Dreamnet started as a simple experiment in sleep science and firmly within the well understood realms of electro-encephalography (EEG), but quickly expanded into a concept that challenged our very conceptions of the nature of reality and the capabilities of the human mind.
For the uninitiated, EEG is a technology where you place a small electrical sensor, usually dipped in a sticky saline solution onto the head of an experimental subject. These sensors act as receivers for whatever electrical activity happens to be taking place at that spot, and they can also be placed on the eyes (EOG) and other parts of the body such as the wrists to pick up nerve and muscle action in those areas. A very common practice in sleep science is to connect these sensors to the head, or other body parts, and monitor the progression of sleep over the course of the night.
What has been determined through this study is that there are some very clearly measurable signals that correspond to different parts of the waking and sleep cycle. This has allowed sleep researchers to break down sleep into some categories you have probably heard of. In particular, REM sleep coincides with a lot of frenetic motion of the eyes which can be picked up on a EOG, as well as increased sexual arousal. Meanwhile, NREM is a deeper sleep with it’s own characteristic brain wave patterns.
While there was for a long time a misconception that only REM sleep involves dreaming, EEG technology has allowed sleep researchers to wake people up in the middle of particular kinds of sleep, such as NREM and ask them if they were dreaming, which has confirmed that in some cases NREM can also be a time of dreaming.
Beyond these two well known states there are also transitions between the two, as well as a unique sleep onset phase which has some characteristics of NREM but also unique characteristics. All of these can be parsed apart and typified by reading out the EEG data of a sleeping subject.
EEG does a decent job of showing how the brain and physiology act differently during various stages of sleep and dream, but what about the phenomenological experience of the sleeping person? As much data as we can gather, it doesn’t answer the question of “what does this type of sleep feel like?” and for that we turn to another discipline, one which is more esoteric.
Oneironauts use the practice of lucid dreaming to create a phenomenological map of the dreaming mind. In a lucid dream, the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming, and hence, more likely to be able to recall and later record what each phase of sleep felt like, or how the transitions between them felt. An oneironaut can tell you what sleep onset feels like: a painting-like hallucination seemingly designed to trick your mind into thinking you are still awake. Then the stages of NREM sleep, devolving from having some visuals into a place where there is only darkness, the feeling of being whipped about by a terrifying wind, and cacophonies of otherworldly music.
It might be wondered if the level of awareness in the oneironauts observing and recording these experiences are truly indicative of what the sleep experience would be if they were not lucid. In fact, it has been analyzed and there’s a very specific different between brain activity in a lucid individual from a non-lucid one, which has to do with high levels of activation in the 40Hz range of the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex.
Where things get interesting is when you take the woo-woo of oneironautics and lucid dreaming and mash it up with the technologies of EEG and other rapidly improving BCI tech. A great example of this was the first experiment in which it was confirmed that lucid dreaming is in fact a real phenomenon. This was performed by Stephen LaBerge, who has been the main research scientist working on lucid dreaming. In this study LaBerge instructed a subject to fall asleep, become lucid, and then, during REM sleep, to signal via a pre-determined eye motion - up-down-up-down-up-down, that they were aware from within the dream.
The subject was able to complete this task, so while their brainwaves were characteristic of REM sleep in other ways, the REM pattern was interrupted by a very definitive up-down pattern that was decided on prior to the experiment. That experiment paved the way for Dreamnet by making one half of the equation possible: it was the first time that a human being communicated electronically from the dreaming universe out into the physical waking universe.
The logical next step for the creators of Dreamnet was to close that loop - to build a technology that would allow a human in the physical world to communicate in to a dreaming person using stimuli such as flashes of light and light vibrations on the skin. With these in place it was now possible for a dreaming person to communicate into and out of the physical waking world.
What this facilitated was a major step forward that pushed the boundaries of how we think about reality. What makes dreams “fake” while waking reality is “real”? Waking reality is consistent, but perhaps more importantly, it is shared. We can agree on it, we can communcate across it. If waking reality were not shared, agreed upon, and communicable across, it would be nothing more than a very consistent dream.
Dreams have their own mystique. Rather than being tethered to the relative scarcity of the physical universe, they unlock a world of creative potential and abundance. The creators of Dreamnet sought to combine the best aspects of waking reality and dreaming together in one, not by taking the simulation route that has been heavily worked upon by the virtual reality industry, but by bringing the stability and communicability of the physical world, using electronics, into the creative infinity of dream life.
To experience Dreamnet, two subjects prime themselves for lucid dreaming. Currently, this requires both sleepiness and the addition of either an electronic aid, such as a TCMS targeting the DLPFC, or a supplement such as galantamine which causes lucid dreaming a high percent of the time in subjects. These subjects are then instructed that their communication “output” is to be an eye signal such as the one in LaBerge’s experiment: up-down, up-down. And their input is to feel for a buzz or watch for a flash of light. They know who they are planning “meet up with” while in dream, and once they are in lucid REM, they signal to connect to that person. Their partner in turn receives the buzz or light flash, and can say “hello” back.
It is a simplistic type of communication, akin to early telegraphs, but it brings a connectedness into the creative space of a dream that would have previously been either unthinkable or thought to merely be an illusion. Dreamnet is used to connect dreaming people together electronically and over the internet.
As BCI and lucid dream induction technologies improve, it’s conceivable that some day in the future you might be standing in a dream literally next to a friend experiencing it together in a more immersive relief than what can ever be provided by waking virtual reality technologies. The immersive capabilities are miles ahead because it’s facilitated by a natural technology that our minds have always had the capacity for.