Friday 17 December 2010

Lucid Dreaming: reality construct flaws & useful reality check cues

A reality test is a method of determining if you are awake or dreaming by noticing differences between the dream world and the real world. Here is a brief guide to some reality tests I perform.

Dreams are generally pretty different to real life and lots of strange things happen and yet most of the time you wont notice. The main reason you don't notice is because your consciousness doesn't seem to operate too many critical thinking processes while you dream, making you very likely not to notice something unrealistic that is occurring. You might think something is a bit odd but you will either explain it away or not even think about it.

In a majority of my dreams I never become lucid but here are some reality checks I perform once I suspect that my current stream of consciousness might be processing 'dream' as opposed to 'real' stimuli.


Wrong things that sometimes occur. You can't do these things in every dream, some dreams seem to be more 'real' than others. Generally if you can do a bunch of these or none at all.

  • I can fly
  • I can will things to move
  • I can walk / float through walls / ceilings.
  • I can flick a light switch and the light level doesn't change (sometimes the light level does change, waking life got this wrong)
  • I can will things to disappear
  • I can will things to appear
  • I am walking / driving in a familiar area but roads, street signs are wrong / missing.

My dream construct has a big problems generating proper looking reflections in mirrors. If I 'glance' at a mirror for an instant it will probably look fine, but if I start moving around things start getting interesting:

  • My image becomes distorted, does not look like me.
  • My image isn't 'mirroring' me properly, if I wave my hand etc, although it generally does a good job at this
  • My image distorts and takes on a life of its own, suddenly it is another person.

The dream construct doesn't seem to have any idea that when you fall you should accelerate (I guess it's kinda counting on your inbuilt instinct to not jump off high things), when falling or even descending stairs things are sluggish. Falling is just floating at a moderate pace in a downwards direction. If you try in run down stairs quickly you will often start floating in a forward/downward motion, slowly.

Dream characters are a rather simple bunch. Crowds seem to act as a single entity, moving as a mob and exhibiting the same kinds of behaviour. Most people seem unable to interact with each other or me. Generally there is 1-3 'interactive' people that will change their behaviour based on what you do, talk to you etc. They generally can't interact with each other or even notice each other. Occasionally when the dream construct stuffs up you will get two people talking to you at the same time oblivious to the fact the other is talking. For a majority of other people in a crowd, they wont respond to you talking to them etc, unless you grab them and then some kind of behavioural pattern will kick in, which could involving them speaking gobbledygook, exhibiting a behaviour - eg hostility, happiness, or even flirting with you, but they wont hold a conversation.

People seem to be assigned roles which under normal circumstances you would never notice - if a person is programmed to just walk down a street past you and can't do much else, unless you realise you are dreaming you are unlikely to notice as you wouldn't normally approach a random person on the street and start trying to talk to them. I would say the AI in many modern computer games equals or exceeds my dream construct. A crowd can interact with you as a crowd - ie chase you run away from you, or most likely, ignore you.

Fight Flight Dream:
In saying all that, you could be able to do everything above and still not realise you're dreaming. Exactly how the critical reasoning processes get kicked off is still a mystery to me, but fight flight dreams trigger them regularly.

Fight / Flight is one of my common dream scenarios, common to many people, probably some kind of dream training programme, like a fire alarm drill. Either I am pursuing someone or being pursued, generally either on foot or in a car. Whenever some kind of monster / bad guy shows up I seem to immediately realise I'm dreaming. I haven't had a nightmare since I was a kid because whenever dreams are supposed to get scary I either realise it's a dream or I fly above them or will them to disappear etc without realising I am dreaming. A common situation is chasing / being chased up and down corridors, if I am chasing, gravity not working when I'm descending stairs generally gives the game away. If being chased quite interestingly bad guys often don't come within 1-2 meters of me even if I am motionless - they just kind of sit there looking menacing until you starting moving again.

Trade off between dream quality and lucidity:
I have noticed the more lucid I become, the harder it is to maintain the dream, perhaps there isn't enough brain processing power to go around, either your higher mind creates your environment, or it thinks rationally about things. I find I have to 'ride the wave' and try and stick to the 'dream script' in order to maintain the dream.

Monday 13 December 2010

Reality construction: terminal - server analogy

Hawking and Mlodinow put out a book stating the obvious:

So I read this article: Stephen Hawking’s Radical Philosophy of Science Is Hawking right to claim that reality is dependent on the model used to describe it?. It annoyed me as I don't think Hawking is really adding any value to our collective knowledge. It is hardly breaking news that reality is a construct generated by our brains, Hawking by the looks is trying to make a buck. Here's an excerpt:

In his new book, The Grand Design, co-authored with the Caltech mathematician Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking presents a philosophy of science he calls “model-dependent realism,” which is based on the assumption that our brains form models of the world from sensory input, that we use the model most successful at explaining events and assume that the models match reality (even if they do not), and that when more than one model makes accurate predictions “we are free to use whichever model is most convenient.” Employing this method, Hawking and Mlodinow claim that “it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation.”

