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!


What is Science Trying to Prove?

So just imagine this – it’s midnight, you have to get up at 6am, go hang out on campus for 14 hours the next day enduring a 6 hour break in the middle that is just long enough to come home but the bus ride is also just long enough that it’s not worth the effort. Sounds like a good time to sleep, no?
I don't alwaysOf course not.
It’s time for a big idea. That absolutely MUST be written down BEFORE you sleep, because let’s face it, we always think we’ll remember in the morning, but science has shown we really just can’t. We don’t really consolidate anything that last 15 minutes, so I pick up my phone and dutifully start typing.
So what was this absolutely marvelous idea that absolutely HAD to be written down? That was worth sleep deprivation on a 14-hour-Monday (which just makes it suck even more)?
It’s (another) discussion on the issues of science. I’ve talked about the whole induction deduction issue before, and I have talked about how psychology is more aware of its propensity for errors in conclusions and results, largely due to the variation that exists within individuals, but I’ve missed out I think on how science contradicts some of it’s own principles, and has set up this double standard.


source. For the record, men’s brains are technically larger, though most of the difference is owing to their generally larger size,  and there is a high degree of overlap between the distributions of male versus female brain size. Which is essentially irrelevant because connections matter more than mass.

What is interesting is that science is paralleled largely as a man’s world. You know, as in men are rational and logical and they rely more on the right hemisphere (?) than women who are so incredibly irrational (but damn are they good in the kitchen!). And because of this “fact” women cannot be associated with science, it must be a man thing. Which to be fair more females are engaging in scientific pursuits lately thanks to various women’s and men’s movements, and some of the big thinkers in science are female (nevermind that Watson and Crick used a woman’s data and then took all the credit…). But we are presented with this wonderfully rational and emotionally sterile picture of science. Except that’s not really the case.
The problem with science is that its methods are designed to prove by deduction and inferences – we don’t prove something is true in theory. In theory we demonstrate that the alternative is extremely unlikely, to a level that our theory or proposal is more likely. And science acknowledges this in its theoretical methods, but the problem is that this information is then taken as fact and used on future studies as such. Thus our hypotheses become progressively more precarious as they come to rely on “most likely true” which was developed from another “most likely true” but science doesn’t acknowledge that. So we’ve essentially set off a cascade of potential error each time we report results.

Oh the normal curve. This will prove or disprove the last 8 months of my life's efforts. Crossing fingers and toes.

Oh the normal curve. This will prove or disprove the last 8 months of my life’s efforts. Crossing fingers and toes. Source.

What becomes even more problematic is the public reaction to such results. As a student in psychology and science it has been drilled into my head to carefully look at the results, and while I rarely track down the results unless it bears significance for me (usually in the context that I am already interested in the topic for personal or school related research), I know how to read a study and discriminate between statistical and practical significance.
Curious if the general population was as careful I asked a few friends, who, except for one, told me that they would likely simply take the evidence at face value without further skepticism or investigation assuming it came from a reasonably credible source (i.e. the newspaper. Because you know, those guys NEVER bias their information.). At this point I decided to ask them if they knew the difference between statistical and practical significance. It’s my bread and butter. What we want is both, but we don’t always get that. Tragically, again, only one person (the same person) understood what I was talking about.

The issue is that newspapers rarely distinguish the two. So people make life decisions potentially or at the very least alter their opinions about things, somewhat needlessly. So for non-psych junkies allow me to explain it in less than 30 seconds: statistical significance says that there’s a very small mathematical chance that there isn’t a difference between the groups/that our “best guess” was wrong; practical significance is whether or not something actually matters – is the effect size (i.e. the effect of whatever manipulation was applied on one group compared to another untreated) big enough to be a big deal?

So you end up with a situation like this... maybe.  Source.

So you end up with a situation like this… maybe.

For example, suppose a study reports than individuals on diet X lost significantly more than the individuals on diet Y. They very well may have – there might be a mathematical difference, but then you look at the effect size and the means, and you realize that there’s a high degree of overlap, lots of people on diet Y lost more than diet X and lots lost less, but the difference in the average amount of weight lost between groups is say 35lbs compared to 32lb.

Well stop the presses. Not. This is hardly worth getting excited for.

Well stop the presses. Not. This is hardly worth getting excited for. Source.

So how science is reported and viewed is a problem. Beyond the general population’s lack of awareness of how to interpret the results, is the issue of how people don’t appear to get how science does it’s thing. We trust the process just a little bit too much. Even I have fallen prey to reading a study, remembering to check all the appropriate statistics and methodology and going, yup looks good, let’s source this in my paper and call it fact, without considering how it was that the scientists developed their theories and how shakey the foundation of their theory (or any theory for that matter) may be. Yes I ensure that I mention when things only showed increased likelihood (i.e. the study was correlational and thus proves very little according to science), but I also sort of treat it as fact, as a given, when I build it into my argument. So really, I’m not better than the general population, I’m just more aware of  that fact that I’m doing it.

