Electric Dreams

The Cinderella Complex

Kurt Forrer

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Forrer, Kurt. (2007 June). The Cinderella Complex. Electric Dreams 14(6).

There are hopeful signs that the latest investigations into the function of the brain will help to lift Cinders out of the ashes and demonstrate that without the Dream Fairy no one will be chosen by the prince of invention.

Before coming to such experimentation I want to relate a most remarkable tale a recent inventor has to tell. Michael Barnsley, inventor of image compression, tells it in the documentary called Colours of Infinity. As a young man, a student of mathematics, he had a recurring nightmare over a period of twenty (20) years. In it he was face to face with a matrix, a kind of switchboard whose connecting wires were always in a confused tangle. It was his task to sort them out and find the correct hole for every one of these wayward plugs. As much as he tried, he never succeeded and so the nightmares returned time and time again, confronting him with the same task on every occasion.

What is especially interesting in his case is the fact that unlike Elias Howe and Kekule, Michael Barnsley had no desire for inventing anything whatsoever all through this phase of nocturnal terror until the very end of it. So he could have had no idea what the apparent 'switchboard' was really for. All he knew for certain was that the wires of the curious apparatus were higgledy-piggledy and had to be put in order. Clearly, what was happening here took place mainly 'below' the level of ordinary waking awareness, which latter we could, following the computer model, call monitor consciousness as against hard disk consciousness. The only thing that managed to rise above the realm of the 'hard disk operations' (the so-called subconscious processes which upon sharper observation turn out to be impinging dream memories), was the recollection of a nightmare in which a certain task, whose purpose remained a dream secret, was to be performed. And as is customary in the realm of nightmares, they will recur until the dreamer has grasped the message and initiated appropriate action. That he couldn't do of course since there was no visible problem or current project to which it might be applied. Thus Michael Barnsley had no choice but suffer his regular night terror until twenty years later when it was revealed to him what the 'switchboard' was really about, what functions it would have and in what realm it should come into existence.

Sometime after meeting with Benoit Mandelbrot and his revolutionary fractal mathematics, Michael Barnsley began work on a practical application of Benoit's discovery of the formula of infinite iterations (Z=Z squared + c). He speculated that one such practicality could be the construction of a particular software that allowed the compression, and hence clarification, of photographic images that were fuzzy, such as those taken from satellites. It was at this point that the scene of his old nightmare reappeared, but no longer in its former, terrifying form, but as a eureka experience. Here is what he said about the crucial time: "the discovery of how to automatically calculate the collage of an arbitrary picture came to me in a dream. (In it) I saw how you could straighten out the switchboard, how all the wires would come untangled and be nicely connected and how you would join all the wires from big blocks to little blocks in the grid. I woke up in the morning and I knew I had discovered the total secret to fractal image compression. How to automatically look at a digital picture and a) how to turn it into a formula, and b) an entity of infinite resolution. So the goal is now to be able to capture this fire of Prometheus, this fractal wonder, put it in a box and being able to make this available to everyone." (From a documentary film, Colours of Infinity, hosted by Arthur C. Clark.)

There is no better example I know that demonstrates the long arm and guiding intelligence of the vertical gifts in scientific discoveries and inventions. As the recurring nightmares, yet still meaningless to the dreamer, reveal, ideas for inventions or inklings of discoveries may be present in the secret realms of the carrier's 'hard disk' long before they will show up on his 'monitor' or 'desk top'. The incredibly long gestation of the matrix with its secret processes not understood by the dreamer, suggest quite irrefutably, that the task of creating the ultimate image compression software was not really Michael Barnsley's choice, but the choice of his nightmares and illuminating final dream. There is only one word for such a happening: predetermination. This is strengthened by the fact that the nightmare was resolved at the time when Barnsley actually began to ponder the idea of image compression. The sense that the dream was here in charge all the way to the finished product is overwhelming. No less so is the thought that the dream not only knew in what form and how it was to become manifest, but also where and when. This is easily established, for image compression could only have become a reality at the particular point in time when Barnsley would come in contact with Mandelbrot and his fractal mathematics, the indispensable ingredient and motivation to the designing of the invention in question. And let's keep in mind that it obviously knew this at a time when fractal math had not yet been developed to the point where it could be forming the basis of image compression. True, a French mathematician had thought of the theory of fractals long before Barnsley was born. But the facilities to make it visible and functional for practical purposes, a suitable computer technology had yet to be developed, and that became available only towards the end of Barnsley's legendary nightmares. This case reinforces the notion that the inventor or the discoverer is not the creator, not the originator, not the instigator of the invention or discovery, but merely the vehicle, the tool in the hands of the dream, which, like Cinderella's Fairy Godmother, alone can bring about the marriage of mind and matter.

The immense gap of twenty years between the first occurrence of Barnsley's nightmare and his last dream of resolution that fixed the matrix he couldn't sort out himself, suggests that intelligent dreaming is not an haphazard process, that dreams are not just coming to the inventor's help when he is stumped, but that they are an ongoing guide, step by step through his entire life. It suggests that the 'hard disk' of the inventor and of every person, determines when and what should appear on the 'monitor screen', which in turn will signal when and what to do. That this is more likely than not is underpinned by the experiments undertaken by Benjamin Libet. In an article in The New Scientist from 14 September 2002 the following paragraph penned by John Gray demands that we seriously consider this suggestion: "If cognitive science is right, the picture of humans that philosophers conjure up when defending ideals of personal autonomy is at least partly a chimera. Other research supports this conclusion. Work by Benjamin Libet at the University of California showed that the electrical impulse in the brain that initiates action occurs up to half a second before we take the decision to act. Our actions are initiated unconsciously."

The paragraph then continues: "True, Libet allowed that we can veto what the brain has initiated, but it is unclear how we can even know that we have deliberately exercised this capacity. For all practical purposes, it might as well not exist."

A devastating conclusion for all those who, with the Ugly Sisters feel they can force the hand of the Dream Fairy. In light of Libet's research, together with Michael Barnsley's experience, choice is an illusion. True it comes into our mind as a feeling, free will is a feeling, but that's where it ends.

In view of the fact that dreams are capable of forging ahead not only into the immediate future as Edison, Howe, Kekule and Mozart have experienced, but also into the far future as Michael Barnsley would substantiate, gives us little room for 'self-determination'. My own observations of dreams over a period of sixty years have convinced me that not even that bit of coveted 'veto' Libet mentions is possible. The classic example for this is a dream in which you are told that you will make a certain mistake. Then, naturally, you will do everything in your power to avoid it. You stay alert all day, watching for the situation with that built-in mistake to occur so you can forestall it. Suddenly you are distracted and ambushed by the dream's program. The mistake is made.

Choice is an Ugly Sister word. Accepting the reality of the Dream Fairy's power alone brings you to the Castle of Clear Vision where the illusion of personal choice is stripped from you.

Kurt Forrer is the author of DREAMS, Pre-grams of Tomorrow, a Path to a New World Perspective.

From Kurt:

"My book had been published in 1991. I wrote it twenty-one years after an experience that shook the foundation of my very existence. I could see from then on how dreams would translate to waking experiences. One of the most fascinating things of that experience was that I saw that the Freudian interpretation was as valid as the Jungian one. Both interpreters have a point, but where they both miss out is in the fact that dreams are of the 4th dimension and are able to foresee tomorrow and beyond. In my book I show how this fact can be realised by anyone who can recall their dreams and has sufficient diligence and stamina to follow my instructions and record their dreams meticulously and watch for their waking manifestations."

Kurt Forrer