What happens in your dreams?

Updated: October 29, 2010

I am going to talk to you about your dreams today. Not a Freudian interpretation of Oedipus-like feelings that every decent psychologist has, rather a physical explanation to why our brains keeps on ticking in such a weird way after we fall asleep.

We will try to explain the subtle difference between conscious and sub-conscious. We will refer to our recent mumbo-jumbo about the speed of human thought and see how it relates here. We will try to understand why we can't understand most of our dreams. And similar nonsense. Lean back and enjoy a unique perspective on dreams, untold before, the simple reason being that physicists and biologists try to rationalize this problem from their own perspectives but never combined. Me, being unique and whatnot, I'm gonna give you the one theory that has it all.


Why we dream?

All right. The simple question is, why humans dream? And the simple answer is, because we're alive. Let's be geeky and compare our brain to a computer chip. First, not without a reason do chips operate the way they do. Our understanding of the world eventually narrows down to a binary interpretation, plus the computing models are a direct derivative of how we think. In a sub-conscious way, computers are a product of our thinking, not just the idea, but the topology itself.

Hence, if you take a look at our dreams as the little things that happen while our brain sleeps, it starts to make sense. Daily routines are replaced with nightly routines. And they may appear a bit jumbled. It's because they happen in the background and have a different API than our daily ones. We try to interpret the dreams using our daily set of tools, which is plain wrong and can't be done. The two mismatch and can't be rationalized using one another.

Psychologists call this conscious and sub-conscious, using brain waves activity to separate the two. Indeed, dreams occur in a far more limited world, only within our heads, with minimal real-time external input. But the sub definition may not be accurate. Because sleep is approx. 6-8 hours of relatively uninterrupted activity, which is more than most people manage during the day.

There are also theories that dreams help us survive, prepare for difficult situations in life, discharge all kinds of negative energies, and rationalize events. It's quite possible, but it has nothing to do with physics, it's just our understanding of what's happening.


To sum it up, we dream because our brain keeps being active even when our bodies switch off. Like background processes in the operating system, dreams kick in when the CPU is idle and the resources can be allocated to maintenance. Because of the different interface, external versus internal, dreams can appear incoherent even to their owners, since they are interpreted using a wrong set of identifiers. The manifestations of the unlimited world inside our head are being justified by physically limited real life reasoning. It does not compute.

Now, let's move to our point number 2.

Why some people have vivid dreams and can remember them?

And vice versa. Here, I would like to refer to the sheer computing power of our brains. I don't have clear-cut evidence, but I think that people with more brain capacity have a higher chance of remembering their dreams in the morning. Likewise, they probably experience more detailed and colorful dreams. I am one such person.

It is quite likely that people whose brain topology is not designed for high throughput filter out most of the stuff experienced in dreams, leaving only vague bits for the early morning wakeup call. End result, they do not quite remember their dreams. On the other hand, people with highly optimized memory channels might get a fair portion of the night stuff stored on the would-be and available for later review.

Oh, this has nothing to do with education, but it probably has to do with intelligence. Don't mix the two.

Why dreams are so weird?

The dreams can be funny, absurd or frightening. Most often, they are far detached from the reality. But usually, you can relate to what's happening and you do understand the context of dreams.

I believe the reason why we struggle to rationalize dreams is the same like trying to explain a 3D world to a 2D person. You can't do that without losing some of the original information. Think about. While we sleep, our five physical senses are turned off or at least significantly muted down. And yet, we interpret the world using them. While we sleep and dream, we try to translate the abstract concepts of whatever is happening inside our heads in terms of sight, smell, hearing, and whatever. It does not come as a surprise that some of the translation may look funny. For instance, how do you explain the smell of childhood? Or what color is fear?

Instead, your brain tries to cope in the best fashion possible, converting ethereal concepts into something more like 4D reality. You get the basic idea, but there's a fair bit of noise. Timing is often wrong. You can't really smell that well in your dreams. Physical motion can also be weird.

Weird dreams

To you, dreams make sense, even if it's just a gut feeling when you wake up. But if you try to explain them to a stranger, unless you experience really long, ultra-detailed movie-quality dreams like I do, they will sound absurd and nowhere near as exciting and palpable as they did in your sleep. Point 4, please.

Why dreams make so little sense to other people?