Beaker, Flasks, Test TubesIn most of the “pure sciences” – chemistry and physics – you are dealing with inanimate objects with no will or growth on their own. But I don’t recall there ever being a discussion of the null hypothesis, I remember taking measurements to calculate error – but the error measurements didn’t assume confounds, it affirmed that either you did something wrong or the scale or PCR or whatever other science machine wasn’t working properly. For example, you compare the mass you DID get versus the theoretical amount you SHOULD HAVE gotten. When you calculate the error it is based on a theory, which either was thought up almost out of thin air, or was based on other potentially flawed measurements. Thus the theoretical answer (based on either a theory/idea or a potentially flawed answer) is used to judge the accuracy of another lab experiment. Yet the point of comparison may be no more accurate.

To give the pure sciences credit, at least they have a tangible point of reference. In psychology we just have the complex calculations and a lot of assumptions because we never can KNOW if we were right or wrong about people. They change their minds too often. Psychology lacks a point of reference for it’s error, it can in no way calculate the true state of the world, and so we work in a world of theories, but we are not immune to using these theories as near fact. We perhaps acknowledge it more, but we are no better. 

See the issues?

  1. We take “science” as fact, when really it’s probability because we can never know the true state of things.
  2. We judge probability from theory.
  3. We develop theories from ideas and pre-existing “fact.”
  4. Go back to 1.

There’s an infinite loop of probability painted as truth. But we don’t talk about it. Like if we ignore it, it’ll go away.
At the risk of sounding like some sort of hell-raiser, just out there to leave you hanging from a metaphorical cliff, I don’t have really any solutions to fix this. It’s part of being human, this notion of knowing and perceiving reality without actually having any proof of anything. The only solution I can offer is skepticism and awareness. Not taking things for face value, find the science and judge it’s results for yourself, or at least learn to read the graphs and data and not fall prey to tricks such as modifying the scale.

The Beginning Disguised as an End

“I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”

― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

So the semester is officially over. There will be no more caffeine and will-power fueled discussions when I would sort of rather be snuggled on my sofa watching Grey’s Anatomy. I have no idea where the last three months of my life have gone but I know I learned a lot more and a lot less than I expected. I did not learn the names of more than 3 names in psychology, I did not learn dates and achievements, but I did learn a lot about the world. From within the four walls of LMX219 I have questioned some of my most fundamental assumptions, coming up with a lot more questions than answers, and really only apparently learning that certainty is complete and total bullshit. A thought that should serve me well in life in general.

We’ve tackled some pretty big questions, and as Claude so cogently pointed out – few of us posed questions, most sought answers. For me this only resulted in more questions. But let’s look at the Big Questions Directory:

  1. What is psychology?
  2. What is science?
  3. Is Psychology a science?
  4. What are the flaws with science?
  5. Do we ever know anything?

I was going to source back to the answers to these, but I realized that these were evolving answers, like knowledge in general, as time passed I evolved the answers got into finer detail, brought up the things that really bugged me, like emotions, multiple times. You want my answers? My thoughts still in development? Start here.

What’s really funny for me is that from all the talk of magic and thinly veiled, perhaps unknowing references, the most significant and valuable lesson I learned from this course is that life really is Harry Potter.

No seriously, hear me out.

Gateway to the ShireEvidence:

  • Science was often discussed as magic, don’t believe me – ask Google.
  • Way back, we were told to go home and sit in front of our toilets – why? Because he wanted us to go into the Chamber of Secrets. Or gain access to the Ministry of Magic (I didn’t know the toilets fed into D’Orio and Marion, I thought Marion only had the gateway to the Shire.) Really, which is all a giant metaphor for our access to knowledge and awareness – he wanted us to reveal the dirty, messy truth of life
  • There was talk of divination
  • Science does a lot of stuff that no one knows how – they just do it.
  • The scientists hide away in their secret labs – kind of like Hogwarts no?
  • Herbology = botany, potions=chemistry, charms = physics; best of all – History and Systems = Defense Against the Dark Arts, complete with a Claude-Lupin parallel.
  • My cross-cultural prof and forensic psych profs both brought up Harry Potter completely unprovoked – cross-cultural pointed out how strange it would be if he walked in in the robes like they wear in Harry Potter.
  • There are certain behaviours that are often classed as unforgiveable – just like the unforgiveable curses – for example, we don’t like psychopaths, because they try to control us (ahem, Imperio!) and am I the only one who classed Voldemort as a psychopath?! We’re also not such big fans of murderers or people who knowingly make people suffer pain. When thinking of the big unforgiveables in society, really those are the big universals
  • taken from teeturtle.com

    taken from teeturtle.com

    Look at the four houses – they are based on core personality traits and diagnostic categories – Slytherin for example are quite obviously the psychopaths, Ravenclaws are extremely smart (IQ), Griffindor are the highly loyal and brave, and then there’s Hufflepuff, which I could probably label too but really function as comic relief, they are the opposite of Ravenclaw

  • Notice how Harry’s mother’s love provided a shield against evil, not saying science is evil, just that traditional magic (science) could not account for the old magic (love and emotions) much in the way that I have argued that the area that science cannot explain is love and emotions.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

Moving on.

