Why Does The Mind Do Such Shoddy Detail Work Re: Dream Imagery?
August 24, 2017 10:31 AM   Subscribe

In dreams, any sort of writing appears blurry/squiggly/unreadable. It seems apparent that we lack the cognitive bandwidth to fully populate such data-rich imagery on the fly, so we fudge (and our dream narration finds excuses for it). Other detail fudging occurs in dreams, as well. Might there be anything interesting to discover about cognitive power by testing the parameters of this shortfall, e.g. via lucid dreamers who can consciously evoke given imagery? Also: any speculation as to why the mind does such lousy CGI?
posted by Quisp Lover to Science & Nature (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Human eyesight is remarkably narrow for high-resolution imagery (the Fovic region), our brain fills in much of our perception of waking life. And much of that is dedicated hardware between the eye and the back of the brain.

Dreaming as I understand it does not require the eye, as you will "recognize" ideas and words without the need to discern the shapes and letters. There is no need to communicate with oneself with written words.
posted by nickggully at 10:36 AM on August 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have definitely had dreams in which writing was legible.
posted by praemunire at 10:39 AM on August 24, 2017 [23 favorites]

In the real world and actual CGI (games, movies), pieces of written text are created by an author who (in most cases) is not you. The print on the newspaper on the table is there whether or not you take the time to read it.

I don't claim to know where dream imagery comes from. But assuming you dream the image of a newspaper, then think "What does that say?" and pick it up to answer the question, it would be your own brain that makes up the text. What does it say? It doesn't say anything. It hasn't been written.

Possibly interesting/related: I've taken rudimentary guitar lessons. I can think of melodies, but I'm not practiced enough to make those notes come out of the guitar. But I've written songs in dreams because I'm really just imagining the sounds being made. And although my dream hands are on the dream fretboard of a dream guitar, I'm not actually playing.

The reverse seems to be happening for text. The object is there, but not the intent.
posted by Boxenmacher at 10:44 AM on August 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

As an interesting side note, I dream verbally or with "narration," sometimes. I'm totally blind, so visual dreams are foreign to me. I just "know," things to be the case, and they're generally pretty coherent, at least at the time.
posted by Alensin at 10:52 AM on August 24, 2017 [8 favorites]

I actually don't remember any dreams where the writing I was trying to read was fuzzy or illegible. I remember seeing street signs, advertisements, letters, newspapers, text on TV, you name it.

Maybe a different question would be why there is such variance in people's experience with writing/text in dreams. I suspect it has something to do with how well we remember visual cues in general. I'm really, really good at that so maybe that's why I can see the text in my dreams.
posted by cooker girl at 11:24 AM on August 24, 2017

I think dreaming is a highly individual thing. So IMHO to say everyone has "low CGI" while dreaming is probably inaccurate.

That said, I agree with nickggully that (1) your brain knows what the words you "see" actually mean, without them being read by your eyeballs. Point (2): I don't believe in dreams in terms of symbolism and fortune telling, but I do believe they reflect aspects of our lives back to us. Thus, not being able to discern words while in a dream state, whether or not you "know" the meaning of them while in said dream state, could mean you are literally not "reading" the solution to some problem (or problems, since I read your question as meaning that this happens to you in dreams with various contexts/scenarios) ... in your waking life... even though the solution is clearly stated, and even though on some level you already know the answer.

It seems apparent that we lack the cognitive bandwidth to fully populate such data-rich imagery on the fly, so we fudge (and our dream narration finds excuses for it).

I have "read" very legible words while dreaming, thus the content of my reply.
posted by Crystal Fox at 11:30 AM on August 24, 2017

I have definitely had dreams in which writing was legible.

So have I. Most of the time the colours in my dreams are washed out and less intense, but I've met people who have the opposite experience.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:57 AM on August 24, 2017

Writing is always legible in my dreams, and in fact several of my anxiety nightmares (copyediting hell, metafilter politics thread explosion) center around reading endless streams of text so I get to dream-read a lot.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:03 PM on August 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

I have had the experience multiple times where I tried to read something and it was frustratingly blurry! I know exactly what you mean!
I'm not the most detail oriented person in waking life either, I tend to skip passages and speed read, so there's that.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:04 PM on August 24, 2017

