Monday, September 07, 2009

Dreaming as Virtual Reality

In the chapter on virtual reality in my Future Imperfect I suggested that if we could crack the dreaming problem, figure out how dreaming works, we could create a much richer form of virtual reality, sending sensory signals to the brain instead of merely beaming photons at the eyes and sound waves at the ears. Implicit in this idea is the assumption that dreaming really is a rich form of virtual reality, creating a full illusion of real sensations.

I woke up from dreams several times last night and tried to remember what they were like. It is hard to be certain, since my dream memories fade rapidly, but I do not think they were full sense VR or anything close. I remember only one color from any of them, and it was wrong, a more intense version of the color of what I was dreaming about. My overall impression was that dreaming is more like reading a book than like watching a movie, that in the dream you know certain things are happening but you are not actually seeing, hearing, feeling those things in the way you would if they were happening in real life.

Is this consistent with other people's observations? Anyone aware of research into the nature of dreaming along these general lines?

32 Comments:

At 12:38 PM, September 07, 2009, Blogger Skip said...

It's hard to say - for me personally, I don't dream in color. In fact, my dreams really aren't visual at all, they're more conceptual I would say. So I don't know that I think VR based on them would be particularly useful.

 
At 1:24 PM, September 07, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I "see" something in a dream, I know that it's there, but it's not like I'm actually looking at it. Rather, it's like imagining that you are looking at something. It's the experience filtered through memory.

 
At 3:35 PM, September 07, 2009, Anonymous SheetWise said...

Not remembering dreams was a problem I had as well. Then, I read an article linking B12 with dreams and the memory of dreams. I was told to take B12 along with B-complex to make it work -- and it did. That was 30 years ago, and I still take them daily.

 
At 5:42 PM, September 07, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, dreaming is like reading a book, but keep in mind that one can have a a fairly rich experience from reading a book - that is, reading books can be like dreaming. Your experiences are not limited to the sight of black ink on white paper, and the experience of reading is not merely a parade of concepts. You can catch glimpses of things as you read - imagery might pop into your head, and the like.

I would argue that ordinary experience is not wholly different. Sometimes I become aware of things before I become aware of their placement in space. This is especially true of words. I might see a word, read the word, understand the word, but in (immediate) retrospect have no precise idea where that word is located. Happens to me sometimes in bookstores, where I'm surrounded by words. This awareness of a thing, without awareness of its placement in space, is a bit like thinking about something as opposed to looking at it.

 
At 5:47 PM, September 07, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also keep in mind that dreams very greatly in the degree of to which they are conceptual, and the degree to which they are sensory. If one kind of dream is currently dominant for you, that does not mean that all dreams are quite like this.

One common dream experience is the experience of falling. That is not merely the thought of falling - it really feels like you're falling. So that, at any rate, is a clear example of a dream being like an actual immersion into a sensory experience.

 
At 7:11 PM, September 07, 2009, Blogger John said...

My dreams are often sensually accurate - tastes, pov visual images, sounds, smells, and definitely textual feeling. I once had a lucid dream where I began to experiment, but it dissolved pretty quickly and I woke up.

 
At 7:13 PM, September 07, 2009, Blogger Gary Chartier said...

Perhaps I forget more colorless or conceptual dreams. But the dreams I do remember feature three-dimensional, seemingly unfiltered experiences that seem to engage at least the senses of sight, hearing, and touch.

 
At 8:02 PM, September 07, 2009, Blogger Joe said...

I have the same experience you do, where you understand context in dreams automatically, like in a novel, but without it even explained to you. For example, if you were in a castle fighting a giant monster with your magic cell phone, it might suddenly pop into your mind, that you've known all along that the monster's weak spot is located in his knees, or whatever. This explains why you can have dreams where you're talking to someone that looks like your close friend, but in your mind you know that they're your brother. And you find nothing strange about it until you wake up and reflect back upon it and think, "why did my brother look like my best friend?

As an aside, remembering dreams is a matter of practice. If you write down dreams after you wake up, or try to recount them, you'll find you'll start to remember more of them.

 
At 9:34 PM, September 07, 2009, Blogger S1ngularity said...

I always "see" in my dreams, and with rare exception, in full color. I may sometimes see myself in third person, or know things that I shouldn't from my POV as well. I believe the color/B&W has been linked to age (as in people familiar with B&W television are more apt to have B&W dreams). Similarly, it could be that avid readers are more likely to dream like they read, but I am unaware of any studies to that effect.

