Introducing: the Remcorder and the First Oneironaut

February 1, 2009

Occasionally I have extremely vivid dreams. These dreams tend to be both visceral and intellectually complex. They are usually lucid. I wake from them with a collection of characters, settings, and ideas that are interrelated in a way that seems cohesive, but as the morning progresses the cohesiveness falls away and I am left only with a few jumbled details. I’m not in the habit of writing these down, though I’ve tried a few times, with varying success. Often, by the time I get to writing, there isn’t much left to salvage.

I also occasionally suffer sleep paralysis, which, for me, is the experience of being partially awake, but physically paralyzed by a stifling and pounding pulse of sound and light. The sound is deafening, and while it is happening I wonder if I might not psychosomatically rupture my eardrums. The visual is hypnotizing, usually concentric circles of shades of grey, collapsing in on itself with a rate of about two bands per second. It feels as though if I give in I’ll be smothered, so all my instinct has me resisting this dreadful pulse. I am familiar enough now, at 31, that I recognize this pattern with lucidity. It happens when I am extremely exhausted and simultaneously on edge. It happens in a very light mode of sleep. I’ve learned to override the instinct to resist. Instead I acquiesce, sort of looking my fear in the face, and allowing it to pass through me (to use Herbert’s litany). Meanwhile, I am aware of my surroundings, and frequently there is someone close to me I can hear and want very badly to communicate to. “Wake me, damn it!! I’m afraid I’ll die if you don’t!” I’ve even learned to wake myself, by gently rocking my body back and forth, until it is actually moving. When I wake up, I usually find that the people whose voices I heard so clearly, are not and were not around. That more of it was a dream than I had thought while was happening.

Both of these phenomena have led me to think about dream recording technology. With our knowledge of the brain as limited as it is, the only hope I see is a sort of Morse code recording device, worn either on the finger, placed on the upper arm, or attached to the eyelids.

This from a report by dream specialist Stephen LaBerge (see

Evidence of voluntary control of other muscle groups during REM was found by LaBerge, Nagel, Dement, and Zarcone (1981) while testing a variety of lucidity signals. They observed that a sequence of left and right dream-fist clenches resulted in a corresponding sequence of left and right forearm twitches as measured by EMG. However, the amplitude of the twitches bore an unreliable relationship to the subjective intensity of the dreamed action. Because all skeletal muscle groups except those that govern eye-movements and breathing are profoundly inhibited during REM sleep for, it is to be expected that most muscular responses to dreamed movements will be feeble. Nonetheless, these responses faithfully reflect the motor patterns of the original dream. Similar observations have been made by Fenwick et al. (1984).

Now, as far as I know, these specialists have only used a very rough Morse-like code to correlate certain REM states as detected by the EEG with reported lucid dreaming by the subject, at the same time, via the EMG. Their findings suggest that it would be difficult to send sophisticated signals, say, encoding actual sentences with something much more Morse-code-like. Yet the human’s ability to learn skills such as musical instruments or foreign languages suggests, to me, the possibility of training oneself to communicate from beyond wakeful consciousness.

I set to work to understand how a device, such as an EMG, would work (to buy one is beyond my means), and if a very crude homemade device would be accurate enough. I might start with a glove, with a gripped ball under the fingers, such that it fits snugly into the palm of a (my) relaxed hand and such that a circuit is completed upon a gentle squeezing of the ball (closer to a mango seed in shape than a ball, in fact). With interests in mathematics and language, I also set to work on a code, so that words could be communicated in the most efficient manner. It seems like for efficiency I would pay the price of learnability, since the most efficient codes would involve inventing a new language, or at least allowing for variable character length (e.g., “e” being the shortest) and possibly even variable escape codes to signal the ends of characters and words. This becomes an interesting exercise on its own, but the problem of actually recording words from the dream state requires only a first step: try to record a recognizable symbol, as was done in the study above.

I haven’t found the time to do this, but I have found time to daydream about authoring the first book of poetry written from dream. I’ve also thought about setting up a live website where visitors write words which are turned into signals and somehow sent to the dreamer (me) (maybe by sound, maybe by touch), so that the dreamer can respond. The first oneironaut! sending back messages from that great unknown frontier. I’ve even fantasized that occasionally I’ll have a mathematical idea in dream that is profound, and I might incorporate some mathematics into my coded lexicon, to record these.

The device might be called a Remcorder. Now, some ideas are worth acting on, and this may be one of them. Unfortunately I have my hands full with other things, so this idea is only worth the entertainment one gets from reading or hearing about it. However, if someone is interested in trying this, please let me know.