Brain Pickings

The Probability That You Are Dreaming Right Now? 1 in 10.


Navigating the maze of dream-decisions, dream-consequences, and the invariable world of experiences.

The fabric and nature of reality has long been the subject of science, philosophy, media propaganda, and even entertainment, in films like Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) (remade in 2001 as Vanilla Sky). In Reality: A Very Short Introduction (public library) from Oxford University Press, philosophy professor and metaphysics researcher Jan Westerhoff explores the enormously difficult, yet enormously alluring question of what is really real. Among the book’s most fascinating mind-benders is this passage on the probability — the jarringly high probability, if all the math and hypotheticals check out — that you are dreaming right now:

Contemplating the possibility that you are dreaming right now is certainly very perplexing. You might think that it is also exceedingly unlikely, something in the same ballpark as hitting the jackpot in a lottery or suddenly dropping dead. There are various things that are theoretically possible, even though their probability is very low (such as a monkey randomly hitting on a typewriter writing out the complete works of Shakespeare, or the sudden disappearance of objects to an effect called ‘quantum tunnelling’). If you don’t worry that this book might suddenly disappear from your hand due to some bizarre quantum effect, why worry that you might be dreaming right now?

The reason why you should worry is that the chances of you dreaming at this very moment are far, far greater. Let’s do a quick calculation. We optimistically assume that you get eight hours of sleep a night, which leaves sixteen hours during which you are awake. Sleep researchers have found out that there is a strong correlation between dreaming and being in so-called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM sleep is characterized by rapid movement of the eyeballs; the brain is highly active, its electric activity resembles that of a waking brain, but the sleeper is more difficult to wake than during slow-wave or non-REM sleep. We know that between 20% and 25% of our sleep is REM sleep. Taking the lower value and assuming that you always and only dream during REM sleep, this gives us 1.6 hours of dreaming every night. As there are therefore 1.6 hours of dream consciousness for every 16 hours of waking consciousness, this means that your chance of dreaming at any given moment is 1 in 10. This quite a high probability — for comparison: the chance of winning the jackpot of a typical lottery is about 1 in 14 millions (this means that if you bought a ticket every week, you will have one win on average every 250,000 years); the chance of the author of this book dying in an accident within the next year is somewhat less than 1 in 2,500.

So there is a significant chance of you dreaming right now. But does it matter? To be sure, we can’t exclude the possibility that this is all a dream, but as long as it continues, it will not make the slightest difference to how we lead our lives. Even if the £5 note in my pocket is just dream-money, and the strawberry cake I buy with it is only a dream-cake, I can still have the sensation of eating the strawberry cake as a result, and what more can I want? Even if I am dreaming right now, I will still be able to plan my life, cause will follow effect, and actions will have consequences. Of course, these consequences will just be dream-consequences, but given that we have assumed earlier that I would not be able to tell ‘from the inside’ whether I am dreaming or not, why should I worry about this? The world of experiences is still the same, and this is all that counts, after all.

Perhaps Susan Sontag was right, after all, when she grimly observed that “[the] intellectual is a refugee from experience.”

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Tchaikovsky on Work Ethic vs. Inspiration


“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”

I recently stumbled upon a recurring theme articulated by both Jack White and Nick Cave, a concept that flies in the face of our cultural mythology about how creativity works — the idea that just showing up and doing the work, or what Jonah Lehrer calls “grit,” the same quality that Ira Glass says separates mere good taste from great work and Anne Lamott believes is the secret to telling a good story — is just as important as the notion of “inspiration” in the creative process.

All of this reminded me of a fantastic letter legendary composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote to his benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, dated March 17th, 1878, and found in the 1905 volume The Life & Letters of Pete Ilich Tchaikovsky (public domain):

Do not believe those who try to persuade you that composition is only a cold exercise of the intellect. The only music capable of moving and touching us is that which flows from the depths of a composer’s soul when he is stirred by inspiration. There is no doubt that even the greatest musical geniuses have sometimes worked without inspiration. This guest does not always respond to the first invitation. We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. If we wait for the mood, without endeavouring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination.

A few days ago I told you I was working every day without any real inspiration. Had I given way to my disinclination, undoubtedly I should have drifted into a long period of idleness. But my patience and faith did not fail me, and to-day I felt that inexplicable glow of inspiration of which I told you; thanks to which I know beforehand that whatever I write to-day will have power to make an impression, and to touch the hearts of those who hear it. I hope you will not think I am indulging in self-laudation, if I tell you that I very seldom suffer from this disinclination to work. I believe the reason for this is that I am naturally patient. I have learnt to master myself, and I am glad I have not followed in the steps of some of my Russian colleagues, who have no self-confidence and are so impatient that at the least difficulty they are ready to throw up the sponge. This is why, in spite of great gifts, they accomplish so little, and that in an amateur way.

