Dreams and Garbage Collection

I love dreams. Mine are often very detailed, clear, extremely colorful, linger for a while (several hours) after I wake up, and full of strange and complex linkages between things that often cause me to make associations I wouldn’t have otherwise made. Ever since I learned about the concept of garbage collection in 6.001 at MIT in 1984 while using Scheme on HP Chipmunks, I’ve always thought of dreaming as the same as garbage collection for a computer. When I read Minsky’s The Society of the Mind I started referring to dreams as garbage collection for the mind.

I woke up this morning with a particularly vivid dream that has stuck with me for the past hour as I get ready to head to Seattle and Portland for a few days. After 30 days off the grid, I’ve had an expectedly intense full three days as I get back in the flow of things. I’m processing a lot and when I went to bed last night around 11:30 my brain was full. As I laid down next to Amy, she said “I can feel you thinking.” We murmured a few things to each other and then I promptly fell asleep.

I woke up in the midst of the dream to Amy saying “Did you set an alarm?” (Answer: “No, but I’m awake now!”) In my dream I was walking down the hall with the Chief Information Officer of a health care company I’d somehow ended up as a consultant for. The CIO was an older white guy – classic last generation CIO – who was totally panicked about a security breach but had no idea what to do about it. He and I had just walked out of a board meeting with about 30 people moments after they’d fired the CEO. The board was in an uproar, trying to figure out how the CEO had let the security breach happen and why there were all these Twitter accounts posting images of patients with posts in weird / poor English saying things about how great Trump is.

In the board meeting I had explained to the board that the Twitter accounts were geo-coded with locations in Russia, so it was likely a Russian hacker and a focused attack that had nothing to do with the company. One of the board members was emotional. “I don’t give a shit – just fix it!” Other board members were talking over each other about who the new CEO should be. The consensus was “We don’t care what it costs – just solve the problem.”

Immediately prior to walking into the board meeting, I had been in an underground office below a parking garage meeting with a small team of white hat hackers. They had previously gotten my attention by breaking into several highly secure systems unrelated to me, sending me evidence of their break ins, and suggesting that they were for hire. I had been going back and forth with Rob Hayes at First Round Capital about his experience with them, since he’d hired them in the past. The lead hacker showed me how he’d spoofed Rob’s response to me and replaced it with an image of a gigantic hairless cat.

As I go back further in the dream, it’s fading now so I’m losing the thread. But you get the idea.

And yes, Amy and I love the movie Inception. It’s on a semi-annual rotation in the Feld/Batchelor household. It is entirely possible that everything we are experiencing is just one of the levels.


Also published on Medium.

  • Sebastien Latapie

    Have you ever considered writing fiction? These vivid stories are so fascinating! I for one can’t remember anything from my dreams. The rare time that I do is always exciting.

    • It floats through my mind every now and then.

      • You really should! Fiction is a dream state. There are great seeds for a story here.

  • vinod bolla

    wow, I always had the same feeling. A few times it felt like I have had a dream similar to something that just happened.

  • Garbage collection is pretty close. We don’t so much reinitialize memory space as take the old data and throw it back at the system that created that data in the first place. In neuroscience this is called ‘reentrant processing’ or ‘cortical loops’. The seminal not-too-technical book on this was A Universe of Consciousness https://www.amazon.com/dp/B009W6V8D6/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

    But, it still leads to exactly what you describe. “strange and complex linkages between things that often cause me to make associations I wouldn’t have otherwise made” The closest we’ve come to replicating a similar structure with a similar outcome with computers is the Deep Dream project https://research.googleblog.com/2015/06/inceptionism-going-deeper-into-neural.html

    That software only works on visual object identification, but imagine the same basic process dealing with higher level concepts such as associations, emotions, or our models of cause and effect, and you get something very similar to what you experienced.

  • Alberto Mendonça

    Inception is great movie! I agree with you that “is entirely possible that everything we are experiencing is just one of the levels”. Sometimes, specially when something happens and I somehow knew (had a feeling, or dreamed it) before it happened I always remember the question ” If this is my dream or somebody’s else?” .

  • Please dream about the aftermath of a Cubs World Championship.

    I have a good dream story. I had a pretty large position in the Eurodollars back in the 90s. In those days, there were no computers. At 2PM CT we closed-and they re-opened in Singapore at 5PM or 6PM depending on Daylight Savings Time.

    That night, I put an order in off the market. I was dead asleep. In the middle of the night I woke up breathless and screamed, “I’m filled”. Literally 10 seconds later the phone rang and the guy on the SIMEX floor told me I was filled.

    Spooky and cool all at the same time. There have been several times where I have had deja vu like that. I don’t think it’s the ability to “see the future” but it does have a lot to do with your subconscious/conscious processing things via your real experience and your psychic dream experience.

    • Alberto Mendonça

      If we assume that quantum physics is correct and all the events occur at the same time, only need an observer to collapse the possibility in a “real event”, just maybe…when we dream it’s possible that there is a awake observer that collapses the possibility and is able to see what’s is going to happen…
      I think it’s not the ability to see the future but could be the ability to our subconscious mind to create the future while we are resting.

    • StevenHB

      “Please dream about the aftermath of a Cubs World Championship”

      Are you channeling Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lathe of Heaven?

      • I can’t remember Lathe of Heaven – maybe I haven’t read it. I’m a LeGuin fan so that’s a miss for me – I’ll go kindle it now.