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Is it possible to scientifically discuss the dream world?

  1. Feb 23, 2015 #1
    Science, unless I'm mistaken, tells us that electrochemical exchanges within our neural networks are what dreams and thoughts are manifested from.

    Problem is, to say that dreams are a manifestation of specific phenomena is to utterly refuse to say what the dreams literally are. How can science overcome this? Is it a limitation of scanning resolution, the incomplete nature of physical models, or must we develop technology than can translate brain signals into sounds, images and emotional states?

    I am aware that this forum is not philosophically oriented, as I am not interested in discussing this subject in such a manner. I want some hard science on why it has been so difficult to study dreams on a scientific level.
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 25, 2015
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 25, 2015 #2
    I think this question is similar to (if not the same as) the hard problem of consciousness (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_problem_of_consciousness). Personally I doubt that it is a question that can be answered in a way that will satisfy most people asking it. It's much like asking what our universe looks like on the outside...

    My opinion is that people tend to underestimate the scientific knowledge gained in the past 200 years and overestimate current scientific capabilities and the amount of time we have been performing modern scientific research. For example, we know much more about sleep than people did 150 years ago. There is some research into lucid dreaming, you could try looking into that.

    What kind of questions would you ask if you want to know more about dreams?
  4. Feb 25, 2015 #3
    It is in the nature of the verb, to be, that a person who so wishes can question what it means forever, in a kind of infinite sequence:

    A: What is a horse?

    B: A horse is a solid-hoofed plant-eating domesticated mammal with a flowing mane and tail, used for riding, racing, and to carry and pull loads.

    A: OK, but what, really, is a horse?

    B: Um...: a large animal that is used for riding and for carrying and pulling things.

    A: No, I mean what is a horse?

    B: A horse is a large, solid-hoofed, herbivorous quadruped, Equus caballus,domesticated since prehistoric times, bred in a number of varieties,and used for carrying or pulling loads, for riding, and for racing.

    A: No, explain a horse to me essentially.

    B : Eh?

    A: That's science for you! We humans with our puny minds don't even know what a horse is.

    Questioning what a thing is often indicates a state of mind resistant to all definitions.

    You give us the definition of "dream" you want to discuss.

  5. Feb 26, 2015 #4


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    Just a note for all those struggling with this very profound question.
    The first encyclopaedia in the Polish language (Nowe Ateny 'New Athens' ca.1750) contained the definitive definition of a horse:
    Horse is as everyone can see.

    I find it and its analogues to be the best answer to imprecise and overly general questions.
  6. Feb 26, 2015 #5


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    It is completely possible to speak scientifically about "The Dream World" but the conversation might get pretty boring.

    "Do you have any repeatable experimental procedure which can offer evidence to the actual existence of a dream world?"
    "No, not yet."
    "OK, well keep at it an let me know if and when you find something... in the mean time, how about that Higgs Boson! Ain't that something?"

    Science provides a sequence of hurdles for claims. The first hurdle is that the claim can be formulated as a statement about what we can repeatably experience. (It doesn't have to involve lab coats or research grants, it can simply be an assertion about everyday life.) If you cannot get over that hurdle then you cannot say the claim is scientific. Once that hurdle is passed there's then an infinite regress of further hurdles which are "being in agreement with empirical observations".

    So before trying to further discuss the science of the dream world, you will need to tackle this first hurdle. Can you formulate your beliefs in a way that manifests as predictions about something I, or anyone else can go experience. For example you speak of "the dream world" as if there's only one and we don't all have our own individualized dream worlds. If so the can people pass meaningful messages (e.g. an encryption key) via dreams. That's an example of a meaningful empirical (and hence scientific) test.
  7. Feb 27, 2015 #6
    I'll try to more clearly explain what it is I would like to know.

    This speaker in this TED Talk compares the subjective experience of consciousness to the tendency of water to take on certain properties--such as wetness--only after a sufficiently large clump of water molecules are present. Additionally, the phase state changes depending on the molecules' behavior. Similarly, as was reasoned, consciousness is also an "emergent phenomenon" which is observed only after enough atoms of particular characteristics are behaving in a particular arrangement. Fair enough. But you can clearly see that water is wet, whereas the act of being conscious, and the visuals that accompany thoughts and dreams, are observable only to the person containing the matter generating the phenomenon. It becomes absurd, then to ask "where" this experience is happening, because while it manifests from connections in our brain, the experience is not literally located in the brain as some miniature set piece.

    On a related note, DMT, which may or not assist in dream functions, can produce fractals, Fibonacci sequences, historical architecture and complex geometry when taken orally or smoked. I have observed such mathematics in my own experiences, and have even seen shifts in the perspective of reality that resemble higher-dimensional geometric computer renderings.

    So if there's anything I would like to know, it is
    1) Is there any scientific way to describe, using known laws, how the emergent phenomenon of subjective experience relates to the neurons from which it arises?
    2) Is there any scientific way to probe why the phenomenon is only observable on an individual level?
    3) Is there any scientific way to investigate why DMT can, in specific situations, produce mathematically precise geometry?
  8. Feb 27, 2015 #7


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    As jambaugh said, you would first have to clarify how to measure this subjective experience in an scientific way.
    Is it? That would first need an answer to (1).
    It does not "produce geometry", it distorts the way the brain works (and the effect on neurons is well studied), hallucinations included.
  9. Feb 28, 2015 #8
    Interestingly enough, it's possible to roughly reproduce a cat's visual field from a matrix of implanted electrodes in the animal's visual cortex:
    Computer records animal vision in Laboratory - UC Berkeley
    (To me, the human face in the video looks feline!)

    It's long been a dogma of neuroscience that the same neural pathways are enlisted in mental visualization as in processing the scenes before our eyes. It follows that it should be possible to externalize mental imagery by probing the brain in a similar way. Human subjects would prefer less invasive methods. By first recording the fMRI responses of research subjects to thousands of images, it proved possible to resynthesize approximations of the subjects' dream imagery by blending among the images in the collection:
    Scientists figure out what you see while you're dreaming
    Scientists use brain imaging to reveal the movies in our mind
    The future of the brain-computer interface?:
    Dr Morbius visualizes his daughter Altaira

    Geometric patterns in visual hallucinations can be ascribed to the Lie groups underlying image transformations:
    The Lie transformation group model of visual perception
    . . . and to the importance of symmetry as a feature of lifeforms:
    Wallpaper Groups: the 17 plane symmetry groups
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2015
  10. Feb 28, 2015 #9


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    Here's the paper that Orison's journalist article is referencing (using brain imaging to reveal movies in our mind:

    And here's the actual result. To explain the methodology here a little bit, what they basically did was have the subjects watch a bunch of random youtube videos while they recorded processes in the brain that reflected visual field processing. They use this data to construct a model of feature processing by voxel. They then have the subjects watch the "test" movie while they monitor the brain activity, then take the brain activity and translate it to the voxels from the training movies, reconstructing the movie from all the training movies. Here's what it looks like:

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