The New Cool Media of Dreams

Written by: Daniel Oldis

We often encounter the topic of dreams in media: dreams in books, dreams in television shows, dreams in movies like Christopher Nolan's Inception. Yet, what if we were to consider the dream as more than content for popular media; what if the dream is a form of communication media itself?

Dream scholars have often used the concepts and metaphors of communication media to understand and explain dreams. In 1911, French philosopher Henri Bergson in Creative Evolution created a sensation by suggesting that thought processes such as stream of consciousness and dreaming were similar in form to a movie. Carl Jung believed dreams a communication media between the voice of the unconscious and the ego--like radio. Sigmund Freud and Jacques Derrida Dream saw dreams as forms of writing or text. Contemporary dream theorists such as Alan Hobson and Donald DeGracia describe the dream experience by employing the metaphor of the theater. Many cognitive scientists view dreams as similar to abstract art, a synthesis of perception and concept.

Though dreams have be considered communication (between Freudian Id and Ego, for example) using media analogies, are they truly "media"? Purists may define communication as interpersonal and media as existing external to the self. Yet Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa are media but not persons, and the external medium of virtual reality vs the dream may one day become indistinguishable to human perception.

In 1964, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan published his seminal Understanding Media, a work that approached communication media in terms of the human experience and the effects of a particular medium as lived by the subject--the feeling of the medium. McLuhan emphasized the form of the medium over its content. He felt we experience more than we understand, exemplified by his famous "the medium is the message" claim.

Dreams can be considered as media when viewed as pure experience--how they feel, rather than what they mean or why we have them.

McLuhan placed media on a culturally-dependent continuum from "hot" to "cool": hot media are often emotionally and informationally intense, allowing little conscious participation and message interpretation from the subject. Examples of hot media are cinema, text, the radio and the phonograph.

Cool media are less emotionally intense, lower in information with higher conscious participation and reflective interpretation and include media such as the telephone, television and virtual reality.

We experience hot cinema, but we"watch"cool TV. Movie theaters demand silence, whileTV invites comment and participation--we watch "The Voice," critique and vote for best performance.

Ordinary dreams generally fit the criteria for hot media--movies, records, radio. Dreams can be emotionally intense (fear, elation, embarrassment) with high information content condensed in symbols. Ordinary dreams offer little conscious or intentional participation or reflective interpretation. Most of our ordinary dreams are pretty "hot stuff."

"Cool" dreams include the lucid dream, an ancient medium but new to mainstream and academic acceptance. Lucid dreams (as opposed to ordinary dreams) are cool because the dreamer, the ego actor, is aware of dreaming and consciously participates in the dream; the dreamer can dispassionately explore and interpret the dream space, direct attention and reflect on the experience, communicate with dream characters and manipulate dream objects. Emotion is diluted--dream tigers become mere "cool cats."

Yet, lucid dreams are not the only way to cool off dreams. Nascent dream media such as inter- dream communication and dream recordings present new, even cooler forms of dream media.

Super-Cool Inter-Dream Communication

Inter-dream communication--sending short messages between two dreamers--is scientifically possible. For example, I climbing a mountain in my dream can send a sign to you in your dream of sailing the blue ocean.

Inter-dream messaging utilizes two proven ideas to achieve this: "dream incorporation" of real- world stimuli such as lights, sounds or touches into the "story" of the dream; and signaling from a "lucid" dreamer back to the world using eye movements or hand movements. And if one lucid dreamer can communicate with the world, then two lucid dreamers can communicate with each other. The "cool" media of lucid dreams can thus transform into the "super-cool" medium of dream-to-dream communication.

In a 2012 Forbes article, reporter Parmy Olson introduced this new medium: the inter-dream. Describing a recent inter-dream experiment, she wrote, "Sometime in the future, you may not have to be awake to connect to friends online - you could say "hello," even play games, while dreaming." The experiment combined high-tech electroencephalography, the internet and a red light bulb to demonstrate simple multi-dreamer communication. "This essentially means that one person having a lucid dream has 'pinged' (or Facebook-style poked) another dreaming person," wrote Olson, "and hopefully caused them to become lucidly aware of the first person in their dream."