 
At 2:38 AM, September 08, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My yesterday's dream included political drama, horror fantasy, magic (D&D variety) and some engineering/architectural design. There was colour, sound and sensory information too (ice/lightning/fire from palms).

So at least in my case, there's definitely potential for VR analysis.

I even had lucid dreams within a lucid dream at least twice over last few years (and within dream analysis of whether it or subdream were real or not).

 
At 2:58 AM, September 08, 2009, Blogger Giles said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 3:00 AM, September 08, 2009, Blogger Giles said...

Daniel Dennett, in _Consciousness Explained_, imagines that dreams might work by amplifying the natural noise in the sensory processing parts of our brain.

He suggests that when we normally percieve the world, instead of seeing something and then forming a mental model of what we see, we actually form a mental model first and then query our visual cortex to say "is that what I'm seeing?" So, we don't see a collection of shadows and lines, somehow separate them out into a torso with four legs, a tail, and whiskers, and decide "it's a cat", but instead see a vague shape, think "is it a cat?", and then our visual cortex tries to interpret the image as a cat and replies "yes" if it can do so, "no" otherwise. If the answer's "no", we might ask our visual cortex "is it an elephant", and so on. (That's a very vague summary based on having read it many years ago, but I think gets the rough outline right. It might be some part of the visual processing system other than the cortex, now I think about it.)

By extension, then, dreaming is a state where we form questions like "is is a cat?", but the visual parts of the brain just give random yes/no answers.

He gives a lovely analogy -- "a party game called psychoanalysis", where one person leaves the room, having been told that while he is out, the remaining people will come up with a story which he has to guess when he returns. The way in which he will guess the story is that he will ask any number of yes/no questions, until he is comfortable that he has the full story. However, once he is out of the room, the remaining people decide not to invent a story, but instead to answer "yes" if the question ends with a letter before "n" in the alphabet, "no" otherwise. The analogy with dreams (and, in particular, how they often take on aspects based on one's current worries or hopes) is obvious.

All this is, perhaps, just a rather length way of saying that perhaps our memories of dreams being like reality are wrong, and that when we think back on them and think that we were able to clearly see Notre Dame Cathedral, we're just remembering the question "am I looking at Notre Dame Cathedral?", which received a response "yes, you are".

 
At 5:58 AM, September 08, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if the people who have answered that they have vivid dreams are good at remembering images (which would also tend to imply some artistic ability).

 
At 10:28 AM, September 08, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've seen on Discovery a theory that during dreams the brain processes short term memory "making sense of it" into long term memory. They were studying a rat's brain and the patterns of activity during the rat's dream looked like the rat was re-running the maze with fast playback.

Quite often I can pick out certain conspicuous details from my dreams and able to link them to a particular recent thought, event or experience. E.g. (1) [reality] a video discussing apparent uneven weight loss on different body parts with analogy how when you lower water in a pool you notice it mostly in the shallow end to (in the dream) estimating volume of the water of the top metre in the Amazon river. (2) [reality] a musician pointing finger in a music video to (in the dream) a mass-production conveyor belt with small robot toys with one finger pointing.

 
At 12:21 PM, September 08, 2009, Blogger Walt said...

Once while dreaming I looked around at the bizarre situation and then down at my hands and said "My god, this is not a dream!"

 
At 1:11 PM, September 08, 2009, Blogger Jonathan said...

The trick to remembering dreams was described in "An experiment with time" many years ago. You have to discipline yourself to write down your dreams in detail as soon as you wake up, without losing a second. I tried this in my teens and was able to go on for pages after a single night. Without that discipline, I usually remember no more than a paragraph, if that. The memories do fade very rapidly.

I don't think I often notice colours in dreams, but then I'm not very observant in real life. Ask me to describe what someone was wearing after meeting him/her, and I'll often have no idea.

 
At 2:08 PM, September 08, 2009, Anonymous Art said...

Allan Hobson is doing the research you are interested in.
http://sleep.med.harvard.edu/people/faculty/212/J+Allan+Hobson+MD

 
At 2:24 PM, September 08, 2009, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jonathan mentions An Experiment With Time, definitely an odd and interesting book. Nowadays you could follow his method even more easily using a digital recorder, provided you weren't sharing the bed with someone you didn't want to wake up.

