Please read the The effects of vitamin D deficiency section first.
These phenomena are likely caused by cognitive dysfunction as a result of vitamin D deficiency. The phenomena became more elaborate as my seasonal affective disorder got worse. I thought that this was because my ability to disenage my conscious mind was improving. I stopped studying these phenomena after having a vivid hallucination. Some years later I began taking vitamind D to cure dementia symptoms. I have recently been trying to see these phenomena again to no avail. This by itself would not be sufficient evidence. However, one of the symptoms that disappeared was seeing fleeting dark shapes in my peripheral vision that I mistook for my cats, even after they were long dead. I have also linked the phenomena of being unable to see something you are trying to find when you are looking at it to vitamin D deficiency. These are both failures of the visual system so it is not unreasonable to infer that the other visual phenomena have the same underlying cause.
In the spring of 2001 I dreamt that I was in the living room of a house. Several large butterflies, some blue and some red, kept appearing from nowhere and flying at me, forcing me to take cover behind a settee. I awoke from the dream and as I lay in bed with my eyes closed I noticed that there were blue and red flashes in my eyes. I immediately realised that these were the butterflies that I had just been dreaming about. There was a darker area at the bottom of my view that corresponded to the settee behind which I had been hiding.
Realising that the dream had resulted in some way from this image, each time I awoke from a dream thereafter I took note of what I was seeing in order to determine if it related to the dream. These are the dreams I had over the subsequent weeks and their associated images.
When I was a child, my mother used to buy bread from a local shop that baked their own bread on the premises. I was dreaming that I was in that bakery looking at the loaves of bread in their basket-weave trays. I was even aware of the smell of yeast that used to fill the shop. When I awoke I saw six light coloured oval patches in my eyes that had been the loaves in the trays.
I was watching soldiers on parade dressed in shorted sleeved green shirts like a jungle regiment might wear.
I was struggling to read a newspaper that seemed as though lit by the circular beam of a flashlight but the words were just random. When I awoke the image in my eyes was very light with a ‘black noise’ of darker dots. Although it was like looking at a television with no signal, the noise slowly drifted into lines that hinted at newsprint.
The BBC program was first broadcast on Tue 10 Feb 2009. It can be watched on this Chinese site: Why do we dream?. I looked forward to it eagerly, hoping for some insight into what I had been experiencing. I was disappointed when it discussed what I considered to be crackpot theories about things to which I felt I already had real explanations.
The following is an extract from “The Interpretation of Dreams (3rd edition)” by Sigmund Freud, Translated by A. A. Brill (1911)
A more recent observer of hypnogogic hallucinations, G. Trumbull Ladd, follows the same lines as Johann Muller and Maury. By dint of practice he succeeded in acquiring the faculty of suddenly arousing himself, without opening his eyes, two to five minutes after gradually falling asleep. This enabled him to compare the disappearing retinal sensations with the dream images remaining in his memory. He assures us that an intimate relation between the two can always be recognized, inasmuch as the luminous dots and lines of light spontaneously perceived by the retina produce, so to speak, the outline or scheme of the psychically perceived dream-images. For example, a dream in which he saw before him clearly printed lines, which he read and studied, corresponded with a number of luminous spots arranged in parallel lines; or, to express it in his own words: The clearly printed page resolved itself into an object which appeared to his waking perception like part of an actual printed page seen through a small hole in a sheet of paper, but at a distance too great to permit of its being read.
I have had the newspaper dream myself, except in my case I saw it as being illuminated by a flashlight.
Phosphenes are entoptic phenomena - visual effects whose source is within the eye itself - characterized by the experience of seeing light without light actually entering the eye.
When you are blindfolded so that no light is entering your eyes, you do not see nothing. Instead you will see a haze of moving specks of colour. The effect is reportedly different for different people. I see a speckled blue background with a pastel green/gold/pink haze at the centre.
Phosphenes produced in total darkness do not produce the effects I will describe because there is no virtually no signal for the brain to work with. At night my bedroom is lit by streetlight through curtains. The phosphenes produced by this level of light generally have blue speckled dark background with a green central region. I call them, unimaginatively, ‘dark’ phosphenes.
‘Light’ phosphenes, produced by closing the eyes on an overcast day, have a pink-brown colour due to the light passing through the flesh of the eyelid. The brain seems to attempt some white level correction and the background often appears grey.
After the eyes have been closed for about a minute, the closed-eye hallucination will appear.
My experience is that the phosphene image is the superimposition of outputs from different image processing stages in the visual cortex. The outputs with the strongest signature are routed to the visualization stage and in the absence of any strong features in the direct image from the retina are seen as the phosphene.
