NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Every Seven Minutes

Yesterday's post was an example of a dream setting. In the posts to come I'll talk more about sleep, what dreaming *is* from a brain activity standpoint, what dreams are made of (memories), the sense of time in a dream, and differences between the *mind* (psychology) and the brain (biology).

The recent movie "Inception" did a very good job of capturing the mystery of dreams, the surrealism of disconnected settings that blend seamlessly into each other, the *realism* of the settings, and the sense of timelessness.

Yesterday's post is an example of a seven-minute dream. Any of you who have the tendency to repeatedly hit the snooze button on your alarm clock have probably experienced it. The alarm goes off, you barely rouse yourself - just enough to reach out and hit the snooze button, then settle back into the pillows. You have a vivid dream, from which you are awakened by the alarm clock... again... your seven-minute snooze is over.

How can you have such a vivid dream in just seven minutes? And what is a dream, really?

To answer the first, we will need to talk about the sense of time in dreams, and that's really a long topic. For today I will focus on the second question, and it will give us some insight into the former.

Dreams are memories. Our memories. They needn't be personal. Snips of movies, commercials, descriptions by a friend, all are fodder for dreams. Sleep consists of many stages, typical scientific terms refer to 4 stages, from stage 1, light drowsiness in which you are vaguely aware of surroundings, to stage four, in which the body is so deeply unconscious that most muscles in the body are shut down. A person spends most of the night progressing from stage 2 to stage 4 sleep and back again. Persons with sleep apnea, asthma or who wake frequently in the night oscillate from Stage 1 to 4. Dreams occur during Stages 2 and 3 in what is called REM (rapid-eye-movement) or "paradoxical" sleep - so called because the brain (and eyes) are as active as during wakefulness even while the body stays completely asleep (even paralyzed).

A full sleep cycle can take as little as 45 minutes, or as much as two hours. During a cycle, the amount of time spent dreaming is quite short, about 10 minutes per cycle, although it is possible to cycle between REM and non REM sleep multiple times per cycle. "Inception" got a lot of things right regarding dreams, dream settings, and time within dreams, but sorry, this part they got wrong - people do not typically dream the entire time they are asleep, nor when they are sedated - at least not at the sedation level that would keep a person asleep for 7-10 hours. Sedation suppresses brain and body activity, similar to Stage 4, and usually also suppresses REM sleep. Sure there are drugs that promote sleep and dreaming, but they result in a very light sedation and have their effects mainly through pain relief and muscle relaxation.

But back to those seven-to-ten minutes of dreaming. How can a dream seem so complete, so detailed, and so *long* and occur within orders of magnitude less time than the events it portrays? Several reasons: First, dreams are strung together from memories – as stated about, memories of events during the day, the past, personal experience, stories read from books, movies, TV. Even if only vague impressions, the mind can make a dream from it.

Memories are stored in the brain as associations. Ever struggle to name a song? Remember part of a tune or a verse, but can't think of the title until you *sing* the verse through to the end and rewind to the beginning? That's association. Each verse, each phrase, is associated in memory, and you have to run through the chain of associations to get to the title. There are other types of associations: cooking smells may help recall a vivid memory of childhood, a sound can trigger a traumatic memory, a touch or color may bring back memories of a first date, first love, first kiss. Once a memory is recalled, it may lead in turn to another memory, and another, and another. Such associations are nearly instantaneous. A series of memories spanning minutes, days, months or years can be recalled in seconds.

Second reason why dreams seem complete and detailed is that filling in the gaps with details is what the brain does. Any student of music can tell you that they can *hear* instruments when reading music. [In fact, there is a fascinating study in which brain imaging which proves just that point: a conductor reading a score shows the same brain activity as if they were hearing the music.] Optical illusions work the same way – the eyes see only lines, shapes and shadows, and the brain fills in even when there are no details in the original image. Mathematical models that mimic the connections of neurons (brain cells) have demonstrated the ability to restore information even when up to half of it is missing or garbled.