The odd part is that he claims that his dreams correlate equally well with past and future events, and uses that to support a view of reality in which time is an illusion. The idea appeals to me somewhat, because that's how memory feels to me--as though what I was remembering was in the present, just somehow seen through a fuzzy veil.

 
At 6:05 PM, September 08, 2009, Anonymous AndrewM said...

I recently had a dream that followed a very logical plot and involved plausible situations (some of which were related to but not exact copies of reality). I sketched some of the images I remembered. Not all dreams are so clear but this one was a beautiful and coherent experience.

I cannot say anything about sensory experiences other than sight, however, but I do remember emotions including life-like joy and excitement. All together, dreams like this (which wasn't even lucid) seem to me to be a powerful form of VR.

 
At 7:58 PM, September 08, 2009, Anonymous Ben said...

You may want to look into lucid dreaming. It's loads of fun once you take control of your dreams.

 
At 8:34 PM, September 08, 2009, Blogger Bill Drissel said...

David,
Some yrs ago, Sci American had an article on dreaming that said the visual pathways were used by the brain during sleep to expunge unuseful memories.

Maybe we shouldn't remember them.

Regards,
Bill Drissel

 
At 10:23 PM, September 08, 2009, Blogger Jonathan said...

Last night I dreamed I was in England with my (late) grandmother, and I was wearing a light blue pullover with a light brown jacket. I noticed the colours because I wasn't very happy with the combination. I don't remember noticing any other colours.

 
At 10:30 PM, September 08, 2009, Blogger Jonathan said...

I haven't read An experiment with time for many years, but I remember that the experiment consisted of writing down dreams and keeping them for a fairly long time, then looking through them for resemblances to the recent past and resemblances to the future (as much of the future as was available by then). A positive result would be an equal number of resemblances to the past and to the future. Dunne reckoned that he obtained such a result in experiments with himself and others.

 
At 8:23 AM, September 09, 2009, Anonymous Hammerhead said...

Throughout my life I've noticed that my most vivid and visual dreams occur in the summer season. At least I remember many more dreams during that period of the year. They are full of color and voices and faces. A few times I have imagined that I heard (or sang) beautiful, ethereal music - not tunes recognizable. I've never been able to write down the melodies upon waking, either, they are too elusive. The other two repeating elements are
a) labyrinthine tunnel or hall structures in reds and blacks, and b) pleasant, long-lasting episodes of flying over cities and fields, very much like swimming the breast stroke, and able to speed up, slow down, and pop to the ground and launch again. Those are fun and I don't like waking up from them! (I'm a serious scuba diva, and don't think I had the flying dreams as much before I started diving.) Finally, I took the anti-malarial drug chloroquine for two weeks on a dive trip to Honduras. During that period I had incredibly intense, visual dreams every night that did seem like watching movies - complicated sequences of actions of many people, loosely-structured goals and motives among them, vivid colors and settings with oceans, big waves, skyscrapers, huge machines. I'd wake up mentally reeling from these dreams. They stopped when I stopped taking the chloroquine.

 
At 1:01 AM, September 10, 2009, Blogger mantrid said...

I've heard about a theory that says dreaming consists of 3 parts: first you become a script-writer, then you become the director and finally the subject/actor. such a better VR would need a way to upload the script and suggestions for the director, then the user would simply move on to phase 3 himself in time.

 
At 8:51 PM, September 10, 2009, Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Although they vary, I think most of my dreams are more "compressed" than my perceptions of the real world.

But has anyone had those experiences on the boundary of sleep, when you're still almost completely awake but in a sort of hypnotic state, and those spontaneous little vignettes start playing behind your eyelids? The continuous motion, the incredible detail of light and shadow, etc., give an impression if anything of being more realistic than reality.

 
At 9:31 PM, September 13, 2009, Blogger Joe Vander Zanden said...

David, I just order Future and I look forward to reading it. Synthetic worlds are an interesting topic, I've read a couple of books by Ed Castronova. Check him out if you are not already familiar with his work.

--JvZ

 
At 10:15 AM, September 14, 2009, Anonymous EdwinOrc said...

Dreams aren’t the only virtual reality the brain can do. I once had a psychotic episode where I was totally convinced someone was coming to kill me for a whole night (I wasn’t on drugs or anything…). It was much scarier than any computer game or movie could ever be. Sometimes when I closed my eyes; my brain made me feel like I was doing 3 back flips a second even though I was just lying down in my bed awaiting my killer. I think there must be some way tapping into the brain can assist in VR. There are always those dreams where you break your arm in them and you wake up to find that you were sleeping on that arm and it really hurts in real life.

