Dreams (and Facial Recognition)

I’ve been making an effort to remember at least one dream each night. Basically, I’ll tell myself “Okay, self, we’re about to go to sleep, so try to remember that we’re sleeping and dreaming.” Oddly enough, that’s been working. I’ve been remembering most of my dreams, and I’ve been dreaming almost every night. Is that normal?!?!

I only remember dreams that occur right before I wake up in the morning.
Now, I say “remember,” in other words, I’m able to recall memories as vivid as anything real that happened yesterday. I don’t remember every turn of events, but I remember a lot of visual details. I have a very hard time remembering faces from dreams (I know why, too – I’ll get to that in a second). This has really broadened my understanding of the complexity of the human brain. Our conscious mind isn’t able to visualize or auralize complex details. Right now I could imagine a dog, and I might be able to visualize most details of the appearance of the dog, but wouldn’t have much left to concentrate on where the dog was, why he was there, and what his immediate surroundings looked like. If I start to think about those things, the image of the dog loses clarity. It’s too complex a scene for the conscious mind.

But, in a dream, the dog and the scene look completely real. It feels real. It’s like the most advanced form of virtual reality. Our brains, when dreaming, are able to create very complex scenes, complete with background noise, realistic sounds (the dog barking), and even “psuedo-conscious” motor movement. In other words, many times when people dream, they have full control of themselves and, in normal dreams, the laws of physics are mostly there. I say “mostly” because our brains don’t recreate nature and physics perfectly. Flip a light switch in a dream, it won’t always work. But it’s amazing that the brain is able to create the room and the lightswitch, and then give you enough control to choose to flip the switch.

I’ve been remembering vivid dreams. In most, I have my normal motor, speech, and thought functions. I remember looking around and examining minute details of my surroundings. Awake now, I can remember some of those details as if I had actually been there. But, dreams are dreams, and sometimes unexpected things happen. The scene may jump to something different, or unrealistic events may occur. And the one thing I haven’t been able to achieve is awareness. I want to be aware that I’m dreaming, while I’m dreaming. If I knew it was my dream, and my brain controlling the whole thing, I’d have a whole lot more control over things, wouldn’t I? Some call this lucidity, and it has been scientifically proven, but it’s not yet considered a “textbook” science subject.

So, no awareness (or lucidity) yet, but just remembering dreams is pretty cool…

Oh yeah, facial recognition. It’s a known fact that the human brain recognizes faces with a completely separate function from memory recall. You use memories to recall a scene, details, colors, sounds and smells. Even to remember a person and what they were wearing. But our brains don’t store all facial information into memories. Faces go into a special area – the facial recognition engine (that’s my paraphrased name for it and not the technical name). It isn’t the same as a memory, it is more along the lines of a fingerprint database. See a familiar face, and your brain instantly triggers that familiar feeling. You may not remember his name, address, or even how and when you saw him last, but your brain says you’ve seen his face. Facial recognition is one of those psychological/biological sciences we haven’t totally figured out yet.

Here’s an example of your facial recognition engine at work. Here are two copies of a photo of me and my wife, upside down. The right side is slightly altered, but I bet your brain isn’t complaining too much. You may notice a slight difference in my mouth, but you really have to look back and forth to tell.

Now click the image, and it will load the upright version. Don’t be scared! The same exact two images, just right side up. At that point, your brain’s facial recognition kicks in and my mouth looks seriously jacked up! The explanation for this phenomenon is that your facial recognition engine works best when faces are in an upright position.

I don’t seem to remember faces well from my dreams. This probably means that my facial recognition engine isn’t in use when dreaming. So, I may see detailed faces in the dream (or they may appear fuzzy like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – I can’t remember!), but I have no recollection of those faces when I wake up, because my facial recognition engine didn’t store a proper snapshot. Of course, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes someone specific is in a dream, and I can remember that person easily. I think things get complicated when my brain decides to create new people that I’ve never met in real life.

Leonard Nimoy said it best – “Fascinating!”

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Philip Cain

Ninja Master of the Series of Tubes, musician, audio engineer and geek. More about Philip...