Finally, dreams allow the brain to disconnect from the body. There is a location in the brain called the "Red Nucleus" that acts like a cut-off switch. During dreams, the nerve impulses to the muscles are stopped, and many signals from the rest of the body do not reach the brain (consciously). The brain acts as if all of the connections are intact, but the normal feedback delay is not present, and the whole process runs faster. Note that this can account for the "helpless" feeling in some dreams – running in slow motion, sitting in the back seat of a runaway car, unable to defend against an attacker. During these events, the Red Nucleus block of nerve signals is not complete. Commands to muscles are blocked, but the information that those muscles are not moving is getting to the brain.

So, dreams are memories. Memories can trigger recall of other memories at widely separate times. The brain (and mind) are good at taking incomplete information and filling in details – often with familiar situations and other memories. The brain does not have the normal feedback from the body to signal what is a real experience and what is not. Hence the seven-minute dream. In reality, the dream may have only lasted for about 2 minutes, but that is enough time to trigger a sequence of stored memory patterns in the brain, and for the mind to make up a script to go along with the sequences. Sort of like the ultimate moviemaker's storyboard.

Next: The science behind dreams.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


Starting a series on tricks of the mind. By way of preparation, a short story…


By Tedd Roberts.


Rob's head never quite hit the desk, but the exclamation came about because the sudden jerk and head shake caused a sharp pain in his neck.

"Gotta get some sleep" he mumbled. It was quiet and only moderately lighted in the room used as a home office. The rest of the house was dark, except for the inevitable tell-tale lights on electronics. The screensaver had kicked in, and the computer screens had dimmed, but brightened once Rob began typing again. "Darn deadlines. I hate them. I want to get some sleep because I have to be in early tomorrow, but no, these reports had to be completed and circulated before noon." He paused. "Great, now I'm talking to myself."

With a few clicks, he checked the files, decided that the reports would be finished with about 20 minutes work, tomorrow morning. With relief, he closed the files, shut down the word processor, and uploaded everything to a network disk that he could access from his office. Rob then reached for the wireless lighting control on the desk and turned off the room lights, trusting to the residual glow of the computer monitor and a few LED indicators to navigate to the stairway.

Five paces to the basement rec room, navigate around the stationary bike. Two paces to the stairway, don't kick the bookcase. Eleven steps up to the main floor. Feel for the basement door, it's closed, open it to a dark hallway. The lights were off, Patty was upstairs asleep. Three paces, turn right past the sofa. Four paces, watch the edge of the rug. Rob knew all of the movements in the absence of light, he practiced many times, and actually liked navigating by only the dim red, green and blue glow of the LEDs. The flashing blue to the right was the computer network box, one more pace and turn right again. He was at the stairs to the bedroom floor. It was darker up there, fewer electronics and the nightlights were usually behind closed bedroom doors. He'd made the trip many times and hardly stumbled at all, a couple of unfortunate broken toes many years ago had taught him that he had a choice of either watching every footfall, or counting every pace and steps of this path.

Fifteen steps to the top floor.

No, that was wrong. There were only thirteen stairs between the first and second floors.

He felt the top landing under his bare feet. There was a hardwood tread on this ultimate step before changing back to carpet. He reached for the railing and felt the comforting newel and post marking the top of the stairway, and here was the knob for the bedroom door. He opened the door and was surprised by the lack of light. There should have been a clock on each side of the bed, one was Patty's and one Rob's. She awakened at the slightest sound, but he required a loud radio to disrupt his sleep. The fact that they had different schedules also led to the solution of each having their own alarm clock. Missing also were the little LEDs indicating the cordless phone, the charging station for cell phones, and the power strip that everything was plugged into.

This was not right. Had he stepped too far and entered Patrick's room? Most of his electronic appliances were with him at college. No, the streetlight should have been visible through the window, but there was absolutely *no* light in this place.

As Rob turned to step back into the hallway, he felt the carpet give way to bare wood, then cold hard concrete. All of the oddities were coalescing into something very strange. He couldn't be here, yet where else could he have traveled while still remaining in his own house. The fifteen steps. That was significant, maybe if he could get back to the stairway.

