Where do you start with dreams?
People say you’re asleep when you dream, but you’re not really; it’s just that the input you’re consciously processing is generated internally, instead of coming from outside. It’s a kind of consciousness that believes the most ridiculous things, though. Your best friend doesn’t look anything like your best friend actually does in real life. Your girlfriend is a biker chick with three thick hairs the diameter of birch saplings growing out of her head. Doesn’t matter; you recognize them instantly and without the slightest whiff of discontinuity.
You can fly, in dreams. Converse with the dead. Oozing octopus suckers sprout across your face for no reason. You swallow it all, without reservation, without question. In terms of critical analysis, dreams are the Tea Party of cognitive states.
It’s only upon waking that you realize, in retrospect, how utterly absurd it all was.
The circuits you have to thank for that belated insight lie in a little strip of tissue along the orbitofrontal cortex. They say it acts as a reality-checker, tells you whether the input you’re processing makes sense or not. It doesn’t always get it right, even when you’re awake; if someone actually does turn into someone else in the middle of a conversation, or if a building really does disappear without warning in the background, you’re not likely to notice it consciously because that OFC censor throws it into the garbage before you’re aware of it.
Usually the censor is powered down during sleep. Sometimes, though, it works overtime. That’s when you realize, mid-dream, that you are dreaming. That’s when you can take the reins and control the narrative, become the architect of your perceived reality instead of its passive observer-victim. That’s when dreams turn lucid.
Once I was in a hotel elevator when it went rogue: shot right out through the roof like a cannonball, fifty stories up, and plummeted towards the earth. I realized this made no sense, conjured up a little control panel out of the wall, talked the elevator car— which now had panoramic wrap-around windows— into sprouting stubby little wings, and glided us down to a soft nighttime landing on a coral reef (which we could now explore at leisure because the elevator car also doubled as a submarine. It was awesome). That’s a rare level of control in my experience, though. More often I simply remember at the worst possible time that people can’t fly, or the red wagon I’m riding shouldn’t be able to travel in space even if I did tie two lengths of 2×4 onto its gunwales— and suddenly I’m tangled in high-tension wires twenty meters up, or what I thought was flying turns out to be, on closer inspection, just me hanging off a climbing rope in some high-school gym whose dingy roof and rafters have been coated with a thin layer of blue paint and some cheesy cartoon clouds. Sometimes the recognition that I’m dreaming is more of a Hail-Mary, when I realize that the Thing In The Basement isn’t going to leave me alone and I might as well just get it over with and hurl myself into its maw. The dream generally changes channels at that point.
Sometimes, though— sometimes dreams are positively inspirational.
Kekulé dreamed the structure of the benzene molecule. Ramanujan swore that the mathematical theorems he derived were served up to him in dreams by Hindu deities. The solution to my own Master’s thesis came to me in a dream (although I wasn’t nearly as excited by that revelation as I was by another dreamed insight, a solution to the age-old problem of how to build a walking beachball: I had the blueprints right there in my head).
So you are asleep when you dream, and you are awake. Dreams are unconnected to reality; dreams provide fundamental insights into reality. Dreams reduce you to passive observer; dreams elevate you unto godhood.
Or to paraphrase what Corlett et al report in a recent paper that Sheila Miguez pointed me to: dreams make you psychotic.
They mean this in the clinical, not the Gamergate sense: psychotic as in dissociated from reality, unable to distinguish fact from hallucination. (On second thought, maybe they mean it in the Gamergate sense after all.) Perhaps psychotics are merely dreamers who have not awakened, sleepwalkers whose experiences are not being properly filtered through the Orbitofrontal cortex.
Corlett et al looked at two possibilities. On the one hand, a high level of dream awareness might imply a greater grasp of waking reality— if your OFR is so on-the-ball that it even functions when it’s supposed to be off-duty, how much better will it perform during regular business hours? Alternatively, a high level of dream awareness might imply a reduced grasp of waking reality— because lucid dreamers are supposed to be characterized by “thin boundaries”, or a tendency to confuse fantasy and reality. Aspects of waking experience tend to leak across that boundary into the dream state (leading to greater “dream awareness”); but perhaps, by the same token, aspects of the dream state leak back into the waking world across the same semipermeable membrane.
Corlett et al ran groups of lucid and non-lucid dreamers through a repeated series of memory tests; subjects had to decide whether they’d seen a given image previously in the same experimental run (as opposed to previous runs in which that image might also have appeared). They describe this in terms of “Signal Detection Theory”, but what it comes down to is the ability to distinguish between recent memories and old ones. A parameter called d-prime scales to the width of the uncertainty zone between new and old. The higher d-prime is, the narrower the zone and the more confident you are in your response. If lucid dreaming indicates an elevated grasp of reality, then lucid dreamers should have higher d-primes.
The other criterion is called, um, criterion— but that’s such a dumb and ambiguous name that I’m just going to call it C. C describes any tendency to make a default guess one way or the other in case of uncertainty. If, when in doubt, you’re more likely to guess that the memory is old, C<0. If you’re more likely to guess that it’s “new”, C>0. If lucid dreaming implies a reduced grasp of reality in the waking state, C should be lower for Lucids than for Nonlucids.
