03 April, 2021

The Reality of My Dreamscape

We should not fall prey to the typical mind fallacy. Our minds are not so similar as we at first think.

Robin Raven trying to protect the innocent.
My friend Robin became vegan very early on because she saw fellow consciousness everywhere. As a young child, she cried when a Halloween-carved pumpkin would be thrown away because she deeply felt that having a face was sufficient for a being to have feelings. This experience was not typical, and it took her until high school before she internally understood that other people didn't feel the same way.

Katherine is a supertaster. She didn't understand that this was a different way to be when she was younger. She was called a picky eater because she'd turn down certain foods that she didn't like the taste of. Those foods, if tasted, would linger for days, tainting all other meals. I've gone with her to fast food places and watched mesmerized as she could identify all the foods made previously on the same grill as the item she was eating. As a child, she wanted most of all to make others feel okay, so she would often sacrifice her own desires when others were arguing -- whether this was choosing who got to sit in the front seat, deciding who had to take "the high road" when friends or family got nasty, or even just "sucking it up" and eating what was given to her even though it tasted vile. Adults around her would say: "We all have to sometimes eat stuff we don't like", but they did not understand. For her, the taste lingered. It was significant and primary. Katherine was a supertaster, and this was a big deal. She describes with relish the day she first found out:

You can test if you're also a supertaster.
I was in Europe on vacation and every meal had fish. I abhor fish. I ate it anyway, because I didn't want to rock the boat. Days later, over a breakfast that I ordinarily would have loved, I mentioned to others how the fish was still so pungent to me that it was ruining what would have been an excellent breakfast. To me, this was commonplace; it happened all the time in my life whenever I'd give in and eat something disgusting. But the surprise on others faces clued me in on the reality: other people do not have this same internal experience of taste.

Bebeflapula explains different levels of phantasia.
For me, it is my dream world which differs from so many others. I have aphantasia, and so cannot visually imagine anything at all in my waking life. But when I dream, I have full access to visual imagination. I'm also a lucid dreamer: unlike most people I get to choose what happens in my dreams. Unexpected things do happen there, but I have at least the illusion that I get to choose how I react to things that happen in my dreams. The combination of aphantasta with vivid lucid dreams is that I grew up valuing my dream worlds much more than other people do.

To me, the worlds that I visit when I sleep are alive. They feel like real spaces that truly matter. They aren't fuzzy or indistinct, like I see them portrayed so often in movies or when others describe their dreams. Rather, they are much more solid and distinct than anything at all that I can imagine in my waking life, and since I wear glasses they also appear much less fuzzily and as though they have a strength of reality to them that the actual real world lacks. Combine this with the fact that I get to explore that world just as lucidly as I get to explore the waking world, and you get a hyperrealistic upside-down conception of existence where the waking world just feels inferior to the dreaming world. At a gut basis, naively, I just feel as though the two worlds are equally valid and valued. The waking world is more fuzzy and less distinct, but it has continuity between every day, which I value. And the dreaming world is more solid and feels more real, even though I only get to revisit places intermittently as I return to well-known old dreamscapes.

From the now defunct study-hack site.
Of course, I understand that that the dream world is not real. But it took many years for me to get to a point where I was actually acting that way. Getting glasses for the first time as a child was a surreal event: all of a sudden the waking world started looking like the dream world did when at a distance. Glasses made me start to value the waking world much more in a way that I don't think happens with many other people. Later in life, I would tolerate living situations that many people would not be able to stand, because in dream life things could be fixed so much more easily than in waking life. Yes, I'd have to tidy up in both worlds, but, in one, I could but make the intention to do so, and it would happen, just as a nose-twitching witch might; but, in the other, tidying up meant actually taking the time to do so. When both worlds felt (naively) equally valuable to me, you can imagine that this resulted in me prioritizing the effects that occurred in my dream life over those that I built in my waking life. Many times in my life I would accept squalid conditions in one if I had good conditions in the other, merely because, to me, both were real.

It wasn't until I understood that aphantasia was a thing in mid-2020 that I finally realized what was going on here, I had had the typical mind fallacy for so long that it just hadn't occurred to me that the reason I valued dream life so strongly was because there I could visualize, even though I couldn't anywhere else.

Today, I finally value the waking world more. But it is a thoughtful decision that I do so; it still feels naively as though they should be equally valid. I just realize that this is a wrong thing to think now.

Yesterday, I had a nightmare, Jasper's dead body had come home. We were mourning when suddenly his body moved, and I heard the smallest of sneezes. I rushed to him, horrified to realize that maybe the euthanasia had not worked, and when I got next to him, his head raised, looking at me with the most expressive face. It was a face of unbridled pain. He was suffering physically, but more than that, it was a look that showed he felt betrayed. Why had I not fought harder to help him to live? Didn't I love him? Why had I caused him to die, and to suffer these many days in pain away from his family?

I screamed, waking up both myself and my partner. I was sweating. I looked over to the box where Jasper's remains actually lay in the waking world. I cried. Katherine reminded me that Jasper lived a happy life, right up until the end. I had not betrayed him. Jasper loved me. Slowly, I calmed down.

Nightmares for me are thankfully rare. But when they happen, they are horrendous. I don't think I can successfully explain just how real they are to me other than to point out that my dream world naively feels more real than my waking world. It is only with intellect that I understand the waking world to be more real than my dream world. Nightmares, to me, are true horrors second only to the waking world horrors one learns of in rationality or effective altruism circles.

From Corey Mohler's Existential Comics.
When I speak to people in my life, I'm not likely to mention any nightmares I have. It doesn't come across well. Others have nightmares, too, but their nightmares don't seem to have that same feeling of reality that mine have. My nightmares linger. For others, a dream passes quickly from the mind. Mine do, too, in the specifics. But, unlike others, when I sleep again I go back to the same place, and the specifics come back to me. An area previously explored has some changes, but the layout is the same. The rules are the same. I get to talk to the different people that are there, and visit the areas I care about most as often as I want, even years later when I return to that same dreamscape. Over time, the memories of these repeated dreams linger in my waking world memories. Even now, I can tell you about a certain dream place that I have gone to dozens of times, even though I haven't visited in the past year or so, where certain people live, where the decor is a certain way, where a path leads from the back door through the woods, where the path diverges to different locales depending on where I want to visit.... I know this dream place well because I've gone there so often. It's real to me. And so even though I have only had this Jasper dream once, I feel fear. Because it has been 24 hours now and I still remember every detail. I remember Jasper's tortured face. I remember feeling that it was my fault. I remember not fighting for his life.

There are even more reasons to stay up for me now. I don't want to go to sleep.

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