What our brains do in constructing a model of reality is the same thing that the scientific community does in order to prove a theory. Build the best model based on the raw data available. As an example, when I was four I thought Australia was in the clouds because that is where my grandmother's plane went on take off. Based on the raw data available to me at the time that model made perfect sense. Another excerpt:

Even when two models appear to be equally supported by observations, over time we accumulate more precise observations that tell us which model more closely matches reality. Historians of science contend that in the 16th century, the newly introduced Copernican sun-centered model of the solar system was, in fact, no better at explaining the observations of the movement of the planets than was the Ptolemaic earth-centered model. As observations of the movement of planets increased in accuracy, the Copernican model won out.

Until I had a decent amount of proof that Australia was not in the clouds that reality construct stood. Once someone showed me a world map with Australia on it, the cloud model fell over.  So remember that for next time you roll your eyes at Maui snaring the sun to slow it down.

My Server - Terminal analogy:

I think your mind and the rest of the universe conform with a terminal - server architecture. While we construct a universe in our heads, we require a lot of external stimuli. We need a whole heap of data just to get our reality operating system booting up (think of this as a network download). Once we have a decent reality construct running which lets us walk talk eat and maybe do a bit of astrophysics, we require a steady stream of stimuli just to keep ticking.

Based on my experiments in lucid dreams I can assure you, our own brains do not have the capability to generate a perfectly realistic environment. It is very easy for a conscious mind to find flaws in the dream reality construct. The mind can't keep track of enough objects, people will change and warp because the brain is used to being supplied with the information and simply interpreting it - not generating it from memories. In a sense what that means is we are a 'terminal' with limited computational power and memory, and we outsource the computation to the 'cloud' (the rest of the universe) to perform the bulk of the computation for us and we interpret the data stream it sends us (via our senses) using the reality construct we have sitting on our wetware.

Therefore the ability for YOU to perceive a 'real' reality construct generated from external stimuli is limited by the amount of stimuli you can observe and by the complexity of the stimuli interpretation algorithms your brain uses to construct reality. I think we are already nearly at the point where it is impossible for anyone person - even a polymath to build a universal model which incorporates a majority of the collective understanding we have as a civilization. If only we could condense all of that knowledge into a single reality construct.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Lucid Dreaming: reality construction defects encountered

A bunch of reality defects I found while testing my dream reality construct during a Lucid dream a while back. The most interesting discovery was that your instincts don't know dreams aren't real, such as in a car accident, your subconscious will brace for impact and pump adrenalin even while your conscious knows it is just a dream.

I will begin half way through the dream - I am leaving a house with an unknown stranger which turns out to be my grandparents house in wattle downs (a recurring dream location). The stranger beckons me to hop into a red FWD that my parents used to own. He hops in the drivers door.... I think something about the change in the dream to fear/fight flight triggered me to realise it was a dream and gain lucidity now things start getting interesting:

I decide in a semi-lucid state I can't be bothered with a car chase run away dream... perhaps memory association triggered from remembering a similar state? I will the red fwd in the air, the car goes flying in the air, I will it to explode and it explodes in the sky (a trick I learned long ago in a previous dream). I turn around and stare back at my grandparents house and then look back to the road.. THE 4WD HAS REAPPEARED in exactly the same place it was in before! But I just destroyed it! Some how my dream reality creation processes is getting out of synch with my conscious over arching process.

Next I decide to hop in the car and just will it to start driving. I turn left and start driving down the road. I decide to perform a new test and this was incredibly interesting in terms of what it reveals about how your consciousness is made up of different brain 'processes':
  1. I see a car coming down the road towards me on the correct side of the road (my right)
  2. I decide to collide with the car head on at full speed, turning into a direct collision course with it.
  3. First thing I notice the car doesn't swerve and the driver doesn't even blink - i am expecting the car to swerve (by I i mean some kind of predict process in my conscious)
  4. When I am about to hit the car, I think my reptilian brain is scared and braces for impact, I feel fear, the instinct of an impending crash, my heart starts racing (adrenalin has been pumped into my blood)  
  5. The car passes right through my car - almost like passing through a magic wall. My heart is pumping out of control - like if something had scared you I am almost worried about losing lucidity given how fast it is pumping.
  6. I drive through a second car - this time there is less fear shown, my heart doesn't boost all of a sudden - maybe the reptilian is realising it can't be hurt?
Based off this chain of events I can highlight at least three different processes at work around the time of impact:
  • The primordial 'reptilian' mind got scared and didn't realise what it was seeing wasn't real.
  • One process was expecting the car to swerve out of my way. It didn't.
  • The process governing my dream obviously doesn't do much AI, it expects me to react to external objects and not vice versa - a limitation of the dream world.
After a bit I hop out of the 4wd and try to do another test - look at how detailed my dream environment is - I walk up to a brown tree and move closer to it to see the detail - it seems just as details as a normal tree.. as I move my head in however my cheek catches a branch - intense in the sense it is showing that the dream process can recreate distinct sensory feelings - however i was sure there was not branch in my way when i had moved my head in, meaning the dream process 'fudges' the details a bit.