(This is the way I understand it, at least. You can go to the paper for more specifics, but don’t blame me if you end up even more confused. If it’s clarity you’re looking for, Corlett et al couldn’t write their way out of a fortune cookie if you held a gun to their heads.)
You may wonder what the conclusion would be if lucid dreamers turned out to have both a lower C and a higher d-prime than nonlucid dreamers. I wonder that too; I can’t see what in principle would prevent such a result. The two hypotheses that Corlett et al are testing here are mutually exclusive, but the actual tests are not. Statistically, this leaves me a bit queasy.
Fortunately for the authors, that bullet never fired. They found no difference in the width of the Uncertainty zones of Lucids vs. nonLucids, but they did find that C was significantly lower in the Lucid group (P=0.013), suggesting that Lucids were “more likely to indicate that a picture was familiar to them, even if it was novel.”
So. If you buy this, lucid dreamers have more difficulty than non-lucid dreamers when it comes to distinguishing fantasy from reality. As Corlett et al put it, “individuals with high dream awareness make a pattern of memory errors consistent with an impairment in a reality monitoring process involving the function of the OFC”.
More succinctly, lucid dreamers tend to be more psychotic. Do we buy this?
The Royal We would certainly like to; anyone familiar with my recent work might be reminded of the multithreaded “dream state” I imagine for vampires, or the increasing sense of disreality Daniel Brüks experiences as the conscious wetware is incrementally disassembled during the course of his salvation. Corlett et al embed their findings in all kinds of neurological context— schizophrenia, false memories, the role of dopamine in “reality monitoring”— that’s pure uncut catnip for the likes of me. They even call up the Default-Mode-Network I invoked a couple of years back to explain my dumb gullible vulnerability to scam artists (and to explore the role of competing neurological subsystems in the production of conscious experience). They describe déjà vu as a kind of neurological false-positive:
“False familiarity signals have also been invoked to explain Déjà vu and Déjà vecu experiences, which bear phenomenological similarity to lucid dreams – people report the uncanny (and surprising) experience of having had an experience before in their past (O’Connor & Moulin, 2010). This false familiarity is believed to emanate from fronto-hippocampal dys-interaction (O’Connor & Moulin, 2010). These models of comparable phenomena perhaps point to the generality of predictive learning mechanisms in the brain (Friston, 2009) and the consequences of disrupted predictive learning across brain systems (Corlett et al., 2010)… We believe our data support the idea that dream awareness involves the intrusion of reality onto the dreaming state and that this overlap is also manifest during waking, whereby high dream awareness subjects experience false familiarity for memoranda causing them to make false alarm responses.”
How can I not cream my jeans over all this technobabbly goodness? Think of the extra infodumps that Echopraxia could have contained, if only I’d read these results earlier!
And yet. In so very many ways, this paper is just bad. It leaves obvious methodological questions unanswered (even if you squint past the nonexclusive nature of the hypothesis testing, doesn’t the probability of error increase throughout the course of a task? Isn’t the question “Have you previously seen X during this run?” a lot easier to answer for the first image in a sequence than it is for the last?). One of the figure captions contradicts the legend in the same figure. The sentence-level writing is, to be charitable, not as clear as it could be. And for all the fancy neurological terminology being thrown around, the study reports no neurological findings (although we’re told that the subjects completed “a series of further neuropsychological tests to be reported elsewhere”).
This was basically a button-pushing test performed on a small (N=57) sample of self-selected male volunteers. Admittedly, even a journey of a thousand miles has to start with a single step— but did it have to be such a timid and slapdash one? Would it have cost anything more than a bit of additional time to— oh, I don’t know, include women in the study, double the sample size, and test for between-sex interactions? Cognitive Neuropsychiatry isn’t the most prestigious of journals, but it’s supposed to be peer-reviewed. Someone should at the very least have caught the figure errors.
This all might be a bit easier to take if Corlett et al didn’t seem to have mistaken their one small step for a Giant Leap for Mankind. As it is, it seems a bit questionable to go from Lucid dreamers slip up more when it comes to remembering how long ago they saw something to the claim that their errors are
… consistent with … patients with neurological damage to the OFC and its connections who let old memories override or govern current perceptual inputs and they allow memory fragments to intrude upon their current conceptual understanding of the world, generating a set of beliefs about themselves that is bizarre and insensitive to change (Nahum et al., 2009; Schnider, 2001, 2003; Schnider et al., 2005).
Consistent with? Maybe so. But “consistent with” doesn’t necessarily translate into “evidence for”. This deep in the 21rst Century and we still need to keep reminding people that correlation ≠ causation?
Of course, that’s me the former-scientist talking. Me the SF writer is thinking Oooh, programmable déjà-vu. Deja-vu and pareidolia. Pareidolia and intuition and the religious experience. Maybe Bicamerals can be hacked, I’m thinking. Maybe vampires can be; maybe the connection between dreams and déjà vu and multithreaded dream-state awareness gives us a weapon to use against the Legions of Valerie.
Or a weapon for something to use, anyway. If we’re not around…
So for all their failings, let’s keep an eye on Corlett’s & Crew. Follow their follow-ups. See if hard neurochemistry supports their soft speculation. Draw up battle plans. Scientist-me says, stay skeptical.
SF me says, Prepare to pillage.