Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lucid Dreaming #3: Perception and Skepticism

I had a mildly interesting dream a few nights ago:

I was confronted by some cult leaders who claimed to have supernatural and telepathic powers, such as the ability to predict the future and communicate with the dead. They attempted to impress me with their tricks in order to get me to join them, such as appearing to read each others’ minds or claiming to channel spirits of ghosts. Within the dream, and without becoming lucid or anything, I pointed out to them that they were just using the same tricks that “psychics” secretly use in real life, such as cold reading, and found that they refused to subject their claims to critical testing.

For example, when the main leader of the cult was speaking with his wife, his wife said “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said.” I pointed out that, if they could really communicate telepathically, she would have been able to understand what he meant to communicate without his saying it, and she claimed that telepathy didn’t always work perfectly. When I asked her to communicate with a specific famous dead person to see what they were thinking, she claimed that she didn’t want to “disturb them from their rest”. And so on.

The important thing here isn’t that people who claim to have supernatural abilities are frauds (although that is generally the case). My point is that this act of skepticism occurred in a dream. Within dream logic, there’s no reason that the cult leaders couldn’t have had “real” powers. Yet, even within the dream logic, the events unfolded such that it was clear to me that their abilities were phony.

My skepticism in the dream brings me to a point which I think may be relevant to the subject of lucid dreaming: the psychology of perception, and a bit about what this has to do with skepticism and dreaming.

First, a short psychology lesson:

What are sensation and perception, and what’s the difference? Sensation is the encoding of physical energy from the environment into neural signals through the use of sensory neurons. These include the rods and cones on your retina, and the hair cells in your cochlea in your inner ear. Perception, on the other hand, is the process of your brain interpreting your sensations to make them fit your mental concepts, memories and expectations. To put it another way, sensation is the gathering of raw data, and perception is making sense of that data.

Another important subject is memory. After you’ve perceived an event and stored it in your long-term memory, your brain makes further modifications to the memory each time you recall it: essentially, you rebuild the memory from scratch each time you bring it to consciousness, and it remains that way when you put it back “in storage”. And each time you recall the event, your brain makes more changes to make it fit with your expectations and conceptions, not to mention your other memories. This is one of the reasons that eye-witness testimony is so unreliable: people can easily be fooled into thinking they remember seeing things that they never actually saw. It’s also why so many people remember going to Woodstock without having actually been there.

If you’re a psychologically normal person, chances are you perceive things pretty accurately most of the time; it helps that you’re pretty much constantly getting some kind of feedback from your environment. But perceptions aren’t always completely accurate. This is evident from the study of optical illusions, images that trick you into seeing things that aren’t there. It also shows itself in little moments we experience in everyday life, but perhaps don’t think about very often. For example, I once wrote a Psychology test in a room full of 40 or 50 students, and I became so focused on the test that, when I looked up, I was surprised to find that half of the students had already finished the test and left, leaving the room emptier than I had remembered it.

I promised in my first post that I would try not to get too philosophical and abstract unless it was absolutely necessary. But it’s important to note that our perceptions—that is, what we experience—don’t always match the real world. Our perceptions are influenced by the concepts and expectations we hold, they’re limited by our senses (yoru eyes don’t see as much as you think they do), and as a result, they’re sometimes wrong. Reality is not an “illusion”, as some philosophers like to say, but we always experience it with a bias. It is important to have some skepticism about what we experience and remember in everyday life, and to be aware of how our brains can fool us. If you’ve ever had an argument with someone over an event you both saw firsthand, but which you have completely different interpretations of, chances are you perceived the event differently from each other, and upon remembering the event, your brain further coloured the memory in order to fit your preconceptions and fill in whatever missing information there was.

What does this have to do with dreaming? Well, one of the theories of why we dream is the “Activation-Synthesis” theory, which states that, when we dream, neurons basically fire randomly in our brains, and our experience of dreams is how our brain makes sense of these firings—in other words, perceiving events without any external sensations.

If I may speculate, this would certainly explain why dream environments are often inconsistent: we have perceptions without any external sensations as feedback to verify them or calibrate them. Speculating even further: the more I become aware of the little mistakes my brain makes in interpreting the facts of reality, the more I find that I have a lingering awareness in my dreams that what I perceive isn’t always what’s really there—i.e. that there’s a chance I’m imagining some of the things I’m experiencing, and perhaps that it might even be a dream. Sometimes I spontaneously become lucid, and at other times, I’m still able to catch onto the logic of my dream environment fairly quickly.

I find the psychological study of perceptions and concepts to be very interesting, and I’ll try to include some relevant links on the subject at the end of this post. In the future, I might write more about how to apply these principles to dreaming in the form of reality checks. This post was intended to provide some psychological understanding into perception and the role of skepticism in both dreams and reality, rather than giving you a list of instructions to memorize.

Interesting Links: – 5 Ways your Brain is Messing with your Head. An amusing article about some of the ways in which your perception of reality isn’t always perfect. This one is also pretty interesting. Both articles contain some mature language.

Reality Checks on I haven’t seen very many of the articles on, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the website as a whole, but this article is worth reading if you’re interested in reality checks.


Myers, D.G. (2007). Psychology: First Canadian Edition. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

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It Seemed Funny at the Time by Ben Buckley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 Canada License.