Above, we tried to explain why dreams make less sense than we might expect them to. But if anyone could sneak into your dreams and spectate from a side, they would be utterly, completely baffled by your slideshow. Again, let's take a look at our brain topology. We talked about that in the Telepathy article. Our brain layout is a unique signature, our encryption key. We use it to interpret our own thoughts and dreams. For outsides, the encrypted data is just random garbage. Without the ability to relate to individual experiences, other people stand no chance of interpreting anyone else's dreams. They can only refer to after-the-fact explanations and rationalize them from within their own context.


Which is why any kind of dream psyche is bollocks. Fish and teeth and whatnot. Meaningless.

External interference

What if our brains are more susceptible to external electromagnetic interference while we sleep? Maybe some of our dreams are directly affected by particles hitting our brain cells, activating all kinds of signals. Perhaps part of the telepathy is unintended signaling that occurs in our dreams?

This might explain why couples or family members share similar dream topics and can relate to one another's experience. This may also explain why sometimes you get weird inconsistencies in your dream, which might be nothing more than your neighbor jamming you with his/her own brain radiation. Perhaps, it's all those neutrinos. Perhaps it's synaptic resonance.

Or maybe we suffer from bad cellphone reception?


Funny questions

Can we die in our dreams? Can we read? Can we see color? How come sometimes you know you're dreaming and you change the plot to suit your mood? Now, can we answer any of these using physics?

If we let thoughts travel faster than the speed of light, then we can have all kinds of paradoxes taking place. We might experience all sorts of manifestations, but understand them only after the real info arrives at its destination. What would a deja vu be in a dream? Sometimes, you do have recurring dreams, where you're kind of stuck in a loop. It usually happens when people are over-exhausted or sick, so there might be a chemical element involved that makes our brains twitter, replaying existing information over and over.


There's been a whole lot of experiments on the subject. People were narrated to while sleeping, trying to affect their dreams, people were strobed with dazzling light, deprived of sleep, drugged, all kinds of things that scientists can think of as a viable, measurable topic for a PhD degree.

Now, my ideas can surely go into Improbable Research.

Head to head sleep

I don't think they ever tried this. Take two people and tie they up, so their heads are connected at all times during sleep. Then question them about their dreams and see if proximity makes any difference. Then, slowly increase the distance until they are sleeping in separate cities. Try to aim for anything with more than 0.6 probability.


Note: Image taken from Wikipedia, licensed under GFDL 1.2.

Blood transfusion

How about connecting two people with blood transfusion, one awake, the other asleep? Same blood type, of course. Probably goes against Helsinki and Geneva conventions, but it might work. What kind of chemicals are released into our blood stream while we dream? Would the sleeper feel anything that goes in the real world? Could dreams affect the awake guinea pig, eh, human? Not gonna happen.

Wearing a copperwire mesh hat

This is somewhat like tinfoils hats they wear in Signs. The general idea is to cover your brain with a Faraday cage to prevent external factors from snooping on your dreams. Now, most people will probably think you're crazy, although you could argue the point for the sake of science. Furthermore, like the meat-eating horse anecdote, it could help you filter mentally challenged out of your circle of friends. I know I did try this trick a few times and some lesser minds truly believed my plain black woolen cap had a fine mesh woven into it, keeping my dreams and potentially brilliant ideas they contained safe from intrusion. A human firewall, if you will.

The experiment would be to see if using the cage could help people dream more soundly, have more lucid dreams or if external interferences could be canceled out, provided they proved statistically significant in any one of the other tests.


Good ole notebook

I know of a few dozen people who sleep with notebooks by their bed, so any time they wake, they record what they can remember of their dreams. If this were to be done on a major scale, with millions or tens of millions of people cooperating, we might then put our Linux-powered supercomputers to good use and start crunching numbers, looking for patterns. I'm positive there are going to be universal as well as local, cultural themes involved, but how about something unique and unknown?



I'm done. This article is not that physical, but it does touch a little on the aspects of electromagnetic emission and neural cryptography. It's also easier to examine the brain if we reduce its model to that of a CPU, where we see the CPU as a logical extension of our thinking into practical realization.

Dreams might be background processes in our chip, doing all kinds of maintenance in a failsafe mode, allowing us to recuperate toward the next day. The reason they seem so colorful, garbled and illogical is the fact we use our daily senses to try to understand a completely different set of dimensions in which the dreaming occurs. This wrong set of instructions make for our weird dream interpretations. Furthermore, any outsider snooping on our dreams would most likely find them encrypted or encrypted-like, with random noise that has no meaning except to the original owner. A series of experiments designed to investigate electromagnetic interference on a whole new level could shed light into how particle physics applies to dreaming.

That would be all, fellas!


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