(Roughly) Daily

“I dream. Sometimes I think that’s the only right thing to do”*…

Why do we need art? And what does it have to do with dreaming? Neuroscientist and author Eric Hoel has a very provocative theory…

How will we spend the remaining 700,000 hours of the 21st century? In the metered time of our own discretion, there have never been more options for our personal entertainment, nor have they ever been more freely available. We find ourselves strolling the aisles of a vast sensorium. On the shelves is a trove of experiences: video games, movies, TV shows, virtual reality, books, podcasts, articles, social media posts, all prepackaged for our consumption. What had previously been accomplished for food through the centralized distribution of supermarkets has now been done with experience itself. The recent grand opening of this supersensorium has been mediated through the screen, a panoply of icons, images, links, downloads, and videos auto-playing, which we browse through entirely at our leisure.

Such abundance of choice would have been heralded as miraculous in any other age. What a rousing cry for progress that our lowly living rooms would have stupefied with their luxuries even the God-like pharaohs, even the court of Versailles! Or maybe not—for it all comes with a price. Who hasn’t lost days from binge-watching Netflix, or deep in the dungeons of some video game? Here’s a scary, or maybe heart-wrenching, thing to consider: of our waking leisure hours, what exactly is the amount of time devoted to the consumption of experiences from the supersensorium? In 2018, Nielsen reported that the average American spent eleven hours a day engaged with media. Does anyone believe that this number is going to decrease? For the technology that undergirds the supersensorium will only improve. The algorithms will grow more personalized, the experiences will become more salient, and the platforms will get faster in their delivery of content. And we should all admit that the vast majority of what lines the shelves of the supersensorium is merely entertainment, for otherwise we wouldn’t feel a gnawing guilt so great most of us avoid consciously calculating how our time is actually spent.

The infinite entertainment of the supersensorium is especially problematic if you happen to be someone who likes and maybe even produces art or fictions. E.g., a writer such as myself, who views the tidal wave of middling fictions with a feeling akin to terror. Not that these problems are entirely new. In a letter to a friend, a 31-year-old Tolstoy wrote:

I shall write no more fiction. It is shameful, when you come to think of it. People are weeping, dying, marrying, and I should sit down and write books telling “how she loved him”? It’s shameful!

If that was Tolstoy’s judgment of himself, what might his fiery judgment be of our now endless ways of telling “how she loved him”? The mere scale of the supersensorium pushes to the fore old questions about the purpose of art and fictions. Why do humans desire these petite narratives we gobble up like treats? What’s the origin of this pull toward artifice, a thing so powerful we might even call it an instinct? Is it virtue or vice? And if it can be a vice and technology is making it easier and easier to while away our lives this way, a reasonable person has to ask: why add to the supersensorium? Why take away from the real when the real is already back on its heels, and behind it, a cliff?…

It turns out, Hoel suggests, that the answers have everything to do with dreaming…

To explain the phenomenology of dreams I recently outlined a scientific theory called the Overfitted Brain Hypothesis (OBH). The OBH posits that dreams are an evolved mechanism to avoid a phenomenon called overfitting. Overfitting, a statistical concept, is when a neural network learns overly specifically, and therefore stops being generalizable. It learns too well. For instance, artificial neural networks have a training data set: the data that they learn from. All training sets are finite, and often the data comes from the same source and is highly correlated in some non-obvious way. Because of this, artificial neural networks are in constant danger of becoming overfitted. When a network becomes overfitted, it will be good at dealing with the training data set but will fail at data sets it hasn’t seen before. All learning is basically a tradeoff between specificity and generality in this manner. Real brains, in turn, rely on the training set of lived life. However, that set is limited in many ways, highly correlated in many ways. Life alone is not a sufficient training set for the brain, and relying solely on it likely leads to overfitting…

What the OBH suggests is that dreams represent the biological version of a combination of such techniques, a form of augmentation or regularization that occurs after the day’s learning—but the point is not to enforce the day’s memories, but rather combat the detrimental effects of their memorization. Dreams warp and play with always-ossifying cognitive and perceptual categories, stress-testing and refining. The inner fabulist shakes up the categories of the plastic brain. The fight against overfitting every night creates a cyclical process of annealing: during wake the brain fits to its environment via learning, then, during sleep, the brain “heats up” through dreams that prevent it from clinging to suboptimal solutions and models and incorrect associations.