While I intend to continue on with this exploration and questioning, both from my notes as well as from readings of material that provoke more question, I feel like I should at this point go over some closing thoughts for the course. Because let’s face it, from here I have no idea what I am doing or how I’m going to do it. I am however working on pieces on emotions and on what the brain does, so check back in the coming weeks!

A general discrepancy between what science should be and what it is was present in most of the course, and now that I am reflecting back on the course, that was the ultimate point.

The difference between what is and what should be – the failed expectations.

See science is lovely, in theory, it works out perfectly, it is a very powerful system if it works but the problem is that it essentially relies on assumptions. Like I talked about – it measures a few singularities and then leaps to the general. Which is somewhat logical – the classic “If Socrates is a man and all men are mortal then Socrates is mortal.” But the problem is that we don’t really know anything, we just pretend to.

Then life gets in an muddles everything.

Science tries to eliminate emotions, to eliminate humanity to a degree because it mutates what is potentially an all powerful system into a believable, but vulnerable, system – it creates flaws that dent its utility. Just like us. What surprises me is how science tries to deny its flaws. It expects to be rational, it labels emotions, the essence of humanity, as irrational or problematic for some other reason. Essentially, it seems to me that scientists attempt to pathologize humanity in an attempt to deify itself – to perfect our exploration and development of knowledge. Accepting that we cannot be completely unbiased, that emotions colour everything (perhaps the source of the colour associations with emotions? Just a thought), then you have to accept that our expectations are baseless and we are helpless to find reality and truth.

But see the thing is that just because we might be wrong, doesn’t mean we cannot be right. It just means that you should not be too convinced that you have found a truth unless you are prepared that you may have found nothing more than a stepping stone, a false truth.

We become frustrated in life when what we expected to happen fails. We want to believe we are as powerful as our thoughts. We come equipped with all this big beautiful brain power, we have the capacity to understand limitless possibilities, imagine things that don’t exist yet. But I was watching Grey’s Anatomy last night and an interesting thought came up

“We’ll try again, and we’ll going to fail again, because that’s what progress looks like.”
“Progress looks like a dead sheep?”
“No, progress looks like a bunch of failures.”

Word. Thanks Grey’s. And my parents told me TV rots your brain. Pft.

calvin-and-hobbes ontologicalThis course has allowed me to question everything I know, even the things I didn’t know I didn’t know. This has not weakened my faith in psychology, one course could not do that. It has given me an appreciation for the issues and complexities and has taught me that this is the tragedy of human life. We come equipped with the power to learn anything, but we are limited by time, our existing knowledge, and the currently available explanations.

We talked about science versus art versus … something else? And I realized that science, because it believes in its methods, when it fails blames the technology, when it can’t find an answer it’s because the technology, the tools, have not developed enough to meet the ideas of the scientist’s mind. Art doesn’t really fail per say, except perhaps in trying to convey the message, except, art is almost more about what you do see than what you were supposed to see. Art does not have an expectations necessarily, it is developed over time, and what comes out of it, appreciated by the artist, if they really hate it, it’s their fault, or maybe just a lack of inspiration, a lack of a light inside themselves. Then there’s the grey areas like psychology. I hate to call it an art, because I think in society’s mind that makes it less legitimate, but it’s not always as cold and methodical as science, it requires more intuition and humanity than that. See when science fails it blames the technology, but if psychology does the same – it blames the technology, for me that says that all humanity is the same. It denies that it failed not because the technology doesn’t exist but because the same patterns cannot be found because humanity is not a set of carbon atoms (well we are. But not really. At least for me. I am sure the Brain Campers would have something to say about this) – so we’re not going to be identical, patterns are going to be harder to find, expectations more frequently denied. End game? Psychology is a science in it’s methods, but an art in its conclusions and applications.

In understanding expectations versus reality I realized how this explains everything.

Depression becomes a realization that our expectations and reality don’t match.

Schizophrenia, a refusal to accept this.

Anxiety, a fear that because of this we are not the foolproof dieties we want to be. A realization that our brain allows us to imagine beyond our lifetime, but that we have a lifetime.

Science, an attempt to deny this, by rigidly controlling how we make expectations.

Art, the realization and expression of this beauty and pain through some medium – baring our humanity to the world.

Psychology an attempt to figure out what this expectation-reality discrepancy means to us, and attempt to accept it and bring peace to our existence.

We can’t be perfect. Life isn’t perfect. Sometimes things go horribly and painfully wrong. And there is nothing we can do about it. The problem of science is the same problem humanity has faced for years – the problem that we are stuck in this loop of thinking we know and then realizing that we don’t. This is life and the course and this is my realization of the course. The last AHA! Moment of the semester!

I’ve still got a fair amount of material I’m working on, but I’d love to hear from you. Send me your suggestions, let me know what you think.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

― Voltaire