Netflix’s wildest sci-fi show defies the rules of dream science

Despite all our technological advances, the nature of dreams still largely eludes our scientific understanding. A little-understood concept – mutual dreaming – makes an appearance in the second season of the Netflix sci-fi series. Alice in Borderlandsand raises an interesting question: can two or more people have the same dream independently?

Notice! Spoilers ahead for alice on the border Season 2.

alice on the border, a dystopian sci-fi thriller, is set in an alternate world of Tokyo where survivors are forced to engage in life-or-death battle royale games. At the end of season 2, it is revealed that these characters were crossing a major intersection in Tokyo when a meteorite fell on the city. Subsequently, they fell into a coma and were in limbo – a border – between life and death. Characters who survive the death games in this alternate reality eventually wake up from their comas.

The closest real-world analogue we have to what the characters go through is some sort of shared dream in a parallel universe. The mutual dream may sound corny, but it’s actually not scientifically implausible – although it’s still highly unlikely to occur.

reel science it is a reverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV shows.

Why do we dream?

The science behind why we dream has fascinated and eluded us since ancient times, but recent research is starting to put the pieces together. Getty

“Dreams have been a topic of interest to mankind for millennia,” said Moran Cerf, professor of business and neuroscience at Northwestern University. reverse.

Deirdre Barrett, Harvard University dream researcher and author of The Sleep Committee, says that people went to temples in ancient Greece to receive dream guidance or to try to cultivate specific dreams with the help of the gods – a kind of spiritual “dream incubation”.

In the western world, dream analysis really took off with Freud, who postulated that dreams were a way of exploring our unfulfilled desires from our waking lives – an idea that is disputed to this day.

Psychologists have studied the subject for decades, but neuroscience research on dreams has taken longer to catch up and has only progressed in the last ten years. Cerf explains that most dreams occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – a period of significant brain activity.

“Every 90 minutes, you have a small window of time where your brain basically creates the infrastructure for dreaming,” says Cerf.

We usually forget about dreams after they happen, and Cerf says that’s intentional — our brains don’t want our dreams to get in the way of our waking minds. For this reason, it is useful to be able to study our brains while we sleep, rather than relying solely on dream journals written after a person wakes up.

But if we forget our dreams, what evolutionary purpose do they serve? Cerf says there are several theories, but two schools of thought tend to dominate the science of dreams.

The trailer for the second season of alice on the border.

The first claims that dreams are basically a way for the brain to activate the visual part of the mind while we sleep – as our eyes are closed and don’t deliver information to the brain – and ensure that we can still see when we wake up.

“We hate this theory because it means that dreams don’t mean anything and all these stories that we build and the experience that we have and all kinds of importance that we attach to them are useless,” says Cerf.

Instead, he favors a second school of thought, which holds that dreams are basically our brain’s default mode of virtual reality. Imagine that you are offered a job in another state, but you are not sure whether you should take it. You can dream of an alternate reality in which you live in that other state as a way of testing that future. Upon waking up, you may feel more prepared to make a decision.

“Even if you forget the real dream and forget what happened, what remains are all the decision-making processes and emotions,” explains Cerf.

So Freud may have found something after all. We know that the emotional impact of dreams can last long after we forget them, and alice on the border you know that too. Even though the two main characters, Usagi and Arisu, forget about their alternate lives in the battle royale world, they vaguely recognize each other when they wake up in the hospital, hinting that the friendship they built on the frontier will have lasting impacts on their reality. life relationship.

What is mutual dream?

In alice on the borderthe characters play in a parallel reality that loosely mirrors the concept of a mutual dream. Netflix

In alice on the border, the characters’ minds go through a shared set of grueling fights to the death, while their bodies simultaneously struggle to wake up from their coma. In a way, we can interpret the show as a form of mutual dream, in which each person separately lives the same dream.

Both Cerf and Barrett say there are shared dream threads that people around the world will experience over and over again. Dreams about teeth falling out, giving a presentation in your underwear, and failing a test or class are common examples of recurring dreams.

Likewise, traumatic events can linger in the collective consciousness and seep into our dreams. Cerf says that after the 9/11 attacks, many Americans reported falling dreams, and he could imagine people in Japan having similar shared dreams if a meteorite hit Tokyo – as it did in alice on the border. Research Barrett conducted after the Covid-19 pandemic showed that many people reported dreams of falling ill with the virus or, more oddly, bug attacks – perhaps a shared metaphor for illness.

“I think the most common explanation is that there are a lot of psychological things in waking life that can contribute to forming a lot of the same symbols,” says Barrett. “People can share a set of not only common experiences, but also common metaphors and symbols for the world.”

But while these dreams may follow a common theme, people are not literally experiencing the same dream. In rare cases, Barrett says, people have reported having the exact same dream. These dreams take two forms: individuals experience the same dream from the same perspective. And in other dreams, two or more people meet from a reciprocal perspective – in other words, they meet in a mutual dream.

The latter is more similar to what happens in alice on the border, where strangers meet in a dream world. A 2017 study of mutual dreams found that while the majority of mutual dreams occurred between relatives, friends, or significant others, about 4% involved “unfamiliar people.”

Barrett says that people with vivid dreams often dabble in mutual dreams, meeting like-minded people on online forums and forming meetup groups to try to find those familiar faces in their dreams. But these reported mutual dreams usually don’t hold up under scientific rigor.

“It doesn’t tend to stand up to research very well – when you start getting people to write down (mutual) dreams, it’s not happening more than chance,” says Barett.

so it is alice on the border plausible?

We probably won’t be meeting strangers in mutual battle royale games anytime soon, experts say. Netflix

At the moment, there is not much scientific basis for mutual dreams à la alice on the border. But there are scientific techniques that can bring us closer to unlocking mutual dreams.

Barrett explains a technique known as “dream incubation,” in which you use autosuggestion before falling asleep to try to fulfill a specific dream. According to a 2021 current biology In the study, researchers were able to successfully communicate with people while they were lucid dreaming – a state in which the person is aware that they are dreaming but still asleep. The dreamers used eye cues to answer the questions asked by the researchers.

It’s possible that you could use a combination of dream incubation and techniques similar to those used by the researchers in the 2017 study to allow for shared communication – and possibly even mutual dreams – between two dreamers. But this has not been scientifically observed.

“It’s theoretically possible, but it hasn’t been done as an experiment yet,” says Barrett.

Cerf says the closest researchers have come to incubating mutual dreaming is a study done more than twenty years ago, when researchers had participants play Tetris before falling asleep, and several individuals reported dreams of falling bricks afterwards.

Before we can scientifically incubate mutual dreaming, we need to better understand how we can influence or control dreams in a single individual. Much dream research involves using an electroencephalogram (EEG) to record brain activity, but Cerf’s research goes further and uses a device known as a TMS to “zap” or stimulate the sleeping brain to induce lucid dreaming, allowing the participant to interact with the outside. world while dreaming.

“It basically takes over your dream, so to speak – it starts to control it,” says Cerf, “What it essentially does is wake you up without waking you up.”

Because Cerf’s team also works with patients undergoing brain surgery, they too can insert electrodes into the brain to “see your dreams from the inside” more accurately than the EEG.

Cerf says he’s never tried to do this same experiment with two people at the same time, so it’s not impossible for researchers to induce mutual dreaming, but it’s still in the realm of science fiction. So we probably won’t be meeting strangers in life-or-death dreams anytime soon. But it sure is fun to imagine.

alice on the border is streaming now on Netflix.

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