One pace from his bedroom door, or three from Patrick's. Stop, reach carefully, there was danger of falling down the stairs if he wasn't careful. No, there was a wall here. Cold, hard, not drywall or even metal. Rock or concrete, like the cold surface beneath his feet. Very strange. He turned around to feel for the door or doorframe behind him, but it was not there. Of course, like the legends of the Faerie, or NIven's "For a Foggy Night." Rob had taken a wrong step, and now he was … elsewhere.

It wasn't entirely dark, there was a dim gray light ahead. Stepping carefully, the memory of several weeks of pain following those broken toes foremost – well, maybe secondmost – in his mind, Rob moved toward the light. It was a window, small, about two feet high by three wide, and he had to bend slightly to see through it. It was his den! There was the love seat, the TV and "his" recliner, even if Patty used it more than he did. In fact, there she was, reading, the TV on to what she called "mindless fluff", a reality show about wedding dresses. But… that was several hours ago. He had come home late from work, and she'd been sitting there, he recognized the scene on the TV. A quick microwaved meal, and he'd gone back downstairs to work, but she'd yawned, said she was sleepy and gone to bed.

The windows appeared to be exactly that, a window, not a screen or video monitor. It felt like glass, and there was a frame around the edges. Metal. With rivets. He rapped on the glass. Patty didn't notice as she quietly turned the pages. Rob looked around and noticed another dim light, it was nearly behind him, he'd have to turn from the path he'd followed so far. Luckily there'd been no foot-catching obstacles on the bare floor ground.

Another window, the same size, and it looked onto his kitchen. There was a cereal bowl on the table and glass on the counter next to the sink. Patty walked in, there was something strange about her movements, jerky and blurred, she seemed to leave a faint shadow with each step, like a slowly fading trail. She wrote something on the whiteboard attached to the refrigerator, and erased what had been there. "Salad, carrots, yogurt" the message said. That was this morning! She'd erased the message that said he'd been up late and would be late again tonight and written a grocery reminder. Rob watched, confused, as Patty grabbed her purse, cape, and left for work.

That was *sixteen hours* ago!

Back the way he'd come, a brighter light flickered. Rob walked back, and felt the ground under his feet turn to dirt, then grass. He shuffled, any thought of counting paces forgotten. The light appeared to be coming from around a corner. The fact that he was now turning a corner where there had previously been a solid wall did not register at all. This window looked onto a bedroom. Patrick's room! He was sitting on his floor, back against his bed, and incidentally to the window, as he played a video game. The flickering came from the oversized screen that served him as TV, computer and game monitor. Rob could see that his son was speaking into a headset, but there was no sound. He pounded on the window, but as before, there was no response.

Patrick was at college. He was home last month for a weekend, but it had been at least six weeks ago that he took the game system to his dorm room. This made no sense. Hours. Days. Weeks!

Rob continued, another right turn, and it was now obvious that he was walking around some form of box, looking in. The walls of the box were black, slightly fuzzy to the touch, as if painted with the nonreflective black that he remembered from backstage at his kids' plays in school. Where *was* he?

Another window, another scene from his home. Andrew was leaning over the bathroom kitchen sink, trimming his beard. This had to be several years in the past, Andy had moved to Missouri on graduation. His wife had been the only one that could convince him to shave the beard, goodness knew Rob and Patty couldn't manage it, he'd leave for college clean shaven, and come home four months later looking like a hermit.

Rob slumped in the chair. This wasn't right! Patrick was still in High School, *Andy* was off at college! And the cape that Patty had been wearing, he hadn't bought that yet! He'd seen it in an online catalog and was considering getting it for her birthday next month.


He was seated in a chair! At a desk!

It was little more than a slanted board with a tiny lamp, barely bright enough to illuminate the single sheet of paper on its surface. Or, if he tilted the lamp slightly he could see the buttons to the side of the desk surface. He peered closely, but the light was too dim to read the incised letters. The paper had just three words, and they were written in his own hand. At the top of the page was written: "Past." Below that was "Future!" (including the exclamation point) and at the bottom, all in caps and underlined several times: "DREAM!!!!" He looked up as a flicker of light in the window caught his attention.

