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12:26pm on Sunday, 6th December, 2009:

No, Just Worlds


So, last night I went to bed on the lookout for dreams, following yesterday's rare incidence of my dreaming and not immediately knowing I was dreaming. I was expecting that the same sort of thing would happen again, and was not disappointed: it did.

Here's how I perceive things happened (although of course, this being dreams and all, who knows whether it actually happened in this order or was merely constructed in this order by my memory). I started having a dream, in which once again I wasn't aware I was dreaming. It was a really good dream — there was a story to it that was quite compelling. I was the lead character in it, but not as my physical self. I could see what I looked like, though, from the kind of third-person perspective that I normally only have when telling myself a story or when I dredge up one of a handful of very early childhood memories (which, as I appear in them, I know to be reconstructed). It was this latter observation that tipped me off that this was a dream — a little surprisingly, as there were some major discrepancies between my real-life situation and my character in the dream's.

OK, now when this happened yesterday I stopped the dream. Not this time: I let it run as a "story I'm telling myself". I soon figured that I wasn't the main character, I was just putting myself in their head to figure out how they would react to the intrigue going on around them. After a short while, though, suddenly the character with whom I was identifying got an agonising cramp in their calf muscle — a sign that I was about to get an agonising cramp in my calf muscle in real life. I suspected a trick, but couldn't risk it and so woke up, ready to grab my leg to stave it off. There was nothing wrong with it, though; I didn't have impending cramp. My leg felt just normal.

Hmm, so what's going on here?

Normally, I don't remember dreams. I know I must have them, because everyone has them, but I don't generally remember them. I only remember a few, and those are ones I get under one of three circumstances: I decided to have a dream before I went to bed; waking up gave me the dream; when the dream wakes me up. OK, so this dream woke me up, which is why I remembered it, but why didn't I know it was a dream immediately? In the dreams I usually remember, I always know they're dreams without even having to consider that they might be, in the same way that if you stopped me in the street and asked me which way was up I wouldn't have to invest a lot of thought in it — I just know. Yet this dream and yesterday's weren't like that — I only realised part-way through the dream that it was a dream, which was most unsatisfactory.

Well, I think I have an explanation. Actually, I have three.

Explanation 1: I'm losing my ability to detect whether I'm dreaming or not. This is very unpalatable, so I hope it's not what's happening. Fortunately, I had another dream when I woke up naturally at 9:30, which I was perfectly aware was a dream when I was having it and remembered without problem. I don't , therefore, think that this is what's going on here (leastwise, I hope it's not).

Explanation 2: perhaps my facility to remember dreams is restricted only to those in which I'm self-aware? If I'm not self-aware in a dream, I won't remember it. That doesn't mean that if I am self-aware I will remember it, just that if I'm not I won't. Last night's dream was really good, and I remember thinking "I hope I remember this when I wake up!". The dream itself then introduced a component that was pretty well guaranteed to wake me up. The same thing happened yesterday, except because I'd caused the dream to finish it didn't really fit into it. This time, it did. Maybe this unaware kind of dream is how I normally dream, which is why I don't remember most of my dreams, but I'm developing some way to remember them by incorporating a wake-up element. Hmm. Well much as I did indeed like the dream, and was pleased to remember it, there are two aspects to it I didn't like: not realising it was a dream straight away; getting woken up by a false medical alarm. So thanks, subconscious mind, I know you were only trying to please me by showing me what I was missing by not remembering regular dreams, but on the whole I preferred it the old way. I'll let you do it maybe a couple more times in case I learn to recognise that this kind of dream is a dream (which may be your intention) but if we don't make any progress I'll put a stop to it.

Explanation 3: it's a new kind of dream I haven't had before. It felt very much to me as if I were telling myself a story. I do this fairly often when I'm awake — put myself into my characters' shoes and filter events through their mindset so I know what they'll do in the circumstances. Years of playing role-playing games means I can do this in an instant. If I'm writing fiction or scripts, I can switch characters between lines of dialogue in a trice, I don't have to psych myself up or anything. I'm now doing it in my sleep, but cutting out the middle man — me. I'm waking up with the alarm dreams because I need my conscious mind to decide whether this is OK or not. Hey, good thinking, subconscious mind! My answer is that it's not a good idea at the moment, because I don't immediately know it's a dream: it's too immersive. I only notice it's a dream when I spot a bug in it, which then disrupts the dream. If I were aware at the start that I was dreaming, then I could pre-empt or fix bugs on-the-fly without disruption. I also wouldn't feel so cheated when it turns out that the story was, er, all a dream. However, feel free to give it another try; now I know what you're doing I'll see if I can't recalibrate my dream-detection ability to pick it up. I've no idea how that will actually work, but hopefully a few more exposures to the experience will tune it in. The only danger is that I dream a dream with no bugs in it, so never realise it was a dream, and wake up believing it really happened. Better keep those alarms ready, then, just in case.

This is getting suspiciously like Céline et Julie Vont en Bateau...

Referenced by Right Zeroth Time.

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Copyright © 2009 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).