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Why do our dreams feel so real?

And why we don't question their logic. 

Dreams can be ludicrous, but unless we are lucky enough to be lucid dreamers, we believe every part of them. Why are you drinking champagne on a private jet with Rihanna? Why is that bumblebee telling you that you've hurt your girlfriend's feelings? Why are the cybermen chasing you? 

These are all questions we do not have until we wake up, and only then if we actually remember our dreams in the first place.  

Dreams are our one true escape from the humdrum predictability of real life. They are better because they feel so real and are better because we do not question their logic. 

But why do they feel so real? Is it our subconscious telling us something? A message from God? A vision? These questions have been debated by philosophers and drunkards alike for centuries, but modern science can now provide very real answers. 

According to Dr William MacLehose, a lecturer in the History of Science and Medicine at University College London, until the 1700s, scientists explained dreaming by saying that imagination was the only part of the brain still functioning while someone slept. They believed the part of the brain that verified reality, on the other hand, was out of action, so the sleeper believed it all. Medieval texts referrred to soldiers who were too cowardly to fight an enemy in real life but then dream about being brave enough to do so later on.

In the 20th century, the groundbreaking neurologist Sigmund Freud believed dreams were a form of "wish fulfillment" and that wet dreams were the ultimate expression of that “wish fulfilment”. 

Scientists today can tell whether someone is dreaming and what they might be dreaming about by simply looking at electroencephalogram (EEG) scans. The study published earlier this year in Nature Neuroscience was the first to demonstrate that brain activity while dreaming mirrored that of the subject when he or she was doing the same thing when awake. For example, the same parts of the brain recruited in facial recognition were recruited during dreams which included faces. 

While most of us do not have to think about engaging an enemy in battle, as medieval dreamers did, a similar theme persists in our dreams today as Professor Mark Blagrove, a sleep scientist from Swansea University suggests - our dreams are about solving real life problems. 

Studies have shown that when people are asked to note down the contents of their dreams, the vast majority are based on our real lives. Blagrove notes that while we remember the wild and crazy ones more, they only make up about one in ten of our dreams.

These studies have also found that dreams in which we overcome threats are far more prevalent than the number of threats we face in modern life. When people are asked to detail their dreams, they manage to overcome a large proportion of the threats in a realistic manner, rather than say flying away to Havana. 

Dreams feel so real, Blagrove says, because they are a simulation. When you are on drugs or having a hallucination, you have a reality to compare your experience to. By contrast, when you are sleeping no such alternative exists. 

Only about one in 20 times do we catch ourselves dreaming and start lucid dreaming. Blagrove points out that the inability to "spot the bizarreness of our dreams when you're asleep could have been selected for by evolution”. This is because dreaming could have evolved as a form of threat simulation and that in order to “practise what it’s like being in the world while asleep - you have to believe that the simulation is real”. 

Daydreaming is a less extreme version of dreaming. It too is a form of simulation. Sometimes you can get lost in a daydream, and believe the simulation but you can easily snap out of it as you can literally “come to your senses”. 

Some dream scientists are attempting to tie dream research into the science of consciousness, which Blagrove says, is itself ultimately just a “simulation of the world”. 

We never really notice this simulation when we’re dreaming because the “simulation is so good”. Or in other words, our dreams feel so real for the same reason life feels so real. Your suspicions are confirmed - we’re living in the Matrix. 

Jake Paul via YouTube
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We should overcome our instinct to mock Jake Paul’s school shooting video

The urge to mock the ex-Disney star diminishes the victims he speaks to and ignores the good YouTubers can do.  

It’s very “darkest timeline”. Ex-Disney star Jake Paul (brother of vlogger Logan Paul, who infamously filmed the dead body of a suicide victim) has created a 22-minute documentary about the Parkland school shooting in which he greets Florida senator Marco Rubio with the words “Hey, what’s up man?” and doesn’t mention gun control once. 

Paul – who has previously made headlines for setting fire to a swimming pool – goes on to ask the politician: “I think like a lot of people think passing laws is super easy, can you explain some of the struggles around, uh, passing laws?”

It’s hard to not immediately balk at the documentary, which was released yesterday and has since been widely mocked by the press and individual journalists. Critics note that Paul doesn’t mention gun reform within the YouTube video, and many mock his conduct towards Rubio. Others accuse the video of being an insincere PR move, particularly as Paul has previously fetishised guns on his YouTube channel – and has a tattoo of a gun on his thigh.

21-year-old Jake Paul talks and conducts himself like a child, which is what makes the video immediately jarring (“I just wanna become homies with them and just be there for them,” he says of the Parkland survivors he is about to meet). There is a vacant – almost dumb – expression on his face when he speaks with Rubio, leading the viewer to question just how much the YouTube star understands. But this is precisely the value of the video. Paul is a child talking to an audience of children – and talking to them on their terms.

