Go nowhere, experience everything. That's the main draw of virtual reality (VR). Want to see Paris but don’t have a plane ticket? Strap on a headset and drop into the 6th arrondissement. Want to scale the Wall of Westeros? Pop on the specs, ready your rope and don’t look down.
It’s an amazing technology and, to hear the genre's true believers tell it, the headsets will lift us to new heights of gaming, travel and entertainment. If the Facebook and Oculus Rift alliance goes well, even our social media metaverses will be VR-enabled.
But once we slip off our goggles, head back to reality and hit the sack, will memories of these digital playgrounds echo in our real-life dreams?
As it turns out, yes, the emotional intensity of virtual reality matters. When 26 volunteers meandered through a virtual labyrinth, their time in VR was incorporated into their dreams in an unusually delayed pattern. This, according to a group of dream psychologists and neuroscientists at the University of Montreal, writing in the International Journal of Dream Research.
To learn more about the intersection of virtual reality and dreams, Van Winkle’s spoke with Elizaveta Solomonova, a Ph.D. candidate sleep neuroscientist and lead author of the University of Montreal study. Her bottom line? If the tech takes off, the science of dreaming will never be the same.
What compelled you to study dreaming and virtual reality?
We’re using virtual reality as a way to control experiences that people might have. Some of the most lively dream and sleep research right now has to do with memory consolidation in sleep. Many studies have shown different sleep stages are implicated in memory consolidation, but it’s unclear if dreaming specifically — apart from sleep — plays any role in that process.
We are interested in episodic memories: memories that have to do with space, time and sequence of events. It used to be in cognitive science that, when people studied episodic memory, they would rely on sequences like word lists. Things like, where's the word located on a page? We thought that we could do better.
Virtual reality is perfect because we can control the patterns that people are having. If we make the experience specific — and strange enough — like we did in the study, we can trace those elements into the dream based on people's self-reports and diary entries. VR provides the solution to this episodic memory problem.
How do you decide if something is strange enough you can trace it?
In a sense, it’s more unusual than strange. If we just put people in a typical room with typical objects, it would be pretty much impossible to trace those things in dreaming. We wouldn't be able to say, with any kind of certainty, that these elements in dreams came from experiences they had in the lab.
As of right now we've done two studies in our lab with virtual reality. In the one we already published, we used the Unreal Engine [a popular program for game development] to create a labyrinth; at the end of some grungy-looking corridors, they had to jump into lava. It's important not to be indifferent to whatever is happening in the task.
And there was the second study, which is not yet published, where we used Oblivion, a video game that was popular a few years ago. Using it, we can also incorporate faces and creatures that were part human, or we could have someone walk around a medieval village. Since it’s particularly weird — though not necessarily even dreamlike — it’s unusual enough that we can be more certain where an event comes from if we trace it in a dream.
What sort of patterns did you find?
Experiences from the lab were incorporated the first night. That's well-known and well-described in the literature: the so-called day residue effect. The term was actually coined by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams. Basically, the previous day’s memories somehow get reactivated in dreaming. We've also been finding, along with another lab in England, that the experience comes back around days five to seven. There's another second peak, like a U-shaped pattern.
Virtual reality somehow peaked later, on day four. So, we thought, maybe virtual reality wasn't as engaging or interpersonally significant. It was really a grungy kind of maze, and didn't look particularly real. There were no other characters. We looked at how the lab was incorporated — ourselves and electrodes and sleeping in the hospital — and it turns out that the lab had a more or less typical U-shaped pattern.
But virtual reality peaks later. Maybe the mind is prioritizing what's interpersonally and immediately significant, and then is processing things that were, perhaps, bizarre or special or interesting.
If a VR environment were even more immersive, could it mimic the intensity of real-world interpersonal experiences?
A next-level Second Life, or something like, that could be very interesting. And VR can also be used as an artistic tool, right? To create a dreamlike scenario that people could explore. You could see people training their lucid dreaming skills in virtual reality by noticing when the dream scene shifts. Or by practicing their flying.
A lot of people have an idea of what VR is, but most haven’t experienced it yet. Will this change soon?
We haven’t used any of the new helmets yet — just two little screens. We did it before it was cool: We’re the original hipsters of VR research. But, yes, we’re looking forward to seeing what would change with higher resolution and lighter helmets that don't put so much pressure on the face and the head.
I found it very, very uncomfortable. But I know a lot of my participants really enjoyed it — they just had fun and did not experience any unpleasant sensations.
But you’ve seen those Oculus Rift videos where people fall off their chairs?
I’d like to eventually get better goggles. We’ve really just scratched the surface. But with cooler VR helmets — which really are immersive in a somatosensory sense, people lose their sense of balance. That's impressive. That's very cool. I’d like to be able investigate that. Because as far as memory and dreaming go, it's one thing to have what you see and what you hear. But to be able to have fully immersive experiences that would involve the whole vestibular system and bodily state? If we could change bodily state through VR, that would be pretty cool to trace into dreams.