Rob was seated in front of the computer, chin on his chest, eyes closed. On the screen was a progress report that was due in the morning. He awoke with a start. "Ouch," he exclaimed at the sudden pain in his neck. He turned and looked around. He could have sworn that he'd heard pounding and shouting from the window behind him. But, there was no window there. Of course not. The wall behind him was an exterior wall of the basement. Nothing but solid wall and dirt beyond that.

Friday, January 28, 2011


I have been toying with the idea of a regular blog. I have my own website, a presence on LJ, FB, and of course, here at Blogspot, but I really don’t take advantage of them. I can frequently be found in ‘Sarah’s Diner’ at Baen’s Bar – the home forum of my friend and writing mentor, Sarah A. Hoyt. With all of the writing and posts, I don’t really take advantage of the fact that if I *posted* this stuff, maybe folks would read it, and would come to know just a little of who Tedd Roberts is – or at least who he pretends to be.

So, I have decided to start working on a regular blog, content to be announced – a bit of science, a bit of writing, and maybe a bit of philosophy mixed in. Forgive me if this is not exactly a *regular* feature, but I will try to make it at least *weekly*, and just *maybe* we can get that old “lab Rat’s Guide to the Brain (for writers)” going.


Do you cry when TV shows and movies get sentimental? I’m not talking tear-jerker romances, but do you feel just a *bit* choked up when the story line hits close to home, when it *feels* real and tugs at emotion? Do you have to make an excuse to wipe your eyes or blow your nose when the hero get the girl, the heroine gets the guy, the orphan kid finds a family … or a dog?

Well, I get a bit misty eyed when I read certain stories. My friend Sarah Hoyt ( just reposted one of her short stories that had that affect on me. It’s about an ordinary person in a mundane life that has a brief glance at an alternate self – one in which the future isn’t all that rosy, but it’s one in which that person *matters*, she is a critical player in the defense of humanity. I got a bit choked up reading that story. I’ll try to get Sarah to post it on her blog, or maybe y’all can wander over to Sarah’s Diner and check it out.

Another story that had that impact on me is one that I could remember the emotional scene, but not the name of the story or the author. The crew of a spaceship crashes on a hauntingly familiar planet. They have to deal with a strange, yet livable ecology, remnants of a long vanished civilization, and nomadic tribes or primitive humans. Along the way they encounter other shipwreck victims and fight the remnants of their own degenerating interstellar empire. At long last, they discover the truth in a majestic chamber where last the Men of Earth departed for distant stars.

The book of course, is “Star Rangers”, also titled “The Last Planet” by Andre Norton. The climactic scene in the chamber where the rangers read the plaque “Terra of Sol” has stuck with me for 30 years, and rereading the story last week gave me goose bumps yet again.

This feeling, though, is one in which I feel as if I could have been one of those pioneers, those explorers of a future that is now lost. Do you remember the promise of Science Fiction from the 40’s and 50’s? In the twenty-first century we were supposed to have flying cars, personal jet packs, and an interplanetary society. We don’t have it. We *do* have smart computers and miraculous communicators and tricorders that would put Spock to shame (we call them “smartphones”). But what we *don’t* have is outer space, and that is a shame. Niven, Pournelle and Flynn’s “Fallen Angels” also gives that sense of a lost future – lost to a “time of limited choices.” All too often I think we may be living those limits.

I have been working on my writing. The day job tends to get in the way. The demands of science and funding agencies are … well, a story for another time. Still, I have been plagued by a number of story concepts, lately, ones that give *me*, the writer, a sense of “Lost Future.” I am striving to capture the essence and put it into words that draw the reader in and say – “You know, this *could* have been you!” The theme occurs quite often in classic SF, and classic SF is exactly what I, too, want to write. I love to read about that future that might have been, and if we play our cards right, just may be … again. That’s why I love SF, and why I think that the future might not be lost after all.