The Ethical Challenges of Dream Video Technologies

New technologies are making it possible to use brain data to create video reconstructions of people’s dreams while they sleep. Is this thrilling, terrifying, or both?

Here’s how it works. Researchers are learning how to observe an individual’s brain while viewing a specific image (let’s say a cat) and how to identify neural patterns correlated with that image. Then the researchers observe the individual’s brain while sleeping, and watch for a recurrence of the “cat” neural pattern. If it appears, a signal can be sent to a video monitor to show an image of a cat—presumably what the sleeping person is dreaming about at that very moment.

Does this mean we will soon be able to sit in front of a “dream-viewer” (an iDreamer?) to watch videos of our own dreams, along with the dreams of other people?

Soon, probably no. But someday, possibly yes. Many technical challenges have to be overcome first. Lots of time and effort are required to train the computer algorithms to recognize the patterns of an individual’s brain. The patterns for “cat” from one person’s brain do not necessarily match the “cat” patterns from another person’s brain, so the system has to be trained and calibrated anew for each individual.  The nearly infinite variety of dream content magnifies the learning challenge for this kind of technology (how many images of different kinds/colors/sizes of cats need to be incorporated into the system?). Efforts to model the contents and experiential qualities of dreams have to find some way to reckon with a boundless, unpredictably varied set of data.

Advocates will emphasize the potential benefits if these methodological challenges can be overcome. Researchers would, for the first time, have “objective” dream data, unfiltered by the subjective biases and limited memories of the dreamer. For anyone who looks to dreams for personal insight and guidance, this technology offers a quantum leap in the depth and range of access to one’s dreaming experience. For example, psychotherapists would have a powerful new resource for understanding the unconscious conflicts, fears, and concerns of their clients.

All of these potentially positive applications sound appealing, of course. But no less time should be given to considering the potentially negative applications, too. Between now and the invention of a true “dream-viewer,” we should consider several ethical questions raised by this technology.

Does the process of training and calibrating the system disrupt the natural rhythms of people’s sleep and dreams? If yes, what are the long-term health risks and psychological dangers of that disruption? This basic question is too rarely asked in discussions of new dream technologies, perhaps because of an unspoken assumption that dreams themselves aren’t really “real,” so nothing that harms dreaming does any real harm to a person.

What is the source of the images used to reconstruct people’s dreams? Who chooses those images? Is there transparency in the algorithms that correlate specific images to specific neural patterns? Are measures taken to prevent biases from excluding the appearance of certain kinds of images and favoring others?

Does the technology distort and flatten the contents of people’s dreams? It seems likely a dream-viewer will be incapable of representing bizarre or anomalous experiences for which there are no images. It will struggle to represent essential elements of dreaming like feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It won’t be able to convey non-imagistic qualities of intensity, atmosphere, or awareness. Jorge Luis Borges noted these qualities when he described a nightmare of an ancient King standing by his bed: “Retold, my dream is nothing; dreamt, it was terrible.” (Seven Nights, 1980) Will a dream-viewer ever be able to convey the ineffable terror in a nightmare like the one Borges experienced? It seems unlikely. Videos will show what videos show, not what dreams are in any full or objective sense.

Who gets access to the dream-viewers? What is done with this incredibly personal source of information? It takes little imagination to envision potential abuses of this technology for commercial, political, governmental, and/or criminal purposes. The prospect of bad actors gaining access to private details so secret even the individual does not consciously know them should be a red-flag concern for any technology that is openly offering an unfiltered view into people’s dreams.

Can this technology be re-engineered to manipulate the process and contents of dreaming itself? What if a tool designed to identify neural patterns associated with dreaming could be re-purposed to selectively target specific patterns either for suppression or stimulation? This seems to lead into Inception territory, making people vulnerable to an unprecedented depth of external control and manipulation.

How much dream awareness can people handle? An earlier and even more direct film reference to this kind of technology appears in Wim Wenders’ futuristic film Until the End of the World (1991), in which the equivalent of a dream-viewer has been invented. The CIA is determined to steal the device, which of course is not a fantastical idea at all. If and when a dream-viewer is created, CIA interrogators would surely be at the front of the line to get one. More unexpectedly, the characters in the movie who use the device become lost in the narcissistic labyrinths of their own fantasies. They detach from the rest of the world, retreating into a video womb of reconstructed dreaming. Here, the technology’s danger is not from abuse by others, but from our own abuse of it. We assume that more insight into our dreams is a good thing, but is that true for everyone? Do each of us have a healthy limit of dream awareness, beyond which we become lost in ourselves?

Final Thought

Dreaming is an innate function of the brain-mind during sleep. It is also an experience that humans from around the world and all through history have considered vitally important, meaningful, and useful in their waking lives. Any new technology that has the potential, whether intended or not, to disrupt the natural rhythms of people’s sleep and dreaming needs to be publicly evaluated in terms of its long-term risks and benefits.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, 6/8/21.

What Are the Ethics of Dreaming?

When people think about ethics, they usually focus on the evaluation of good or bad behaviors in the waking state. But what about the ethical status of the one-third of our lives that we spend in sleep? Do we have any ethical duties or obligations relating to sleep? Do dreamers have any basic rights or responsibilities?

Many people treat dreaming as a kind of ethical “free-fire zone,” where moral boundaries don’t apply and anything goes. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato said that when we sleep the “rational, gentle, and dominant” part of the mind retires, unleashing the “beastly and savage” parts, leading to the outrageous immorality of dreaming: “there is nothing it will not venture to undertake as being released from all sense of shame and all reason.” (The Republic, book IX) More recently, some enthusiasts of lucid dreaming have encouraged using conscious dream control as a tool to enjoy consequence-free fantasies of sex and power. Dreaming in this view is reduced to the ethical status of a video game, where nothing is “real” and the players can behave however they wish.

