Lucid dreaming versus normal dreaming versus everyday reality: Tom Clark has an excellent article on this subject, which I just got around to reading, and it reminded me of a TED talk by David Perry, “Will Videogames Become Better than Life?”
If you’ve read or listened to much of my stuff, you’ll know that one of my major interests is in how the brain constructs our reality, and how understanding that can affect the way we think of ourselves and who we are. Tom’s piece fits right into that interest and brings in the dimension of lucid dreaming that I haven’t talked about. Anything that erodes our conventional, erroneous view of human reality is right up my alley of course, and Tom fleshes out this idea in his usual clear and engrossing way. I highly recommend reading the piece. He includes other references that are also well worth pursuing.
Here is a teaser that states my main focus:
“As people learn about lucid dreaming, an interesting fact about the brain will become known: it is a virtual reality generator. But an even more remarkable fact is waiting in the wings: waking experience is virtual reality too.”
The Perry talk brings in still another point of view: the reality of video games versus the reality of real life. I wrote a comment on it for the TED site which I’ll reproduce here with additional comments. Some of the ideas are borrowed from Tom Clark’s article and his references:
Video games are not the only source of virtual reality in town. As Highland said in the video Perry showed, a good insurance commercial can create experience real enough to bring tears to those of us who become easily immersed. The same is true of books and movies.
The difference between these kinds of virtual reality and physical reality is that we can step away from the video game, movie, or book, and become aware of the technology that produced the experience. It is impossible, however, to step away from the brain, which is the technology producing our experience of “physical” reality. All our experience happens in the brain, and the only difference in the varieties of experience is the kind of technology that provides the brain with it’s material—books, TV, movies, video games, or none of the above.
Some people can read a book and maintain awareness of the author’s style, intent, vocabulary, etc., while they’re reading, and some people can watch movies or play video games with a similar level of awareness of the technology that’s controlling their sensory inputs. It is more difficult to experience dreaming or ordinary waking reality with the same level of awareness of how the brain is translating its inputs into a model of the outside world.
Our experience of the physical world is as virtual as anything else, except for the kinds of constraints involved. In a novel, we’re constrained by the author’s skill and our own past experience—the emotional and physical repertoire we bring to the book. We’re constrained by the technology and programming of the video game and movie as well. In our everyday virtual experience, we’re constrained by the limitations of our sensory apparatus, and by the stimuli the physical world gives our brains to work with—we can’t see magnetic fields; we can’t see through walls.
Although we can never experience reality directly, we can become more aware of the technology that produces the virtual reality that we live in—our brain. We can become more aware of its limitations—optical illusions can baffle it—and we can become more aware of how our history has programmed our brains. Our parents, schools, friends, culture, etc. have instilled ideas about what is real and important. The sciences of sociology, psychology, and neurology can help us gain perspective on the forces that have produced our current reality, and offer ways of enlarging on prior programming.
Tom Clark brings up an extreme version of seeing through the mechanisms of our brain’s reality models, the example of Buddhist monks burning themselves to death in protest of the Vietnam War:
“Possibly their monastic training had permitted them to attain the direct realization that waking experience, in particular the experience of self, is indeed a construction, such that they were no longer controlled by pain or the thought of death. Perhaps they had awoken, at least to some degree, from the “dream” of the waking virtual world.”
I have no interest in being capable of self-immolation, but I do make an ongoing attempt to be aware, from moment to moment, of the brain processes producing my experience. I would like for my everyday experience to be lucid in the way that dreams can be; to be aware, as it happens, that my experience of reality, including my self, is virtual.