (2014). Consciousness, Dreams, and Inference: The Cartesian Theatre Revisited. Journal of Consciousness Studies 21(1-2) [2014], 6-32.

Hobson, J. A. (1988). The Dreaming Brain: How the brain creates both the sense and the nonsense of dreams. New York: Basic Books.

Horney, K. (1945). Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis. New York: W. W. Norton.

Horney, K. (1950). Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization. New York: W. W. Norton.

Tershakovec, A. (2007). The Mind: The Power that Changed the Planet. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse. Available in Kindle format on

Wikimedia Commons (2014). Public domain.

Wikimedia Commons (2014).


Last updated: 06/18/2002