On the unrealism of dreams, and the problems with their depiction in fiction

Something has always struck me as being wrong with the oft-used narratives in science fiction and fantasy, where a protagonist for some reason, and it’s generally a noble one, gets to enter the dream of another person.

I’m thinking of movies like Inception, and the much better movie that I liked far more in my youth, Deamscape… In both movies, it is possible to enter into the dream of another person and interact both with them and their “dream world”. Inception tried to be too clever about it, and entered into the realm of contrived complexity, what with dreams within dreams and ambiguity regarding what was real and what was not – and impressed people much like pseudo profound statements do, because bullshit baffles brains. (If you don’t understand something, it is a common error to assume that the the thing is too complex for you or that the thing is “smart”, when it might be the case that the thing is just nonsense that appears to be complex. This is why some people are impressed by, for example, the word salad of Deepak Chopra.) But I digress; reviewing a movie with a plot that was fundamentally flawed and hid its flaws with contrived complexity, that most people thought was good, is not my aim for today.

As real as dreams may be to us when we experience them, they are not as realistic as they might seem. We know that we forget details of our dreams within seconds of waking from them, and I don’t dispute this… But what I think most people don’t realize, is that some of those details are not forgotten – they were never there in the first place.

To illustrate my point, I’ll invent a hypothetical dream… Let’s say I dreamed of making my breakfast this morning. I might find myself in the kitchen, with bowls for me and my son Josh, already containing cereal and sugar. Then I’d pour water from the kettle, already boiled, into those bowls. I wouldn’t remember adding cereal to the bowls, or putting the kettle on, or even walking to the kitchen, because that never happened. Anything outside of the dream experience is not constructed by the subconscious brain. It is assumed to have happened, and in our dreams, we accept that the setup for whatever situation we find ourselves in, has already taken place. In fact, if I didn’t turn around to the door and passage, there’s be no need for my brain to construct that either. There is no “dream world”… everything in the dream that isn’t in my field of vision or a part of my emotions in the dream… does not exist. I’ll get back to this, and how it relates to the dream narratives in fiction (although that should be obvious by now).

Last night I dreamed of my father. He died seventeen years ago, but as usual for me when dreaming, I forgot that he was dead. I was a passenger in his car, and he was driving me around despite being busy himself, with several errands to run. (That’s what he used to do. My dad always had time for me.) Maybe I got to this because my car is still at the panel beaters, so this seemed to make sense. Then we parted ways, and I was to meet him later, and found myself in a local computer store… I have been meaning to check the prices of keyboards, and find out if I can get a keyboard with backlit keys for my PC. The reason is that I sometimes play games at night, with the room lights off because Josh sleeps in the same room, and in the dark I can’t easily find some of the shortcut keys I use in my favourite game.

The technician was explaining to me that such backlit keyboards don’t exist, and giving me some very technical reasons for it, when my father entered the store. He was impatient and left, expecting me to follow him. As I watched him walking away, through the glass storefront, the dream broke down. I realized that the technician talking to me was still there, but had faded away because he was no longer important, no longer the subject of my attention. He’d become a ghost in my dream, while my dead father was a “real” person and the focus of my attention. I wouldn’t be able to find my father’s car if he got out of sight, because I didn’t remember where he’d parked. My father was walking to a car that didn’t exist, in a parking lot that didn’t exist, to run errands, the details of which I had no clue because my brain had only invented the fact that there were errands, but not the details themselves. And I’d been listening to a voice that was simply a construction in my own mind, of the voice of a real technician I’d heard before, talking absolute nonsense that sounded technical. (I’ll remember to check what keyboards they have though.) So I had a chuckle and woke up.

The point that breaks the plot in all those movies and books where you can enter the dream of another person, is that the dream world does not exist. When you dream, your lazy brain only fabricates that which is necessary for the dream to feel real, at the time. You might dream of solving a problem, and use problem-solving skills that you acquired with experience, without knowing what the problem is. You might dream that something happened to make you happy, or sad, or angry, but likewise not know what that something is. And you don’t need to know. Your brain can take a shortcut to happiness or anger or any other emotion because it knows how to feel them. The details are unimportant.

So, a movie like Inception where some people enter the dream of another and drive a van towards the building he’s in, makes no sense at all. If he’s dreaming, none of those things they interact with would exist, because they are not within his field of vision or within the scope of his emotions that form part of his dream reality. So maybe the protagonists could project their own details into the dream? I suppose that’s what you’re meant to assume. But that doesn’t really make sense either, if you think about it.

This doesn’t spoil such movies for me. I can still watch them and enjoy them for that they are – entertainment through fantasy and escapism. Knowing that the narratives of entering the dreams of others is flawed to an extent that it could never happen doesn’t really change anything, when all movies contain scientific impossibilities. But I enjoy thinking about these things anyway. Dreams fascinate me, as does the realization that the realities we construct in our dreams can fool us at the time, despite how flimsy they actually are. The brain is an amazing organ.


About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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3 Responses to On the unrealism of dreams, and the problems with their depiction in fiction

  1. bbnewsab says:

    REM dreams are often used by woo people to confirm and prove that consciousness is nonlocal and that there is an afterlife.

    Of course both these woo views are pure bullshit. At least there is no evidence available to support them.

    BTW, I notice that you, Jerome, here above mention maybe the greatest bullshitter of our time, that is Deepak Chopra.

    I hope you’ve heard of this Deepak Chopra bullshit quotes generator: http://www.wisdomofchopra.com/ . A hilarious tool to use.

    Also read this interesting article, Jerome: http://www.skepticmoney.com/the-dangerous-bullshit-of-depaak-chopra/ .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bbnewsab says:

    WTF!? Have you become a Chopra fan and woo believer, Jerome? 🙂

    My comment was not allowed to be published.

    OTOH I think the reason for that “denial” is that I included two links. WP seems to regard more than one link in a comment as spam.

    Liked by 1 person

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