The Usefulness of the Unreal
For decades, scientists have been puzzling over the meaning of our nocturnal fantasies. Findings from AI research are now the inspiration for a new type of theory.
If extraterrestrials ever visit Earth, they may be struck by something odd: people everywhere spend a great deal of their time doing things that aren't real. They are passionate about stories that only take place in films, novels or video games. Where does our love of fiction come from?
Perhaps, the aliens might assume, humans are too stupid to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Visitors from outer space might find it even more confusing that we deal with the unreal even when we sleep. Dreaming costs the organism time and energy. So it probably has an evolutionary purpose. Now the extraterrestrials are starting to wonder if they're missing something that could explain the scope of the unreal experience.
As a writer, I'm fascinated by this question, and as a neuroscientist, I've developed a hypothesis based on insights into artificial neural networks. It is possible that dreams improve our waking performance precisely because we experience weird things in them. If my hypothesis is correct, it could also explain the amazing attraction of the unreal in broad daylight…