Here is Jack White, echoing — unwittingly, no doubt — Tchaikovsky:

Inspiration and work ethic — they ride right next to each other…. Not every day you’re gonna wake up and the clouds are gonna part and rays from heaven are gonna come down and you’re gonna write a song from it. Sometimes, you just get in there and just force yourself to work, and maybe something good will come out.

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Sally Ride, the First American Woman in Space, on What It’s Actually Like to Launch on the Space Shuttle


Celebrating a pioneering astronaut, remarkable role model, and tireless advocate of science literacy.

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride boarded the space shuttle Challenger and became the first American woman in space. In 2012, Ride lost her life to pancreatic cancer. President Barack Obama rightfully called her “a national hero and a powerful role model,” who inspired generations of young women.

But besides being a pioneering astronaut, Ride was also a tireless advocate for more science and math in schools and a prolific co-author of children’s science books, including the 1986 tome To Space and Back. Mere days before the book went to the printer, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch on national television, leaving millions of Americans overcome with grief and anxiety about space. Ride was conflicted about whether or not to publish the book in its current form, but in the end decided to go ahead, making it a testament to the importance of space-exploration and a way to answer young people’s questions about being an astronaut. She proceeded to deliver this eloquent, riveting account of what it’s actually like to launch into space aboard the space shuttle — a wonderful way to celebrate her legacy of bravery:

The long elevator ride up the launch tower takes us to a level near the nose of the space shuttle, 195 feet above the ground. Trying hard not to look down at the pad far below, we walk out onto an access arm and into the ‘white room’ The white room, a small white chamber at the end of the movable walkway, fits right next to the space shuttle’s hatch. the only other people on the launch pad — in fact, the only other people for miles — are the six technicians waiting for us in the white room. They help us put on our escape harnesses and launch helmets and help us climb through the hatch. Then they strap us into our seats.

Because the space shuttle is standing on its tail, we are lying on our backs as we face the nose. It’s awkward to twist around to look out the windows. The commander has a good view of the launch tower, and the pilot has a good view of the Atlantic Ocean, but no one else can see much outside.

Launch minus one hour. We check to make sure that we are strapped in properly, that oxygen will flow into our helmets, that our radio communication with Mission Control is working, and that our pencils and our books — the procedure manuals and checklists we’ll need during liftoff — are attached to something to keep them from shaking loose. Then we wait.

The technicians close the hatch and then head for safety three miles away. We’re all alone on the launch pad.

Launch minus seven minutes. The walkway with the white room at the end slowly pulls away. Far below us the power units start whirring, sending a shudder through the shuttle. We close the visors on our helmets and begin to breathe from the oxygen supply. Then the space shuttle quivers again as its launch engines slowly move into position for blast-off.

Launch minus 10 seconds … 9 … 8 … 7 … The three launch engines light. The shuttle shakes and strains at the bolts holding it to the launch pad. The computers check the engines. It isn’t up to us anymore — the computers will decide whether we launch.

3 … 2 … 1 … The rockets light! The shuttle leaps off the launch pad in a cloud of steam and a trail of fire. Inside, the ride is rough and loud. Our heads are rattling around inside our helmets. We can barely hear the voices from Mission Control in our headsets above the thunder of the rockets and engines. For an instant I wonder if everything is working right. But there’s no more time to wonder, and no time to be scared.

In only a few seconds we zoom past the clouds. Two minutes later the rockets burn out, and with a brilliant whitish-orange flash, they fall away from the shuttle as it streaks on toward space. Suddenly the ride becomes very, very smooth and quiet. The shuttle is still attached to the big tank, and the launch engines are pushing us out of Earth’s atmosphere. The sky is black. All we can see of the trail of fire behind us is a faint, pulsating glow through the top window.

The atmosphere thins gradually as we travel farther from Earth. At fifty miles up, we’re above most of the air, and we’re officially ‘in space.’

The book also features this fascinating anatomy of the interior of the space shuttle by artist Mike Eagle:

To send Sally off, here’s the most exquisite cover of “Blue Moon” you’ll ever hear — thanks, Radiolab:


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