Dreaming Is a Kind of Natural VR

Your breathing settles, your limbs slacken, your eyelids fall – what is it that happens in our brain at night when our bodies stop reacting to the outer world while our minds fire up?

In a recent paper, cognitive scientists elaborated on the idea that our dreams constitute a sort of virtual reality, namely a simulation of our waking life mainly serving to solidify our social lives (Revonsuo et al. 2015).

When we dream, we fall into an internal world reactive to us, roaming it as a simulated avatar the authors dub the dream self. To this avatar, the dream presents an immersive environment populated by other characters that, although products of our own mind, seem intelligent, credible, and functionally independent from the dream self. These non-self characters, experiments suggest, tend to be relatively realistic human figures, especially in adults living in urban and industrialized societies (children’s dreams contain more animals across cultures), but behave in unexpected ways.

Let’s begin with the alternatives. Dreaming could simply consist of simulating the physical world, and, as game developers know, it would be considerably easier to render than complex, autonomous virtual or dream agents. Alternatively, dreams could be about rehashing thought processes and emotions, and seeking solutions to problems in a non-enactive way – a type of automated thinking and memory. Yet, dreams consistently contain enactive, immersive environments, just as VR does. Why?

The authors focus on forming empirical research questions to corroborate their hypothesis that dream simulation is indeed social in nature, as opposed to simulating all kinds of thought processes and waking interactions with the world. Referring to empirical studies about dream content, Revonsuo et al. argue that social simulation in dreams helps us, on the one hand, to maintain significant relationships from the past through long stretches of absence, and on the other, to prepare us for challenging interactions.

The truly fascinating questions, however, are only brushed upon. How do these complex interactive dream worlds arise? What is their relation to the self, and to consciousness? How does the brain separate the agency of the dream self from the autonomous environments and characters.

In an older paper, Revonsuo (1995) argues that VR-type simulation actually underlies all experience, not just dreaming. “All experiences are virtual in the sense that they are world-models rather than the external physical world somehow directly apprehended.”  



Revonsuo, A. (1995). “Consciousness, dreams and virtual realities.” In Philosophical Psychology. Mar95, Vol. 8 Issue 1, p35. 24p.

Revonsuo, A., Tuominen, J. & Valli, K. (2015). ”The Avatars in the Machine - Dreaming as a Simulation of Social Reality.” In T. Metzinger & J. M. Windt (Eds). Open MIND: 32(T).