Dystopian Dreaming

Dystopian Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyWhile sitting in the audience and taking notes during the recent IASD conference in Berkeley, I found myself marking several instances where something the presenter said triggered my dystopian imagination.  I confess to being a long-time fan of science fiction and fantasy stories about frightening future worlds controlled by alien invaders, zombie hordes, inhuman technologies, totalitarian governments, and/or rapacious capitalists (I made a list of some favorites below).  I enjoy these stories as literary nightmares: vivid, emotionally intense simulations of real psycho-cultural threats, looming now and in our collective future.

 

At the IASD conference I realized I could turn this interpretive process inside out.  I began to look at dream research from the genre perspective of dystopian fiction.  What would an uber-villain in such stories find appealing in state-of-the-art dream research?

 

Let me be clear, these are my own shadowy speculations and in no way reflect anything directly said or intended by the presenters!

 

Sleep paralysis induction.  There is now a proven technique for inducing the nightmarish experience of sleep paralysis–that is, causing someone to enter a condition in which their bodies are immobilized but their minds are “awake” and vulnerable to terrifying images, thoughts, and sensations.   I can imagine this technique being put to nefarious use by military intelligence agents, state-controlled psychiatrists, and cybernetic overlords.  The ability to trap a person within a state of sleep paralysis would be a horribly useful tool for anyone bent on total mind control.

 

Transcranial magnetic stimulation.  This technology enables the direct manipulation of neural activity during REM sleep, targeting specific regions of the brain.  If the technology were refined with malevolent purposes in mind, it could potentially disrupt people’s normal dreaming patterns, controlling what they do and don’t dream about.  An evil scientist could thus invent a kind of anti-dream weapon, a magnetic beam aimed at the head of a sleeping person and programmed to stun, control, or destroy.

 

Disrupting PTSD memory formation.  Trauma victims can diminish the symptoms of PTSD if they perform a series of distracting cognitive tasks with six hours of the trauma, thereby disrupting the formation of long-term traumatic memories.  The future militarization of this method seems inevitable.  Anything that alters memory can be used by evil governments to manipulate people against their will, either to do things they don’t want to do (black ops soldiers) or forget things that have been done to them (massacre survivors).

 

Remote monitoring of a person’s sleep.  The Zeo sleep monitoring system (which I’ve used for three years) has now developed a wireless version that instantly relays the user’s sleep data from the headband via a bedside mobile phone to the Zeo database.  This kind of technology opens the door to real-time remote monitoring of people’s sleeping experience, and potentially the ability to reverse the flow of data and influence/shape/guide people while they sleep.  If enough people were linked into the system, it could serve police states as a valuable tool in 24-hour mind-body surveillance.

 

My interest in these morbidly malevolent scenarios is not entirely theoretical.  Over the past few years of developing the Sleep and Dream Database I’ve been thinking of the darker possible applications of this technology, less Star Trek and more Blade Runner.  If it’s true, as most researchers at the IASD are claiming, that dreams are accurate expressions of people’s deepest fears, desires, and motivations, then it’s also true a real potential exists to put that dream-based information to ill use.

 

Projecting even farther forward, I wonder if there might be some kind of future inflection point where the amount of data we gather suddenly reveals much bigger patterns and forms of intelligence than we had previously been able to recognize or scientifically document.  What would happen if this leap of knowledge enabled our collective dreaming selves to somehow unite to challenge the dominance (one might say totalitarian regime) of waking consciousness?

 

I think about all this as I continue building up the SDDb, trying to make good decisions and avoid the nightmare pitfalls.  Dystopian fantasies help me clarify what’s at stake, where the dangers lurk, and how the future may unfold.

 

You may be familiar with Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 science fiction short story “The Nine Billion Names of God.”  If so, you’ll understand why, as I work on developing new database technologies for dream research, I meditate on the phrase, “The Nine Billion Dreams of God.”

 

 

 

Dystopian Films and TV: Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, Children of Men, Logan’s Run, The Matrix, Soylent Green, V for Vendetta, Battlestar Galactica, The Prisoner, Gattica, Terminator, Alien, Total Recall, 28 Days

 

Dystopian Novels: The Hunger Games, Fahrenheit 451, Neuromancer, 1984, Brave New World, The Time Machine

 

 

Shakespeare Dream Quotes

Shakespeare Dream Quotes by Kelly BulkeleyIn honor of the April 26, 1564 baptism of William Shakespeare and his death on April 23, 1616, I have gathered a few of the best quotes about dreams from characters in his plays.  Let me know if you’ve got other good ones!

 

Prospero: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

The Tempest, IV.i.156-158

 

“All days are nights to see till I see thee/And nights bright days when dreams do show me thee.”

Sonnet 43, 13-14

 

Gloucester: “My troublous dreams this night doth make me sad.”

Duchess: “What dreamed my lord? Tell me, and I’ll requite it with sweet rehearsal of my morning’s dream.”

