Objects in lucid dreams are perceived as real, study discovers

It's all about smooth pursuit.

Objects in lucid dreams are perceived as real, study discovers
Man inside an ice caver under the Vatnajokull glacier, Vatnajokull National Park, East Iceland, Iceland. Photo by Marco Bottigelli / Getty Images
  • While lucid dreaming, we use the same eye movement patterns as when we observe physical actions.
  • However, we use different eye patterns when we imagine movement.
  • Researchers believe this might help add to our understanding of consciousness.

In 2016, Dr. Tadas Stumbrys discovered that lucid dreaming helps improve physical performance. Dividing volunteers into four groups, lucid dreamers outperformed the physical practice and mental rehearsal groups by statistically significant margins. As he said at the time, "A recent brain imaging study showed that brain activity in the sensorimotor cortex that is responsible for controlling our physical movements is similar during imagined and lucidly dreamed movement, thereby allowing motor learning to occur."

We've long known that imagining movements are their own sort of "practice," but an interesting new study, published in Nature Communications, confirms that we use the same eye movement patterns when we lucid dream as when we observe physically actions, but not when we imagine movement.

Three researchers — Stanford University's Philip Zimbardo and Stephen LaBerge; the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Benjamin Baird — tackled the longtime question of whether dreaming mimics perception or imagination, finally proving the former. They accomplished this by tracking the "smooth pursuit" eye movements of seven volunteers, each of whom spent between one and eight nights in their laboratory.

Getty Images

To understand smooth pursuit you can try this experiment: Track your index finger, held out at arm's length, from left to right several times. Your eyes follow the pattern in a reliably smooth pattern. On the contrary, when you try to imagine the same exact movement, your eyes will not flow smoothly left to right, but jump ahead to particular points. This is due to your saccadic system, a name derived from the French word for "jolt." In both lucid dreaming and awakened perception, your smooth pursuit system is engaged.

The researchers write that vividness relies on intensity of neural activation. Imagining images compete with our normal sensory process, but when asleep our sensory input system — absorbing the world around us — is suppressed. External objects that could bombard our perception processes are eliminated. They continue,

Our findings suggest that, in this respect, the visual imagery that occurs during REM sleep is more similar to perception than imagination. . . . Under conditions of low levels of competing sensory input and high levels of activation in extrastriate visual cortices (conditions associated with REM sleep), the intensity of neural activation underlying the imagery of visual motion (and therefore its vividness) is able to reach levels typically only associated with waking perception.

Beyond solving a longtime debate tracing back to Aristotle, the researchers believe this research is another piece in helping solve the consciousness puzzle. Seasoned lucid dreamers — it's a skill you can actually practice — have the ability to control their actions while unconscious. This link between consciousness and neurophysiological processes adds another intriguing layer to the link between our waking and sleeping lives. The more we study that link, the more we find out that the two states are not as separate as imagined.

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This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

Videos
  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
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