In both of these cases, dreaming is cast outside the sphere of normal ethics. Sleep and dreaming are treated as sub-human realms where ordinary moral rules do not apply.

Several problems follow from this view, to be explored in future posts. Here, we’ll consider one particularly urgent problem. Think of it like this: In regular waking life, if someone tricked you into do something you didn’t want to do, we would call that other person’s action unethical. But does that judgment change if it happens in your dreams? If the person tricks you into having a dream of something you otherwise would not dream about, can we still call their action unethical? It seems not, according to the prior view that nothing that happens in dreaming really matters. Where’s the harm? Where’s the negative impact? They might have forced you to have a dream, but all dreams are unreal, so what exactly did they force you to do? When we start with the assumption that dreaming is a moral wasteland and ontological void, it becomes more difficult to draw appropriate ethical lines around waking behaviors that have effects on people’s capacity for dreaming.

This is not a theoretical concern. Thanks to new technologies in data science and brain imaging, researchers are now able to identify meaningful patterns in dream content with unprecedented speed and accuracy. That’s not a problem—new knowledge is a good thing! The problem comes with the unethical use of that knowledge to manipulate other people’s dreams without their awareness or full understanding. The increasing availability of these technologies makes it easier to attempt such manipulations for political, commercial, or criminal purposes.

It may seem paradoxical, but support for a higher ethical status for dreaming comes from current scientific research on dreams. Findings in neuroscience and cognitive psychology show that the brain processes our experiences in dreams very much like it processes our experiences in waking life. The vivid realism of dreaming is deeply rooted in the regular workings of the neural networks of our brains, with potentially strong and long-lasting effects on the waking mind in the form of “big dreams,” which have been reported throughout history and across all cultures. Modern dream researchers are helping us understand more clearly than ever before that 1) the dreaming mind is closer to the waking mind than Plato’s “wild beast” model suggests, and 2) dream experiences are more neurologically real and personally impactful than the “video game” model suggests.

Of course, Buddhists have long taught that karmic traces can accumulate in sleep, so you shouldn’t think you can break the precepts while dreaming and get away with it. Christian theologians like Augustine and Aquinas have argued that if people consent to immoral behavior in their dreams, their souls are indeed responsible for those sins. Modern researchers are simply adding empirical evidence and a neuro-cognitive framework to confirm this perennial insight about the ethics of dreaming.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, February 3, 2021.

 

The Best New Dream App

UnknownToday is the launch of the Kickstarter campaign to fund the SHADOW mobile application for tracking dreams and creating a new and bigger community of dreamers than ever before possible.  There’s a lot of potential here, especially for people who are already familiar with dream research and have good ideas about how such a project could develop to benefit the most people.  As an advisor to SHADOW I’ve been doing my best to promote greater awareness of the privacy and ethical issues involved here, and I have also been helping sketch out possible paths for future development and growth.  I can honestly say that nothing is set in stone–SHADOW will develop from the ground up, based on user interest and support.  If you are someone who cares about the importance of dreams and wants to broaden public appreciation of the creative powers of dreaming, don’t stand on the sidelines–get involved, get active, and help us create the future!  This video offers my 3-minute appeal for your support.

Proud to Be a Primate

“Our goodness is as deep as our darkness”—that was Kimberley Patton’s gloss on the findings of Franz de Waal, a primatologist who spoke on Saturday at the American Academy of Religion conference in Atlanta.  De Waal’s new book, Age of Empathy (2010), shows that cooperation, reciprocity, and conflict-resolution are just as natural in primates as are aggression and competition.  Contrary to the Social Darwinist assumption that nature is bloody “red in tooth and claw,” de Waal’s research proves that non-human animals have all the basic building blocks of morality.  This means that human morality is not just a matter of controlling our violent, selfish instincts, but rather enhancing and refining our other instincts for empathy, compassion, and sociability.

Also commenting on de Waal’s research was Armin Geertz, who highlighted the core idea of evolutionary biology that “all life is continuous.”  What seems unique about humans is actually an extension of abilities and behaviors we find in other animals.  Looking ahead to the future of primate research, de Waal said, “the trend is toward the continuity of humans and animals.”

Is this true of religion? When elephants mourn their dead, chimpanzees dance in rainstorms, and wolves howl at the moon, are we seeing the building blocks of spirituality? Can animals have mystical experiences?   De Waal said it was difficult as a biologist to address such questions, but he did not rule out the possibility of affirmative answers.

Score a point for scientific open-mindedness.

What about dreaming? Both Patton and Geertz, professors of religious studies, mentioned dreaming as a universal human experience that factors into all religious traditions.  De Waal did not talk about dreams directly, but the cognitive abilities he has identified in non-human primates (empathy, imagination, pretend play, etc.), combined with the similarities in brain functioning across all primate species, strongly suggest that humans are not the only dreamers in nature.

In his earlier book Chimpanzee Politics (1998) de Waal talked about the dreams of people who study primates:

“That chimpanzees are experienced in the first place as personalities is evident from the dreams of those of us who work with them.  We dream about these apes as individuals, in the same way that other people dream about their fellow human beings as individuals.  If a student were to say that he or she had dreamed of an ape I would be no less surprised than if someone claimed to have dreamed of a human.

“I clearly remember the first dream I had about the chimpanzees.  In it my preoccupation with the distance between them and me was apparent.  During this dream the large door to their quarters was opened for me from the inside.  The apes were pushing each other aside in order to get a good look at me.  Yeroen, the oldest male, stepped forward and shook my hand.  Rather impatiently he listened to my request to come in.  He refused point blank.  That was out of the question, he said, and besides, their society would not suit me: it was much too harsh for a human being.” (41)