Henry VI, Part II, I.ii.22-24

 

Romeo: “I dreamt a dream tonight.”

Mercutio: “And so did I.”

Romeo: “Well, what was yours?”

Mercutio: “That dreamers often lie.”

Romeo: “In bed asleep, while they do dream things true.”

Mercutio: “Oh, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.  She is the fairies’ midwife…”

Romeo and Juliet, I.iv.52-58

 

Horatio: “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”

Hamlet: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.  There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Hamlet, I.v.164-167

Shakespeare Dream Quotes by Kelly Bulkeley

Hamlet: “To die, to sleep–No more–and by a sleep to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.  ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.  To die, to sleep–To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.”

Hamlet, III.i.60-68

 

Puck: “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended, that you have but slumber’d here, while these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, no more yielding but a dream.”

Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.425-430

 

Here’s a link to the search page for the OpenSource Shakespeare website, where you can type in “dream” and find all references to dreaming in Shakespeare’s works.

 

 

 

 

A Lucid Dreaming Cautionary Tale: Graham Joyce’s “Dreamside”

A Lucid Dreaming Cautionary Tale: Graham Joyce's "Dreamside" by Kelly BulkeleyLater this month (3-23) I’m joining British novelist Graham Joyce at the Rubin Museum in New York City to discuss “Are Dreams Pure Fantasy?” as part of the museum’s “Brainwave” lecture series on dreams.  I’ve just read Joyce’s first novel, Dreamside, and it’s a hauntingly beautiful tale, both frightening and inspiring.  It raises vital questions about the perils and potentials of lucid dreaming.

Written in 1991, the novel accurately conveys the naïve excitement many people felt at that time about early psychological research on consciousness in dreaming.  The story concerns four college students who sign up for a study on the induction of lucid dreams.  The students form an unlikely team, each driven by very different motives.  Ella, a mercurial, sexually alluring spiritual seeker, will do and say anything to achieve transcendence. Lee, the central character, is a stolid, rather conventional guy painfully captivated by Ella’s erotic energy.  Brad, a medical student, has the most advanced innate skills at lucid dreaming, but he’s a cynical, drunken lout who can only express his sexual desires in the crudest of ways.  Honora, from Ireland, is the quietest and most innocent of the group.  Of them all, she is the most sincere in her desire to learn about dreaming.

Their guide from waking reality into Dreamside is Professor Burns, an elderly psychologist with a hobbyist’s interest in parapsychology and an ornery disregard for other people’s feelings.  Initially the lucid dream induction seminar is just a sham, as the Professor is in fact conducting a study of small group dynamics.  But when the students begin succeeding in their efforts—when they learn how to become aware in dreams, interact with each other, and perform various experiments to test their Dreamside abilities—Prof. Burns becomes excited, too, and pushes them further and further.

Without revealing any other plot developments, it may simply be said that everyone involved reaches a point where they deeply regret their blind rush into alien realms of psychic experience.

The moral of the story is not that lucid dreaming is bad.  Nor is it that Prof. Burns might have benefited from the input of a human subjects committee, though that’s undoubtedly true.  It’s rather that we need to ask the right questions about lucid dreaming.  The characters in Dreamside are so intent on figuring out how to induce lucid dreaming that they never ask themselves why they want to do so in the first place.  The “how” question is relatively easy, but if you haven’t reflected carefully on the “why” question you may find yourself woefully unprepared for what you encounter.

This is the same message that Hindu and Buddhist sages have taught for centuries: it is indeed possible to learn lucid dreaming techniques, but those techniques are best practiced within a context of spiritual training, guidance, and self-reflection.  The college students in Dreamside have grown up in the morally impoverished world of Thatcher-era Britain, and they have few cultural resources to help them make sense of their experiences.   Perhaps the greatest achievement of Joyce’s novel is that it provides what its characters lack—a wise and healthily cautious understanding of human dreaming potential.

The Nightmares of H.P. Lovecraft

The Nightmares of H.P. Lovecraft by Kelly BulkeleyThe American fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) wrote a series of  interconnected short stories and novellas in which dreaming features as a frightening portal between the normal world of sanity and the unnamable horrors that lurk in every shadow.

Dreams and nightmares are central themes in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” and “Hypnos,” among other Lovecraft tales.

Robert Bloch, an early protégé of Lovecraft’s and later an accomplished science fiction writer in his own right, said this in the introduction to The Best of H.P. Lovecraft (New York: Ballantine, 1963):

“The one theme incontrovertibly constant in both his life and his work is a preoccupation with dreams.  From earliest childhood on, Lovecraft’s sleep ushered him into a world filled with vivid visions of alien and exotic landscapes that at times formed a background for terrifying nightmares….Gradually he built up a rationale for both reality and dreams, nothing less than a history of the entire universe.” (6-7)

I’ve never made a detailed study of Lovecraft, beyond just reading and re-reading his stories for entertainment.  I wonder if there are any Lovecraftian dreamer-scholars out there who have more to say about this.