World Builder #edcmooc

Day 19

The third film this week is World Builder by Bruce Branit.

Branit specialises in computer generated special effects, being best known for his work on Star Trek and Fringe (among others) and puts his skills to good use in this poignant and thought-provoking film.

In World Builder, we watch as a man uses a sophisticated holographic tool to build an incredibly detailed 3D simulation of a street from a fondly remembered holiday. While he works, a timer counts down to the moment when his lovely young wife – dressed in a simple hospital gown – enters the scene. While the man hides in a doorway, his wife explores the street with unconcealed wonder; stopping, finally, to admire a single yellow flower.

All too soon, her time is up. She takes one last look around, her face now etched with sorrow, and leaves.  Without her, the simulated world falls apart; leaving the man with only a keepsake photograph of his wife with the flower. As the film comes to a close, we see the man entering the ‘Neuro Holographic Recovery Unit’ where his wife lies comatose in a hospital bed.

This film explores what is possibly the final frontier in human exploration – the internal environment of the human mind. It reminds me of popular experiments of the 1980s when psychologists in sleep laboratories investigated the phenomenon of ‘lucid dreaming’.

Lucid dreams are widely reported as a mental state in which the sleeping subject becomes aware that they are dreaming and consciously control their actions within the dream. Once treated with scepticism, modern technologies have allowed scientists to verify the phenomena through fMRI brain scans that map bloodflow through the brain while the subject performs predetermined actions in their dreams [1].

Through these experiments, we now know that dreaming of doing something is much the same, in terms of neurone activity, as actually doing it in real life. So, for example, in 2011, researchers at Munich’s Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry discovered that subjects who were asked to clench their fists when they entered lucid dreaming operated the same neurones in their brains that they used when physically performing the same action while awake; leading Michael Czisch to conclude that it may one day be possible to “read the contents of a person’s dream” [2]. Other experiments have revealed that communication between dreamers and researchers is also possible. In one such study [3], a researcher played varying tones to dreaming subjects, who would then signal back to the researcher with deliberate eye movements.

The potential implications of studies such as these are huge. As our understanding of the intricacies of the slumbering mind grows, so too do the philosophical concerns. On the one hand, the dystopic visions of films such The Matrix and Inception become that little bit more believable. But seen in a more positive light, as here in World Builder, advances in technology that would allow us to interact positively with those unable to respond physically have an obvuious allure.

Meanwhile, back in the physical world, new technology is harbouring a new wave of interest in lucid dreaming. There are now a host of smartphone apps available that claim to influence dreams by sensing the moment a person enters REM and playing a ‘soundscape’ to induce lucid dreams. Perhaps thankfully, the success rate of such apps is currently reported to be pretty low [4], but in the world of dreams, technological determinism is already making its presence felt.


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