I have seen the following phenomena:
When I first began writing about these experiences I described the phosphene as developing in stages. The following are the stages of development of a dark phosphene.
It is possible to move back through the stages by reducing my level of relaxation. Indeed, the astonishment when I first lines appearing caused them to instantly disappear again. I quickly learnt to observe the imagery in a calm and detached manner.
In light phosphenes the central patch becomes dark blue as the light level rises. Lines will appear but shapes are rare and appear translucent rather than dark.
I believe that when presented with the relatively featureless image that it receives when the eyes are closed, the brain tries to enhance the contrast.
I had been observing a light phosphene for several minutes while attempting to study the central line. A distinct green patch had developed but the line was barely discernable. I wanted to see what the line looked like in a dark phosphene so I pulled the duvet over my head to reduce the light. I was very surprised to see the image change to this:
This is not a crude illustration but a good representation of what I saw. After a few seconds a grid of cyan coloured lines began to develop across the image but the polygonal areas remained stable.
The origin of the lines in the phosphene is generally not readily apparent. The lines tend to be fleeting and when they are stable, it is usually against the phosphorescent green background that masks the underlying retinal image. Initially I had the vague impression that the lines were tracing features in the noise but assumed this was just wishful thinking.
On one occasion the area outside the central green area was formed of brighter patches - a bit like looking at a well lit cauliflower. The lines could then be clearly seen to follow the dark areas in between the light patches.
The lines in the central region and high contrast edges elsewhere exhibit rainbow like colours. The lines tend to be constantly changing so it is generally difficult to determine the exact nature of those colours. On the rare occasion that a full stable fringe develops, it can be seen to consist of bands of colours in the order red, yellow, green, cyan, blue, magenta. Otherwise the fringes are a subset of these colours. For example I may see lines of just red, green and blue or yellow, green and cyan. There is no directional ordering. A horizontal line might be red, green, blue from top to bottom or blue, green, red.
Two features of edge detection of particular note are fractals and eye bugs.
Throughout my life I have occasionally seen what appear to be dust-mites or similar microscopic organisms thrashing about in the fluid on the surface of my eye. The standard explanation for objects in the visual field are that they are either protein strands (floaters) or dead cells floating in the vitreous, the fluid within the eye. The vigorous motion of what I see does not fit this explanation. For want of a name, I call them ‘eye bugs’.
They are in fact localised edge detection around bright spots in the background noise. A few common patterns emerge.
A B C
- A - The edges emanate from a point producing a sparkling effect.
- B - Looks like a tiny wood louse with its legs thrashing.
- C - Looks like a bacterium with flailing flagellae as the lines switch from one position to another.
The zoom phenomena is frequently observed. I first noticed it in the ‘Neon sign’ dream. The sign filled my ‘field of view’ but the phosphene image occupied about 25% of the diameter at the centre. I assumed that the phosphene had triggered a mental image that filled my vision.
Some time later I had the ‘Hilltop and Lake’ dream in which the ‘hilltop’ popped into view then increased in size in one step. I was used to seeing the dark shapes of the area detection growing and shrinking but the sudden change was unexpected.
Then I had the ‘Kneeling Woman’ hypnim that spectacularly demonstrated the zoom process in action.
Once when studying the central line (described below), I watched the line zoom and unzoom twice, zoom and then unzoom in four steps.
Responsible for soaring sensation.
I first noticed the freeze frame phenomena in the ‘Neon sign’ dream. The phosphene free ran for a few seconds during which time I saw random speckles. Then the image froze for about a second showing what seemed to be partial letters of the alphabet. I have also seen a zoomed up image of eye bugs which played frame by frame.
There is a horizontal line that regularly appears in the centre of the phosphene. It turns out to be part of a more elaborate feature.
It appeared in the ‘Banknote’ hypnim as the words ‘Forty pounds’ and was, I assume, the words ‘Seasons greetings’ in the ‘Internet Date’ dream. I believe it this line that underlies the dreams of newspaper headlines such as ‘Ship wreck’ and ‘Plane crash’.
When it is very well defined and stable it could be mistaken for the image of a retinal artery. However it is often seen to shift track, sometimes developing significant excursions, and the outer ends flail up and down. It is clearly an edge detection feature but what it is tracing is not apparent.
On one occasion I saw a phosphene where the green patch was in two lobes, this time with two additional lines along the top and bottom edges.
On yet another occasion I had been watching the central line for some time when it suddenly switched to a leaf shape and back twice.
I had barely begun to wonder what might give rise to the leaf when I saw a translucent circle expand from the centre of my view, first upwards then downwards. The overlap formed the leaf shape.