Why was this new inter-dream medium labeled as "super-cool"? As noted, cool media allow for participation and interpretation, are lower in emotional intensity and provide lower information content. The lucid dream is a cool medium compared to an ordinary dream as the telephone is a cool medium compared to the phonograph. Inter-dream media, however, "requires" participation by all parties and invites unbounded interpretation (the red light bulb message in the experiment can manifest in the receiver's dream as a traffic signal, Rudolf's red nose, the sun). Inter-dream media carries low information content and is closer to the telegraph than the telephone, but closer still to the interstellar light-and-sound medium in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, sign language from one dream world to another.

Frozen Dreams: Recording and Reconstructing

Current technology is able to record a very simple dream and translate it into computer-assisted movie complete with dream images, dream conversations and dream movements.

How is this possible? Diverse technologies, working together, can reconstruct a dream story from recording the visual, verbal and motor activity in dreams.

For mental image reconstruction, Jack Gallant, a UC Berkeley neuroscientist, uses MRI to decipher and reconstruct visual images (such as faces) in the brain and project them onto a computer screen. Training subjects by viewing photographs and videos and saving the brain patterns, the software can rebuild these images when the subjects internally visualize or dream of the same images. Gallant comments in the journal Current Biology, "We are opening a window into the movies in our minds . . . imagine tapping into the mind of a coma patient or watching one's own dream on YouTube."

Yet, images are only part of a dream. We speak in dreams and have conversations with other dream characters. Dream speech is detectable with electronic sensors placed on the voice box and other muscles involved in talking. As far back as 1971, scientists have documented that dream speech and conversation elicits corresponding sub-vocal muscle potential. Sub-vocal speech recognition software has been developed by NASA and many universities. We can now have dream movie "talkies."

In addition to the visual images we see in dreams and the conversations with dream characters, the remaining piece for making dream movies is the physical body movements of the dreamer (the dream ego or the "I" in the dream -- or the star of our movies). The technology behind bodily tracking of dreams is the electromyography (EMG) sensor. Body movements in dreams send related signals to the muscles involved in the dream behavior. Dream walking and running send signals to the legs and feet; waving, lifting and grasping sends impulses to the arm, wrist and hands, etc. EMG sensors can detect this movement activity in muscle nerves. Software can decipher and reconstruct the dream physical narrative.

After the dream is recorded and reconstructed, what we have from a communication standpoint is a radically new dream medium: a frozen dream, translated to computer media, cooled to zero and preserved, the hot original bleached of emotion, all meaning opened to infinite interpretation, rich symbolic information reduced to literal readings--"cryodreams," as lifeless and beautiful as pinned butterflies.

Media Merging and the New Mediated Self

History has provided many examples of the cross-media influence of dreams on painting, film, theater, dance, etc. Salvador Dalí's Dream of Venus, Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, and Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound are examples of cross-media pollination from dreams.

Ordinary dreams and lucid dreams can also merge and embed each other. A cool lucid dream can be embedded in a hot ordinary dream--example: fainting in a vampire dream, dreaming within of lucidly flying over peaceful clouds, reviving back into the vampire dream, believing the bite marks are real.

As experience, playing a video game in an ordinary dream cools off the dream with the game's higher interactivity and lower emotion. A movie experienced in a VR headset heats up the cool VR medium. In the future, will inter-dream communication cool down conversation? Will "frozen" dream recordings heat up social media, releasing the unfiltered unconscious upon culture? Will future generations inherit a super-cooled, overheated world?

While McLuhan's notion of "the medium is the message" attempts to take the "temperature" of a dream, it does not attempt to take the measure of its message, the depth-and-breath of its story.


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