So I was flying to the East Coast of America for work this week, and I had an interesting experience. I got up way earlier than normal, and was glad to get some sleep on the flight. Except I kept waking up.
Somehow, I got stuck in a half-awake/half-asleep state which wasn’t exactly lucid dreaming, but was pretty close.
Whenever I closed my eyes, I could see swimming, hi-def visuals. A full-on rotating 3D geometric, cartoon style (with line-art, and flat shading) tower with spinning sections, all in oranges, blacks and white.
Kind of like something that The Designers Republic might dream up, or something from ye olde home computer Demo Scene. A bit monochrome, but literally real. Slightly ghostly, in that I could tell I was dreaming, but it was certainly more solid than the visuals I usually get when I daydream.
There was a little turbulence on the flight. This is where it gets interesting.
Remember – everything in my internal dream scene was somewhat animated. Bits of the tower were rotating. And then my head rocked with the turbulence.
This overrided the internal 3D animation of the tower. It literally juddered, and the whole scene rocked to match the motion of my head – and then it continued to animate. And then a little more turbulence, and hey presto! It juddered and shifted with my head again.
What’s really interesting is that this was kind of a lolling/rocking motion. So I know that my eyes were rotating along their Z-axis to keep up, and based on the position of my head, they’d reached the limit of rotation (your eyes only rotate that way so far, to stop them from tangling up and straining the muscles and nerves). So I was switching from “keep everything horizontal” mode to “now you’re on your own, and your eyes can’t take the load off – enjoy more cognitive processing, biatches” mode. (This name will NEVER make it into a medical paper).
Hey! It looks like it’s the same part of the brain that handles internal reconciliation of head orientation and rotation of internal images. Which means that I can stick a finger in the wind here and say it’s most likely the parietal lobe which was doing all of that internal scene rotation for me, and it’s also the same part of my brain which was handling my own internal 3D construction and animation project. (And apparently, there’s a paper for that… although I was basing my original supposition based on some studies on microsaccade activity – hopefully I got the right link there).
This means that if you want to do 3D rotation puzzles in your head, you’ll probably have better results if your head is not tilted to an extreme degree, as you’ll be kicking over processing to other systems. What it also means is that this image was probably being sourced in my neocortex, not at any lower level, as otherwise the tilting wouldn’t have caused things to come crashing down.
Now that doesn’t explain qualia (something I’m still struggling with, and I’m pretty sure that those experiences originate in the limbic system and are hardcoded), but it does correspond pretty neatly to the properties of associative memory systems when not provided input – they will quite happily generate their own stuff.
Thinking about it though, what it doesn’t explain is why my brain is quite happy to generate images of white, black-outlined, boldface, 3d-projected asterixes on part of that tower when left to its own devices. That it would generate something that complex which isn’t something I’m evolutionarily predisposed to generate is pretty damn cool.
Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.
The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).