Reality gatekeepers.

the brainsI’m listening to an episode of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe where they podcasted from the recent DragonCon, and one of the early cool things discussed on the panel is how telescopes from around the Earth were “linked” together to form a giant virtual telescope the size of the planet, and examined the center of our galaxy. They saw the event horizon and tell-tale evidence of a 40 million solar mass giant black hole!

But what I most wanted to mention was the discussion on the brain and dreams. Prompted by a question from the audience to discuss lucid dreaming, Steven Novella (a neurologist as well as a podcast host) described how a dreamer is in a literally altered state of consciousness (sounds like a “no duh!” statement, but it’s deeper than just the obvious) which is in essence an entirely different you than when you’re awake.

Part of that fundamental difference is the turning “off” of the parts of the brain that compare experience and stimuli to what we understand as “reality”. Thus, when we dream, everything makes sense to our dreaming selves, nothing seems unusual or odd no matter how unusual or odd it is. Unless you can manage to switch that filter “on” while dreaming in which even you then are “lucid dreaming,” knowledgeable that you’re dreaming–although that state tends to last very briefly.

I remember an NPR news article a few years ago where researcher is schizophrenia developed a VR goggles and headphones that allowed people to experience a small taste of what it’s like to suffer from schizophrenia. They described the brain as always running in a sort of dream state at the base of consciousness. But that the “normal” person has these filters, like what Steve discusses in the podcast, which filters out the surreal and abnormal from our reality. But people with schizophrenia don’t have these filters. So any bizarre and unusual idea or image or sensory misfire or thought that their brain comes up with in this constant stream of dream-like processing, their conscious brain thinks is totally believable and acceptable.

On the panel was also a co-host of Skepticality, Derek, who suffered a stroke a few years ago. (Young guy, in his 30s, who one day after dinner just dropped and if not for the immediate reaction from present friends and family he’d likely be dead. As it was, he was in a coma for weeks and had to “climb” back into a recognizable form of conscious wakefulness. Then spend months in therapy and had to reconstruct his speech ability–and even now, a few years later, alive and well, he doesn’t quite sound like the person he was before the stroke.

They mention on this panel how his stroke affected his language center, which is intimately tied to our thought-process in that we think in words and language. When that ability of having language is stripped, reality and thinking becomes surreal and untethered and difficult to make sense of. Derek mentions how it took him a year to even make sense of the idea that he was in a coma at one time.

Something else interesting they discuss, is that the impressions he had while “in” the coma, the impressions of people and words and singing, similar experiences many people who had been in comas report as having, he actually did not experience while in the coma but rather as he was waking up–but he had at the time attibuted to from inside the coma.

Anyway, cool stuff. 🙂