Have you been dreaming more vividly during this pandemic under lock-down? Are you remembering dreams more frequently? Are dreams linked to our mental health and well-being or are they a portal to a different reality? Escapism or threat? Dreams can feel like both of those things.
I watch people in my dreams. They are free, autonomous, talking, moving people. They don’t just seem like a figment of my imagination, they seem real. Are they really just a transference of my own thoughts, or, do they visit me freely? Or, are they bound by my own will to manipulate them like puppets? Am I a puppeteer to these simulated avatars of suggested human autonomy? Are they trapped in my dream, or, still there when I awake? The conversations; I don’t make those up, because I am a listener, I don’t know what they are about to say, they just say it. So, how can I be controlling the dream people? If I was I could surely predict every spoken word, every gesture, movement and outcome, but, I can’t. The people in my dream roam free…they are not me. Are they?
My condensed, and seemingly confused thoughts here, are inspired by the paper The Avatars in the Machine: Dreaming as a Simulation of Social Reality (Revonsuo, Tuominen and Valli, 2017). The scientific part of me responds to the dynamic forces of dreams by questioning and reasoning, seeking objective, empirical answers, but, the subjective responsive dreamer wants to call all this into question and just feel and look for psychic links and visually interpretable symbols that relate me to the dream world emotionally, giving myself to the dream and it’s signs that connect me to waking reality, instead of coldly calculating an analysis, like a film reviewer who watches without truly engaging but critiques the story analytically, measured and assessed. I want to engage my dreams with the non-dreaming being.
The definition of avatar, outlined by Revonuso et al is as:
“A simulated virtual human character who plays the role of a corresponding real human within a virtual reality”. (Revonsuo, Tuominen and Valli, 2017, p.2,Intro.)
In which case, our dream people are actors, and, this idea of a dream avatar in our dream simulator is explained further as:
“Somehow the dreaming brain is capable of creating credible, autonomous, human simulations out of neural activities in the sleeping brain”. (Revonsuo, Tuominen and Valli, 2017, pp.2-3,Intro.).
So, this part of the theory suggests that the dream people/scenarios are created and expelled by us into dream world. Are we all sleeping playwrights and our dreams the stagesets for our desires and fears?
Dreaming is not a separation, but an integration of our waking and sleeping consciousness. We need not attempt to separate these differing states of reality as the virtual reality is as immersive and experiential as is the physical waking reality we inhabit when not sleeping. Our desire to create “simulated social reality in dreams” (Revonsuo, Tuominen and Valli, 2017, 4.1 Evidence for simulation of social perception in dreams p.7) is so deep that it follows us into dreams it seems, even if we are denied this social interaction in our daily lives through circumstance or self denial. However, what if our dreams are not simulations, but memories recalled, re-run, playing out again? What if our dreams are predictive or the feelings we have in them are real and the same as the feelings we have when we are awake thinking of the same things, daydreaming in a non-soporific state of mind? Do we willingly walk into waking simulations too? In which case, are we existing in two places at once? If we sometimes dream actual reality then which one, if any, is virtual? It’s easy to acknowledge a dream as an alternate reality when it is filled with strangeness, surreal images, places and people unfamiliar, and we may want to separate a nightmare as far away from waking reality as possible. What of those dreams that horrify and alarm us? Dreams can be our own personal Dante’s Inferno raging an unwelcome nightly discord, revealing themselves from dark recesses that we suppress or are unaware of throughout the day. They scare us, concern us, warn us; dreams work with us, confuse us, sometimes feel as if they are working against us, as we puzzle our way through to clarity, but, they remain real in their messaging. I would argue though that dreams that prompt memory recall are a type of dream that ceases to be an artificial simulant and becomes instead a continuation of ordinary reality, the same as if we were to remember or feel a situation when we are awake. Even the messages in nightmare symbology hold meaning in actual reality.