YouTube doesn’t disclose the exact demographics of a YouTuber’s audience, but fan videos and Paul’s comment section reveal that most of his 14 million subscribers are young children and teens. Paul is introducing these children to a politician, and the video is edited so that Rubio’s claims don’t go unchecked – with footage of the senator being criticised by Parkland survivors playing in between shots of Paul and Rubio’s chat.

Paul (admittedly unintentionally) asks the senator questions a child might ask, such as “Is there anything that people can look forward to? Is there anything new that you’re working on?”. Although this might be jarring for adults to watch, the comment section of Paul’s video reveals it is already positively affecting his young audience.

“Definitely going to speak out now,” writes one. Another: “I shared this to my Mum and asked her to show the head teacher so everyone do that as well.” Childishness is still transparently at play – one commenter writes “Plzzz Stop the Guns… it hurts my feeling I’m crying… 1 like = 10 Pray to Florida” – but this too shows that Paul has introduced new concepts to kids previously more concerned with online pranks and viral fame.

Of course, it’s easy to see how this might be a cynical move on Paul’s part. Yet how can we demand more from YouTubers and then criticise them when they deliver it? Paul’s video is far from perfect, but engaging children in genuine discussions about current affairs is a commendable move, one far superior to his prior acts. (Paul previously caused controversy by telling a fan from Kazakhstan that he “sounds like you’re just going to blow someone up”, and his diss-track “It’s Everyday Bro” is third most disliked video on YouTube). Like it or not, Paul has an incredible influence over young people – at least he is finally using it for good.

Paul’s video has also undeniably helped at least one teen. “It’s just easier to talk about what’s going on with someone like you than a doctor or someone,” Jonathan Blank – a Parkland survivor – tells the YouTuber in the video. Later, his mother praises Paul through her tears. “It was the best therapy for my son,” she says, “You didn’t have an agenda, you cared.”

Other Parkland survivors are angry at the media’s response to the video. Kyle Kashuv – also interviewed in the documentary – has tweeted multiple times since the video’s release. “Media has the utter audacity to mock my classmates and Senator Rubio for doing the interview ON MY REQUEST AND THE REQUEST OF TWO OTHER STUDENTS,” he wrote.  

“If you mock a video where my classmates, that witnessed their friends get murdered in cold blood, are crying and putting their hearts on their sleeve, be prepared to be hit back twice as hard.”

Kashuv differs from the most famous group of Parkland survivors, as the teen supports the STOP School Violence Act over national gun reform. Yet the teen’s politics do not make his thoughts or feelings less valid, or his voice less important in the conversation. While critics note Paul spoke little of gun reform in his video (instead he suggested that schools have bullet proof glass and Instagram should flag pro-gun posts), the YouTuber later tweeted to clarify his stance.

“Gun Reform changes we need in my opinion,” he wrote. Paul went on to suggest that anyone who wants to buy a gun should be 21, go through a six month training course, and have a mental health evaluation. He also tweeted that gun shows should be banned and there should be a “30 day wait period after purchase to receive firearm”.

This isn’t to say, of course, that Paul is right, or has all the answers, or is even equipped to discuss this topic sensitively. Yet his promise to pay for busses to the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington DC, alongside the fact he didn’t monetise his YouTube documentary, speak of someone at least trying to do some good. “We all want the same thing and that’s to make schools safe,” he says in the video. Although he gives Rubio and the STOP School Violence Act a platform, he is dismissive of their impact.

“Kind of why I wanted to make this video in the first place is to activate parents and kids within their own schools and communities, that’s the way things are going to get done the fastest. We don’t to wait for hundreds of people in Washington DC to pass the laws,” he says.

Though the description to Paul’s video was most likely written by a far-more savvy PR, it’s hard to disagree with. “I vow to be part of the solution and utilise my platform to raise awareness and action across the board, but we cannot focus on one issue, we must actively discuss and make progress on them all,” it reads.

The criticism of Paul smacks of the old media sneering at the new media, galled and appalled that a 21-year-old YouTuber would dare wade into politics and do so less than perfectly. Concerns about propriety and morality are a veil to disguise a pervasive distaste for YouTube stars. Criticisms that his suggested solutions are stupid ignore the fact that it’s not his job to reform society. It’s like having a go at Sesame Street for not criticising Theresa May.

YouTubers might not be the idols that adults wish teenagers had, but we can’t change that. What we can do is encourage viral stars to engage with important issues, and not mock them when they do so less than brilliantly. Jake Paul may not be a good person – it might even be a stretch to describe the video as “good”. But the YouTuber made an effort that should be commended, not mocked. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.