The OBH fits with the evidence from human sleep research: sleep seems to be associated not so much with assisting pure memorization, as other hypotheses about dreams would posit, but with an increase in abstraction and generalization. There’s also the famous connection between dreams and creativity, which also fits with the OBH. Additionally, if you stay awake too long you will begin to hallucinate (perhaps because your perceptual processes are becoming overfitted). Most importantly, the OBH explains why dreams are so, well, dreamlike.

… and everything to do with the role that it plays in our lives– and in shaping the media and entertainment that we consume…

From an evolutionary perspective, it’s rather amazing humans are willing to spend so much time on fictions… Why are we so fascinated by things that never happened?

If the OBH is true, then it is very possible writers and artists, not to mention the entirety of the entertainment industry, are in the business of producing what are essentially consumable, portable, durable dreams. Literally. Novels, movies, TV shows—it is easy for us to suspend our disbelief because we are biologically programmed to surrender it when we sleep. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a TV episode traditionally lasts about the same ~30 minutes in length as the average REM event, and movies last ~90 minutes, an entire sleep cycle (and remember, we dream sometimes in NREM too). They are dream substitutions.

This hypothesized connection explains why humans find the directed dreams we call “fictions” and “art” so attractive and also reveals their purpose: they are artificial means of accomplishing the same thing naturally occurring dreams do. Just like dreams, fictions and art keep us from overfitting our perception, models, and understanding of the world…

And as you’ll see if you read this piece in full, as I hope you will, the implication is that art– real art, good art– matters…

… as the supersensorium expands over more and more of our waking hours, the idea of an aesthetic spectrum, with art on one end and entertainment on the other, is defunct. In fact, explicitly promoting any difference between entertainment and art is considered a product of a bygone age, even a tool of oppression and elitism. At best, the distinction is an embarrassing form of noblesse oblige. One could give a long historical answer about how exactly we got into this cultural headspace, maybe starting with postmodernism and deconstructionism, then moving on to the problematization of the canon, or the saturation of pop culture in academia to feed the more and more degrees, we could trace the ideas, catalog the opinions of the cultural powerbrokers, we could focus on new media and technologies muscling for attention, or changing demographics and work forces and leisure time, or so many other things—but none of it matters. What matters is, now, as it stands, talking about art as being fundamentally different from entertainment brings charges of classism, snobbishness, elitism—of being proscriptive, boring, and stuffy.

And without a belief in some sort of lowbrow-highbrow spectrum of aesthetics, there is no corresponding justification of a spectrum of media consumption habits. Imagine two alien civilizations, both at roughly our own stage of civilization, both with humanity’s innate drive to consume artificial experiences and narratives. One is a culture that scoffs at the notion of art. The other is aesthetically sensitive and even judgmental. Which weathers the storm of the encroaching supersensorium, with its hyper-addictive superstimuli? When the eleven hours a day becomes thirteen, becomes fifteen? A belief in an aesthetic spectrum may be all that keeps a civilization from disappearing up its own brainstem.

In a world of infinite experience, it is the aesthete who is safest, not the ascetic. Abstinence will not work. The only cure for too much fiction is good fiction. Artful fictions are, by their very nature, rare and difficult to produce. In turn, their rarity justifies their existence and promotion. It’s difficult to overeat on caviar alone. Now, it’s important to note here that I don’t mean that art can’t be entertaining, nor that it’s restricted to a certain medium. But art always refuses to be easily assimilated into the supersensorium.

…only by upholding art can we champion the consumption of art. Which is so desperately needed because only art is the counterforce judo for entertainment’s stranglehold on our stone-age brains. And as the latter force gets stronger, we need the former more and more.

So in your own habits of consumption, hold on to art. It will deliver you through this century…

The neuroscientific case for art in the age of Netflix: “Exit the supersensorium,” from @erikphoel.

* Haruki Murakami


As we dream on, we might send birthday greetings to Konstantin Yuon; he was born on this date in 1875. A painter and theater designer, he was involved with Mir Iskusstva, the Russian magazine, and with the artistic movement it inspired and embodied, which was a major influence on the Russians who helped revolutionize European art during the first decade of the 20th century. Later, he co-founded the Union of Russian Artists and the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia.

New Planet, 1921


Self-portrait, 1912


Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 24, 2022 at 1:00 am

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