Chiming in to say that I "dream-read" as Eyebrows McGee puts it so well: print as well as handwriting. And it is similarly nightmarish. I also read and write for a living, so these dreams are particularly nightmarish -- like working a 24-hour day.
posted by pinkacademic at 12:17 PM on August 24, 2017

For a while I had a job checking data for errors and I would have nightmares of extremely crisp, clear, endless columns of data scrolling past me. The whole dream was just checking data readouts on a computer screen as they scrolled by without cease. Gives me shivers.......
posted by Ausamor at 12:47 PM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

When you wake up, write. See what happens.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 1:05 PM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Perception is an active process: your senses provide a slurry of input, which your mind interprets and applies its own experience, biases, and prejudices to come up with meaning. When dreaming, you mostly don’t have any active input because it’s dark, quiet, and your eyes are closed. Your dreaming mind is working to build a coherent picture out of what may be noise.

The “deep dream” or “puppyslug” neural network image process may be the best metaphor I’ve ever seen for this process: pure noise enters a system that’s primed to look for certain kinds of patterns, and then faintly-matching signals are boosted until they start to look like pieces of what’s expected.
posted by migurski at 1:05 PM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Maybe this explains a recurring dream motif I have: I'm dreaming that I'm looking for a book. I find the book. And just as I open it... I wake up and never get to read the book.

I do think there's credence to the theory that different people's dreams work in different ways. I rarely or never dream in audio; if someone speaks in my dream, I understand what they've said but I don't hear the words, and I don't hear music or ambient noises either. I experience all other senses in my dreams; I see things, I feel things, I smell and taste things. But for some reason, although my hearing is fine, I just don't hear in my dreams.
posted by Rissa at 1:16 PM on August 24, 2017

I have definitely had dreams in which writing was legible.

Ever since watching this episode of Batman TAS, in which they make it a big deal that of course you can't read in dreams, this has actually become a trigger for me to lucid dream - I think "oh hey, I'm reading, Batman was wrong," then I think, "wait, if I think that was wrong, that only makes sense if this is a dream."

Basically dreams are weird because brains are weird, and I don't think you can get anything obviously generalizable out of your particular dream experience, even if it is very consistent for you.
posted by solotoro at 1:25 PM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I’m definitely unable to dream-read clocks. If I’m looking at a watch, clock, menubar, etc. and it’s somehow incomprehensible, that’s my glitch-in-the-matrix cue that “oh, this isn’t real… I’m asleep.” I’ve always assumed this is because my sleeping brain knows that time is a real measurable value, but also that it doesn’t know what the actual time it is, and rather than fabricating a lie it tries (and fails) at misdirection.

Dream text, on the other hand, doesn't seem pose that problem. I just understand it without looking too closely. I don't think of myself as a particularly time-sensitive person—I don't wear a watch, for example—but apparently if I want to know the time I will accept no substitute, even when asleep. Perhaps this tendency for you to focus on the actual written word says something about how your waking mind makes sense of the world.
posted by mumkin at 1:33 PM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I did some dream reading just last night. As a graphic designer by day, in dreams I'm often working with text or noting interesting text applications and arrangements. And the CGI in my dreams is amazing! Vast illuminated buildings, or giant flying machines that nearly blot out the sky, or disgusting chihuahua-sized insects, all 100% convincing.

On the other hand, I can almost never get my cellphone to work in my dreams, as typing into it never leads to the expected results. I'm hoping to parlay that into a lucid dreaming trigger.
posted by ejs at 1:40 PM on August 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

When I was a kid, Discover magazine told me to get in the habit of occasionally, throughout the day, reading something twice to check that it's the same. If you try it and the text is different, you know you're in a dream and can pop into lucid dreaming, fly around your town, etc. I practiced it and got it to work at least once or twice!
posted by spbmp at 4:10 PM on August 24, 2017

I think it's worth mentioning that even our waking minds are not taking in every detail of what's around us. There's a LOT of filling in the blanks - we know the detail is there, but we do not take it in and process it unless we focus on it. There's just not enough brain for that much awareness - a lot of shortcuts are being taken.

Given this, it makes sense to me that we can't quite simulate real life when dreaming.
posted by destructive cactus at 4:26 PM on August 24, 2017

I don't have memories of fuzzy text in dreams, BUT I have often felt as thought the actual images I was seeing were blurry, almost like I was drunk or exceptionally exhausted as all of the dream content was happening. This question scratches a real itch.
posted by Kemma80 at 5:51 PM on August 24, 2017

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