Also, how does this dream theory hold up culturally? What if we have different perceptions of reality because we hold different viewpoints, be they colourfully arranged because of the ways we view the world on a personal level, or because they are culturally significant in a collective way. Is the idea of dream separation just a western construct born out of a capitalist, materialistic world, aiming to keep control of us, like machines, stifling our native instinct to connect with ourselves and everyone/everything around us through our real and instinctive imagery? Maybe we may only dare to express the truth of us in our dreams as we truly engage with our inner being. Avatars in the Machine certainly seems to be a theory and study born from the twenty first century language of the world. It seems very modern as one would expect from any new or freshly reviewed theory. Theories move with their times, and, we may think we do also, we can think ourselves into a certain way of living, of existing, of following the flock or not, but intrinsically as humans we retain our cultural roots and our ideas of dreams and reality can be tied to those.
Elena Levi writes of the Mayan culture in the essay ‘Dreams in Mayan Spirituality: Concepts of Dreaming From the Ancient Mayans to the Contemporary Mayans around Lake Atitlan’ that:
“Dreams have been an important aspect of Mayan religion and culture since the ancient Mayan civilization. Ancient concepts of the alter-ego and co-essence, the spirit of the individual that is active when dreaming…” (p.8 Apps.carleton.edu, 2017) and then states that: “Dreams are a special time for your spirit, soul and consciousness to leave your physical body and travel…” (p.13 Apps.carleton.edu, 2017) and yes, in context, we have to consider the Mayan ties to ancestry and thousands of years of culturally ingrained identity, but, the idea of the link to the physical and the non-physical being the same things brings me to the final point I want to illuminate from Levi’s essay in that:
“Consistent is the idea of the connection to the individual spirit through dreaming, the soul or essence of the human. A person can only really connect with this soul through dreaming, and it is at this time that the soul is set free from the physical being. Also consistent is the belief that dreams are reality, and that dreams should thus be taken seriously” (pp.20-21 Apps.carleton.edu, 2017).
Here in Levi’s study we have evidence that some people see dreams as a reality that is part of their very self other than as a virtual reality simulation. It seems a very natural and human way to conceptualise dreaming and the purpose thereof.
Daydreaming, visualisation, controlled simulations, vivid memory recall in our waking day all serve a purpose in fulfilling spaces in actual reality. Like emotional glue, they are part of the design of us, and, sometimes the word, virtual, just does not quite explain everything about dream situations to me as the word virtual suggests a substitution, an imitation, and I think dreams are neither of those things. Dreams are extensions of self, and, I feel that my personal self, is not an imitation in any realm. Self is self wherever it travels. I mean, how do we measure reality anyway? Reality is divided into different theories by us constantly until it almost becomes meaningless. Why do we have to divide ourselves up so much? Isn’t that just mental butchery? Dreams are like a messaging system of the mind, and the mind isn’t virtual, is it?
By understanding dreams and how they work with us as integrated parts of our self, we can begin to decode ourselves. If semaphore, morse code and other collected patterns of symbolic meaning are real to us in actual reality, then, why not our dreams? I leave it with you to decide. Dreams as actual reality, dreams as simulations, dreams as alternate dimensions filled with avatars, dreams as symbols of us…dreams are us, what do you think?
Levi. E., ‘Dreams in Mayan Spirituality: Concepts of Dreaming From the Ancient Mayans to the Contemporary Mayans around Lake Atitlan’ Apps.carleton.edu. (2017). [online] Available at:
https://apps.carleton.edu/curricular/ocs/guatemala/assets/Levi_2010.pdf [Accessed 16 Nov. 2017].
Revonsuo, A., Tuominen, J. and Valli, K. (2017), ‘The Avatars in the Machine: Dreaming as a Simulation of Social Reality. [online] Open-mind.net. Available at :
My personal, subjective opinions discussed here are by no means a negative criticism of the theory work carried out by Revonsuo et al. The paper outlined above in the Bibliography is fascinating and informative and I encourage anyone interested to read it and see how the ideas engage with you.