 
At 7:35 AM, September 16, 2009, Blogger Shake Mouth said...

Although the memory of my dreams often fades quickly, occasionally I hang on to them long enough to recognize a few steady features of them:

-they contain vivid, lifelike color

-they contain very little sound, and if there is any it often is only loosely synchronized with the images

-they contain vivid, lifelike smells (and on more than one occasion, I discover that a smell or taste in a dream is accurate to an something I later experience for the first time in reality)

-they contain highly realistic physics and optics (e.g. looking through a pair of binoculars once in a dream, I experienced realistic depth of field according to focal length)

-they are frequently discontinuous, more like a fleeting array of vignettes; occasionally an entire dream will follow one complete "story arc," and when that happens it is usually very striking and I remember it for a long time

-they allow me to recognize them as dreams if I am already accustomed to doing so; for example, I used to wake up as soon as I experienced the nightmare of all my teeth falling out. Now, after growing familiar with that nightmare, I may have it and, in the midst of my teeth falling out, think "Oh no! It's just like in my nightmares!" and the nightmare will continue.

 
At 9:34 PM, September 26, 2009, OpenID gurugeorge said...

Sorry for the necro but, coincidentally, I was just thinking about this myself recently.

I wouldn't say that dreaming per se is like VR, but I think that "lucid dreaming" probably is. There is also the phenomenon of OOBEs and the occultist's "astral travel" (which seems to be common to many cultures and many traditions of mystical/magical training). Also probably related is the phenomena of sleep paralysis. These all seem to play around with similar abilities of the brain to conjure up a virtual world of its own, often with a complete pseudo-proprioceptive self-representation.

Both lucid dreaming and OOBE/astral travel seem to produce quite rich and detailed visions, with a strong sense of "other" in entities met and spoken to. It's probably one of the major sources of religion throughout history (considering that the origins of most religions follow the pattern a) person "talks to God/gods/spirits/demons", b) person promulgates "teaching/prophecy/holy book" given out by those entities).

For an interesting treatment of this matter by a rationalist who's played around with it, check out this post on The Straight Dope.

 
At 6:34 PM, February 18, 2010, Blogger Andrew said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6qhwdTzilg

A little research on those lines. He says that a lot of people's dreams are vivid.

 
At 6:22 AM, February 28, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

looks like there are huge ranges of what 'people' are 'experiencing' in 'dreaming'. and b12/bcomplex doesn't do much-if-anything for 'some' of us. but dreamed sound can be symphonic or electronic or entirely strange; and technologies in dreams can be things neverbeforeseen in 'normal' 'awake' life, whatever THAT is all about. i don't think this place (a VR? an alien supermindthing 'dreaming' it is a world with a few TRILLION minds in it?!) wants to be figured out (not 'dreaming' nor "the mind" either, and looking around i don't think 'we' are 'all' running the same 'mind' either.

i just saw a video of a dog who knows 200 words and can go fetch objects around the house by name, and that's just a simple mindblower they could think up for the cameras. we're not talking the really wonderful aspects of butterflies appearing between you and someone else you are talking to, on cue.

rather than stupidify ourselves with all this technocrapola-ocity, let's meditate, chew on plants that speak to us in the dawn light, talk to 'dubious' things that are 'only' in our movies/minds and nobody elses... and escape from the massively stupidifying 'people' all around. fox-television-xfiles style media is forever calibrating everyone (snip!) by showing us bogus 'aliens' when that's not where it's at, at all. meanwhile how the F did beethoven write any of that stuff, or play it; or any of it. and yet it sure sounded perfect during your graduation ceremony from sixth grade or that night in the tent (Orion and interstation radio).

so get a vision (evolve it, work with it) of what you are and what you'd like to go after... and spend less time with stupidfucks dragging you down. how many decades of a web filled with people who either have names like ROBO_BOY or seem to have had no interesting experiences in their own lifemovies is it going to take before i stop talking to it? it's like nazi psychiatrists, "so, you haff been hearing voices eh? coming from Orion? tell me about Orion..."

yeah, Orion, have you ever really stared at Orion?
or is that something that most of America can't do,
with all the city lights (electromagnetic jamming mindpollution...)

 

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