The question of where the circles come from remains to be answered.
The brain has a propensity towards discerning symbols and letters of the alphabet. This was first seen in ‘Neon sign’ dream.
The random edge detection lines are sometimes seen in a stable pattern resembling alchemists symbols.
As previously described, the central line often appears to resemble handwriting and transforms into words in hypnagogic images and dreams. I once browsed to a Thai website. The Thai alphabet is very distinctive and impressive and a few days later I saw the central line transform into a line of Thai-looking symbols.
‘Kneeling Woman’ has an edge overlaid with a double translucent line.
The phosphene in ‘Shoe’ was almost too good to be true. To generate the final phosphene image in this sequence I subtracted an inverted grey scale image of the shoe from a blue noise image. The lines on the fringe were shimmering like a ‘Roobarb & Custard’ cartoon. I presume that this is because my brain was having problem locating edges in that part of the phosphene.
This hypnim also suggests that the edge detection system is trying to match a template provided by my memory.
Within the macula
Outside the macula
The overall setting for a dream is often just a vague impression. The bakery dream I could see the loaves in the tray and occasionally I would get a fleeting impression of shelves laden with bread before my attention was once more drawn to the one tray. The parade dream had a few fleeting glimpses of the whole parade but generally I was concentrating on the movement of the arms.
There seems to be a tendency to perceive near horizontal lines.
In some of the dreams there is evidence of inference - the dream happening as a consequence of the phosphene.
In ‘Snow’ I have described myself as “…walking carefully through snow.” When I recall the details of the dream, what I remember is that initially I was just surveying the snow scene. A dark patch appeared at the bottom left of my view, like a footprint in the deep snow. When it disappeared I imagined that I must have stepped into it and the dream. When it reappeared, the dream became one of ‘walking through snow’ and I imagined myself poised to take a the next step.
In ‘Woman At Bar’ the scene changed from the back of a woman's head to a man facing me. To accomodate this, I imagined that I was shifting my gaze along the bar.
In ‘Internet Date’ the ‘zoom out’ began with me imagining that I was “wanted in the house” in the manner that happens when someone talks to you while you are preoccupied and you realise what they said immediately afterwards. When the zoom ended and I stopped running - I thought “Oh, she said in five minutes.”
Obviously all dreams are essentially delusional but in some there is an awareness that something is wrong and the delusion is reinforced by semi-conscious reasoning.
During one of the ‘Manor House’ dreams I became aware that the scene looked odd.
The house did not appear to have any windows and the sky was strange. I remember studying the house and convinced myself that what I thought was brickwork was actually leaded windows. I realised that the reason the sky looked strange was because it was actually a line of conifer hedge barely discernable against the dark grey of the sky.
During ‘Convertible’ I analysed the scene several times. The ‘windscreen’ did not look right but I decided it was glare off dirt. I had to studied the view when I was inside the car and concluded that I was sitting on the back of the passenger seat. When driving along the sea front, the left side of the view was just a brown texture. I decided that this was the car park and went on dreaming contentedly.
I have seen this phrase in several places with respect to hypnagogic images. It is true up to a point. I am writing this shortly after seeing two exemplary images.
The light entering the eye through the eyelid is going to be reddish so it is no surprise that the predominant colours in my dreams are shades of brown and red, often with greenish yellow speckles of noise. I live in a part of England where the houses are built of red brick and I live in such a house that was built in 1898 and needed extensive renovation. I have several dreams that recur and they are all house related.
The text from “The Interpretation of Dreams” continues:
Without in any way underestimating the central element of the phenomenon, Ladd believes that hardly any visual dream occurs in our minds that is not based on material furnished by this internal condition of retinal irritability. This is particularly true of dreams which occur shortly after falling asleep in a dark room, while dreams occurring in the morning, near the period of waking, receive their stimulus from the objective light penetrating the eye in a brightly-lit room. The shifting and infinitely variable character of the spontaneous luminous excitations of the retina exactly corresponds with the fitful succession of images presented to us in our dreams. If we attach any importance to Ladd's observations, we cannot underrate the productiveness of this subjective source of stimuli; for visual images, as we know, are the principal constituents of our dreams. The share contributed by the other senses, excepting, perhaps, the sense of hearing, is relatively insignificant and inconstant.
This neatly summarizes my experiences. From my point of view, the dream mechanism was first described by a psychology professor at Yale University one hundred and ten years ago and, as far as I can tell, subsequently ignored. I believe this report has provided new insight that may steer researchers towards their goals.
© Copyright 2021 Andrew Jarvis.