Re: Anthropic dreams

From: Nick Clarke (
Date: Thu Sep 18 2003 - 14:55:52 MDT

Hi Eli,

On Wed, 17 Sep 2003 23:18:35 -0400, Eliezer S. Yudkowsky
<> wrote:

> Our recent Transhuman Atlanta gathering reminded me of an interesting
> dream I recently had, and which I would like to share with any anthropic
> theorists out there. In fact, this is probably the most philosophically
> interesting dream I have ever had in my life.
> First, you need to know something about the way dreams work for me, and
> in particular, an odd thing about the way I wake up. Usually, like
> everyone, I forget my dreams. When I'm suddenly woken up, for example,
> by an alarm clock or by my cellphone ringing, it seems - I'm not quite
> sure if this is what is happening, but it's the explanation that seems
> most likely - it seems as if the last fifteen seconds of mental imagery
> are still "in my loop" when I wake up, so I remember them too, just as if
> they were lucid. So the memory I actually have is of waking up, and then
> five seconds or fifteen seconds *later*, the phone rings. With an
> experience like that, it's easy to see why anyone less than a dedicated
> rationalist would assume psychic powers; "Oh, look, I become lucid
> fifteen seconds *before* the phone rings, I must be psychic". Sometimes
> I'll even apparently remember that I have a dream in which an alarm goes
> off in my dream, which wakes me up, and then five seconds later the alarm
> goes off; one needs to have done quite a lot of reading in cognitive
> science before one looks at that and says, "Timing fault in memory
> formation - yes, the brain really is that fragile", and not "I had a
> precognitive dream."
> This led me to ponder the problem of dream memories and personal
> continuity. I now remember having experiences that I would not remember
> if I had not been woken up by an alarm clock; I remember those apparently
> lucid dream experiences, and those "inserted" memories, as if they were
> part of my ordinary life continuity. What happens to the person who
> experiences the dreams I have and *don't* remember? Did I really
> experience the dream of the alarm going off, or was the memory
> manufactured and inserted without ever being experienced? Are *all*
> dreams manufactured and inserted without ever being experienced?
> This is where we stand at the moment I had my anthropic dream.

Up to this point in your account, I would say it makes little difference
from your own perspective whether they're "manufactured" or "experienced".
You could ask the same question of waking memories. I don't think you can
tell by introspection after the event, and if the memory is "the same" [as
what you think it would be if swap(manufactured,experienced)], the end
result (on learning, etc) should be the same. The only way to determine the
dream origin would be to have some kind of snapshot of earlier mental
states to compare with, to see if the dream memory was first formed (or
first accessible) before you were woken.

Now that you mention it, I think I've had similar "retrospective"
experiences on being awakened suddenly - the most dramatic of which
occurred on having a brick thrown through the (very large, double-glazed)
window beneath which I was sleeping! Obviously I woke up rather abruptly
with a massive adrenaline rush; my apparent immediately preceding memory
was an unpleasant semi-nightmarish dream about, well, suffice to say an
accident involving a lot of shock, noise, breaking glass, destruction of
buildings, etc. I'd previously put this down to nerve-jangling coincidence,
but yours seems a potential explanation, especially given the lack of
mental clarity when I woke up - my memories of the moments afterwards are
confused as well. _Thank you_ for sharing this!

> What happens to the person who doesn't remember?

Whether they are manufactured or really experienced, I guess that if
forgotten (or just not manufactured, if you don't wake), the dream still
does its stuff in terms of whatever learning or processing function it
serves, and the lack of memory of the process itself becomes largely
irrelevant. Probably the end result is "better" (in the sense of improved
learning / personality adaptation to experience) than for the interrupted
dreamer, who presumably doesn't finish the learning process.

Question: if "manufacture" is what happens, what could be the evolutionary
benefit, as opposed to remembering nothing? (of course this depends
whether my assumption holds about forgotten dreams still having an effect)

> My cellphone rang and woke me up. I apparently remembered becoming lucid
> in my dream a few seconds before the cellphone woke me. And my
> "inserted" dream experience leading up to the cellphone ringing was the
> thought: "If I don't wake up now, this experience will not have existed
> in retrospect. Therefore, since I'm now having this experience, something
> will wake me up."

It's fascinating that you remember it down to the level of individual
thoughts; I don't think I ever get that. Dreams are more of an emotional
sensation for me; regardless of how I wake up, I can't usually recall
speech or specific thoughts - if there are any. Events, yes; details, no.
This raises the obvious question: is it the dream, the memory, or my
reality testing during the dream that lacks detail? - since the dream seems
entirely convincing while I'm "experiencing" it. (Hence I've not yet
managed to "wake up" within a dream to achieve lucid dreaming - the usual
techniques involve training yourself to habitually perform various forms of
reality testing.)

> Now, what this *feels* like is this:
> You're dreaming, and your dream turns lucid, and you think to yourself:
> "If I don't wake up now, this experience won't have existed in
> retrospect. Therefore, since I'm having this experience, something will
> wake me up."
> And then, a moment later, the cellphone rings and wakes you up.
> The illusion of a spooky anthropic effect was *very* strong.

What exactly do you mean by "anthropic effect"? That it seemed as though
there was some kind of causal relation from the dream to the trigger which
woke you, rather than vice versa? That your seeming to experience the dream
(as opposed to merely manufacturing it :] ) seemed to trigger the alarm
call and subsequent wakeup? ("It was the way it was because you experienced

I'm not sure how this fits in with anthropic theory, since the phone could
still have woken you if there was no causal relation from dream to phone,
and the dream could still have been manufactured afterwards, yet you would
still have the same memories to ask why and reach the same conclusion (or

What was discussed in Atlanta in relation to this?


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