Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Dream a little dream of me

In one of my favorite novels, The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin, the main character -- an unassuming man named George Orr -- figures out that when he dreams, his dream changes reality.  The problem is, since when the change occurs, it alters everyone else's memories of what had happened, the only one who realizes that anything has changed is him.

At first, of course, he doesn't believe it.  He must be remembering wrong.  Then, when he becomes convinced it's actually happening, he starts taking drugs to try to stop him from dreaming, but they don't work.  As a last resort, he tries to get help from a psychologist...

... but the psychologist realizes how powerful this ability could be, and starts guiding George into dreams that will shape the world into what he wants it to be.

It's a powerful cautionary tale about what happens when an unscrupulous person gains control over someone with a valuable talent.  Power corrupts, as the oft-quoted line from John Dalberg-Acton goes, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I couldn't help thinking about The Lathe of Heaven when I read about some new exploration of lucid dreaming taking place at REMSpace, a California startup, that will be featured in a paper in The International Journal of Dream Research soon (a preprint is available at the link provided).  A lucid dream is one in which you are aware that you're dreaming while you're dreaming, and often have some degree of control over what happens.  Around twenty percent of people report regular lucid dreaming, but there is some research that suggests many of us can learn to lucid dream.

Dickens's Dream by Robert W. Buss (1875) [Image is in the Public Domain]

At this point, I'll interject that despite a long history of very vivid dreams, I've never had a lucid dream.  I did have an almost-lucid dream, once; it was a weird and involved story about being a groomsman in a wedding in a big cathedral, and when the priest said the whole "does anyone have any objections?" thing, a gaudily-dressed old lady in the front row stood up and started shouting about what an asshole the groom was and how the bride could do way better.  And I'm standing there, feeling horrified and uncomfortable, and I thought, "This is bizarre!  How could this be happening?  Is this a dream?"  So I kind of looked around, then patted myself to reassure myself that I was solid, and thought, "Nope.  I guess this is real."

So the one time I actually considered the question of whether I was dreaming, I got the wrong answer.

But I digress.

Anyhow, the researchers at REMSpace took a group of test subjects who all reported being able to lucid dream, and hooked them up to electromyography and electroencephalography sensors -- which, respectively, measure the electrical discharge from voluntary muscle contractions and neural firing in the brain -- and gave them the pre-sleep suggestion that they would dream about driving a car.  Using the output from the sensors, they created a virtual avatar of the person on a computer screen, and found that they were able to use tiny motions of their hands to steer it, and even avoid obstacles.

"Two-way interaction with a computer from dreams opens up a whole area of new technologies," said Michael Raduga, who led the experiment.  "Now, these developments are crude, but soon they will change the idea of human capabilities."

Maybe so, but it also puts the dreamer in the hands of the experimenter.  Now, I'm not saying Michael Raduga and his team are up to anything nefarious; and obviously I don't believe anyone's got the George-Orr-like ability to change reality to conform to what they dream.  But does anyone else have the feeling that "two-way interaction" into your dreams is potentially problematic?  I've heard a lot of people say things like, "hypnosis isn't dangerous, you can't be given a post-hypnotic suggestion that induces you to do something you wouldn't ordinarily do," but if there's one thing my knowledge of neuroscience has taught me, it's that the human brain is highly suggestible.

So as interested as I am in lucid dreaming, I'm not ready to sign up to have my dreams interacted with by a computer controlled by someone else.  And I hope like hell that when Raduga and his group at REMSpace start "changing the idea of human capabilities," they are extremely careful.

Anyway, that's our interesting-but-a-little-scary research for today.  Me, I'm gonna stick with my ordinary old dreams, which are peculiar enough.  And given my failure at detecting a potentially lucid dream when I had the chance, I doubt I'd be all that good at it in any case.  I'd probably drive my virtual dream car right into a telephone pole.


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