After staring at the tree for a bit i begin to lose the dream - pretty normal if you stare at a single spot in dream-world for too long. dream ends

In a later dream I gain lucidity in fight or flight moment - attacked by a guy, realise its a dream toy with him - he gets a knife and I am tempted to let him stab me with it to see what happens but my inner reptile just can't quite allow that to happen - instinctively wanting to prevent that.

In a later dream i am explaining to my flatmates about the lucid dreams I had been having - a false awakening.... oh the irony. I am beginning to think that dream character conversations are simply different thought patterns bouncing ideas around. the receiver is the conscious process but the dialogue emerges from subconscious processes. 

Idea creation and propagation: Good TED talks

TED (Technology Entertainment and Design), a global set of conferences hosted free on the internet has been the most influential force on my thinking this year. The foundation’s logo is “Ideas worth spreading” and interestingly enough it has been the talks about ideas – what they are, how they are born and how they spread that has most intrigued me. has been incredibly influential on me in terms of changing my perception on how new ideas are formulated and the underlying creative process. In this discussion I will refer to four specific TED talks around idea creation, propagation and formulation; I will summarise the main point I took away from each talk and then discuss why I feel they are important.

The first talk that sparked my interest was a TED talk Susan Blackmore on memes and “temes”. In it she defines a ‘meme’ to be a unit of cultural information, a proposition first postulated in Richard Dawkins book The Selfish Gene. What memetics does is it treats information in a similar way to how Darwin treats species in that a successful idea or meme is one which gets itself replicated and distributed in as many people as possible, forming a symbiotic relationship with the 'host'.

Dan Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist expands on this in his talk on dangerous memes. In it he talks about how a collection of memes can be collectively viewed as an ideology which using the same analogue is an information organism. A successful ideology is one that spreads to as many hosts as possible, removes competing ideologies from a host and then uses its host to carry out its purpose. An individual can be infected and ‘hijacked’ to carry out an extreme purpose, for example the suicide bomber who seeks martyrdom for a cause.

In Matt Ridley’s talk, When ideas have sex, he explains his thoughts on human creativity. In it he argues that our minds act as the breeding ground for ideas – we absorb massive amounts of ideas and process them to produce new ideas of greater complexity. A new idea occurs by taking two or more ideas and noticing an underlying pattern tying them together. In a sense the best bits of different ideas are combined to create a new one in a similar fashion to how our DNA combines when we mate to produce offspring.

The talk by Steven Johnson, Where good ideas come from expands on this theory of mixing ideas driving innovation. He suggests that we have the wrong concept of a ‘eureka’ moment for idea creation, such as Newton seeing the apple fall to the ground and discovering gravity. He argues that all new ideas and innovation are driven by social discourse between networks of people, with each individual contributing a set of ideas which collectively leads to innovation. If you think of any of the great thinkers of the modern era, say Einstein or Darwin they each had a network of like minded people with who they exchanged the ideas that helped drive their discoveries. We in the West have a tendency to over-emphasise the contribution of an individual over the collaborative nature of idea creation.

My takeout from a aforementioned talks is that to be creative and innovative is a matter of ‘plugging in’ to individuals and networks which propagate the ideas I find the most interesting. My mind will act as the evaluator, creator and replicator of ideas. First I determine the ‘fitness’ of an idea and if it passes my evaluation I will endeavour to build it into my world view and propagate it to other people. TED acts as such an idea feed, almost as an online university – spreading the latest ideas and insights on a number of different topics to whoever is interested.

What is exciting about the time we live in is that it is now possible to share ideas with anyone on the globe – instantaneously. Social networking through twitter, facebook and blogging now allows anyone to have a global audience for their ideas. I can read articles, blogs and status updates, ponder over them and come up with an insightful thought about them and share it with my network – immediately.

The speed at which information and ideas are spreading is accelerating. New information is being propagated faster now than it ever has before. If we think about the invention of writing, the printing press, the telegraph, radio, television and now the internet. Each new technology allowed for a more efficient distribution of information in order to drive innovation. But while we have harnessed the internet to share audio, visual and written information, this is still limiting. Much work must be taken into preparing a speech, or film, or even writing this essay, and whatever the result it can never quite convey exactly what we are thinking.

I see neural interface technology as the next leap forward in terms of accelerating idea innovation. I think that in time neural interface technology will allow us to share our thoughts almost instantaneously and that this will lead to a level of creativity which can barely be imagined.

My health routine