Saturday, July 07, 2007

How to tell if you're asleep.

"It's late and I am in a strange building with a huge echoing vaulted ceiling. The room is crowded with people, all busily going somewhere. In my hand is a piece of paper with important instructions. I need to read the instruction or I will never get home. When I look at the page, I can't read it! The words are blurred. I focus and the letters become clear, but I still can't read it. The message is meaningless gibberish."

It was, of course, a dream, but it got me thinking. I've noticed that I can never read anything beyond a few simple words in my dreams.

Am I an illiterate dreamer? Perhaps.

It's hard to remember dreams. They seem so real at the time, but when you wake up, they fade. When you analyze them, it's clear that dreams are illogical and dissociated. You jump from place to place, people and objects change form; it's all very unreal. I'm sure some people have consistent, realistic dreams, but I never do.

Why can't I read? I call this "star wars syndrome". In the star wars movies, there are lots of really cool machines. They look realistic, like the ships could really fly, and the speeder bikes could really zoom around. It looks real, but it's all made up! The machines are just the fantasy of some talented prop maker and CG artists. From a movie making perspective, the props just have to fool the viewer into thinking they are real. As the movie viewer, your brain ignores all the little mechanical details and perceives them as real.

This isn't that different from everyday life. For example, when you see a car passing on the highway, you don't really look at it carefully. You see a car-sized object moving along, your brain recognizes that it's a car, and you don't pay anymore attention. That's a good thing because you'll see hundreds of cars, and there's no need to carefully observe them all.

Let's get back to dreaming. When you're asleep, your eyes are closed and the brain isn't getting visual stimulus. Anything you "see" in a dream is being constructed by your brain. Like the props guys in star wars, your brain doesn't have time to make up all the details. If you see, for example, a written piece of paper in a dream, your brain supplies just an outline of the paper.

What happens when you take a closer look? The brain fills in the details. The paper has little black letters printed on it. So-far, so good. Now you start reading the letters. Here's where the problems begin. You brain has to fill in the actual words on the paper, but that's actually really difficult. When you're awake, it takes minutes and hours to compose a written document. In the dream, your brain isn't any faster. The best it can do is a bunch of blurry gibberish.

Ta-da! It's not that you can't read in a dream - it's that you can't write. Well. at least you can't write fast enough to fool yourself.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


"the words of the prophets
are written on the subway walls
and tenement halls." - Paul Simon
© 2008 Raoul Rubin