Dreaming of Reality: The Ultimate Question of Our Consciousness

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

― Edgar Allan Poe

Let’s take a trip on over to REM land – a.k.a where dreams are made. Wait no that’s Walt Disney World. Ok I’ll stop with the bad psych puns. Point is – during REM sleep we are typically paralyzed in a sense – our brain shuts off our muscles so we don’t act out our dreams and we just chill there in dream land. What’s interesting though is how the brain lights up/waves increase to the point where you might think the person is awake. Hence the whole dreaming thing.

What is truly interesting is how the brain gets the hippocampus (one of the major structures involved in memory) and the sensory cortices involved. It’s why we dream about things we’ve seen before or have been thinking about. For example, I keep dreaming about being accepted or rejected from grad school, or about running code for my thesis, and recently after going on a Hunger Games binge, I started dreaming about being in the arena. This all happens and seems incredibly real – we see it happening, despite the fact that our eyes are closed and we have no visual input. And MRIs show that indeed our visual cortex is active.

While there's no comparison in this shot for our brain when we are awake - the brighter colours indicate more activity, notice how much more active the brain in REM sleep is compared to non-REM source.

While there’s no comparison in this shot for our brain when we are awake – the brighter colours indicate more activity, notice how much more active the brain in REM sleep is compared to non-REM

We get some interesting stuff out of this scenario, most of which strengthens the constructivist arguments:

  1. If we are able to produce visual and auditory experiences independent of environmental stimuli, then how can we know that we are not constantly doing this? If  in dream land we can construct a new reality, then how do we know for sure which is reality and which is dream, or if there is any difference between the two? We can see that our brain reacts in the same way, so who’s to say it’s not the same?

    Notice that outside of muscle activity - the brain waves are suspiciously similar? EOG=Eye movements,s EEG=brain activity, EMG=muscle activity Source.

    Notice that outside of muscle activity – the brain waves are suspiciously similar?
    EOG=Eye movements,s EEG=brain activity, EMG=muscle activity

  2. If we can do this in dreamland, we could be doing it in the “real world.” The only criteria most apply to distinguish the two is that we “wake up” in bed, or that it just seemed too crazy, too out of the pattern of our other experiences, too unexpected. We use our own derived logic to infer what is fact and fiction. Our brain, the same brain that we willingly acknowledge can create extremely vivid images without stimulation, the brain that can at least temporarily convince us that it’s creations are real; that deceiving mass of neurons, is the same mass of cells responsible for letting us know, what is real and what isn’t.
  3. Jump on the crazy train, grab some Freudian literature, and hold on tight, because things are about to get really interesting. So some of our dreams elicit such strong emotions, such incredible fear, powerful joy – what if “reality” is a Freudian defense mechanism? What if we’re looking at things in reverse, and our brain constructs this different world for us to escape to? Just a thought, and I mean I think the “real” world is sufficiently crappy at times, but still…what if…?
  4. These imaginary worlds can have a real impact on us emotionally and behaviourally. Have you ever woken up crying after dreaming something really awful, like your significant other dumped you, or someone died? Despite the fact that we wake up and marvel at what a strange or terrifying dream that was, for that brief period, we truly believed that to be reality. And that made us feel emotions. In some cases people even modify their behaviour based on some “premonition” from their dreams. And I say this not to make these individuals feel foolish, or because I think they are foolish – I raise it only to point out the effects something we have labelled as “not real” can have on our “reality.”


Owing to neural plasticity* the brain can actually take over the areas typically assigned to one task and reassign them when it realizes the area isn’t being used for its original purpose.

So our brain can reassign, rework, things, so that sound activates visual cortex – but then what does this say about the dreams of blind individuals?


As I realize most of my curiosity  at this point comes from my ignorance rather than the ignorance of the field, I did what I do best – I opened TED talks and Google Scholar and set to work finding the cold hard facts.
Turns out that results are a little mixed.
It partially depends on age of vision loss – after about 5-7 your dreams would still have visual content, but your images will not have updated (e.g. mom will always look the same age). Before that point, results are a little mixed, but some research does indicate that  your dreams may still have some visual components (
Bértolo, 2005). This was demonstrated through brain activity scans and asking participants who were congenitally blind to describe and draw their dreams. Which they could do. They could still perform these visual tasks, despite having never been able to see in the traditional sense.

Much of this research has been based in proving that there is a distinction between visualization and visual imagery. You know – sorting out the hard problem one sensory modality at a time. It has been hypothesized that perhaps the brain uses the other inputs to create a visual representation in the absence of the actual image. So their dreams didn’t actually contain visual components, but through integration of auditory and tactile experiences, a visual depiction could be generated. They don’t see in their dreams (which would have been incredibly cool), but they create a visual experience. What this explanation is essentially saying is that we can use our other senses to create a new sense that we cannot experience in a traditional way.

What is incredible is that it’s not just visually impaired individuals that do this – we do it in our every day life without realizing and appreciating the power of the human brain. Close your eyes and imagine pouring a bowl of cereal. No problem right? Imagine, how you would go about applying for a new job, or running up your street to catch a bus. We can do that with ease. Thanks to our big beautiful frontal cortex, we have the ability to envision things that have never happened – create what has never been, or what has been in the past, or what someone else has experienced, or what may be, or some combination of these possibilities. It’s fascinating. We are the masters of our world. Despite lack of input from one sense, we can potentially create it from other inputs. Our brain can create something that isn’t there, perhaps from memory, or random firing of circuits at the wrong time or of no longer used circuits, which may explain both phantom limbs and hallucinations.
Yes this also opens the door to the idea that nothing is real, but quite frankly, that door was always open, we just often try to ignore it. I say embrace it. Ignoring your vegetables as a child never made them go away.

So sitting back, this entire thing, as I’ve mentioned before – can be both terrifying and exhilarating. Yes, we might be alone, and yes we might be making it all up, but this also gives us incredible power to change the way we view the world. Change how we think and change our consciousness. Which has been of great interest to me in research terms – understanding how we look at the world and how we put it all together and how that affects everything – how we conceive of mental illness, and life scripts, and how we treat physical and cognitive impairments. How does how we think affect how we do things and think about things and have we got it right? I know, I’m being a psych major again. I’ve thought about this way too much maybe, but it’s fascinating, how can you not think about this?!

So maybe I’ve over-thought it, put a little too much power into the wrong hands, but I think that dreams are fascinating. Not in the Freudian sense where they say something about your unconscious processes, but in a conscious sort of way, in a how do dreams and the brain activity interact and what does this say about our experiences of reality.

“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”

― John Lennon

*A fascinating phenomenon in which the brain actually rewires itself, typically following some sort of nerve or brain damage, but this is the principle behind such programs as Luminosity, and is one of the most fascinating areas of neuroscience in my opinion – look it up. No seriously, I’ll wait.
Also – WATCH THIS VIDEO – My mind has been blown. This is so incredibly exciting!


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