Arthur C. Clarke, British science fiction author, posed three laws of science fiction during his career as a writer:
When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
His point? Technology often follows the lead of science fiction. Writers dream the impossible and scientists or engineers envision technological advances. How has sci-fi expanded our mind’s view of sleep? Today we’re looking at a few common sleep-related sci-fi tropes to find the line between magic and technology, where we’ve stopped short and how much farther we might go.
Fish Sticks Can’t Go Bad, Right?
Perfectly preserved creatures in ice were first discovered as far back as the early 1800s. Discovering ancient specimens almost perfectly preserved inspired the invention of refrigeration a century later—there’s some practical magic for you. Then, in 1964, C.W. Ettinger wrote a non-fiction book The Prospect of Immortality, positing the theoretical possibility of preserving humanity in ice, to be thawed out and returned to life. Its name: cryonics, or, in science fiction: cryosleep.
You may recall this trope from Jay Roach’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Dr. Evil freezes himself inside a space pod to elude capture. Our shagadelic spyman Austin “Danger” Powers volunteers himself to be frozen by British Intelligence, chasing his nemesis into the distant future of 1997. Once dethawed, the audience follows Austin through a basic battery of cognitive tests (and a hilariously drawn-out, post-cryosleep tinkle) to assure us that our hero’s in tip top shape, despite thirty years of suspended animation (and a fatally out-of-date sense of...well, everything).
But how does this compare to reality?
One popular myth claims that entertainment mogul Walt Disney, upon learning of his declining health, was the first American to test out cryogenic freezing. The legend goes that Ettinger’s book on cryonics inspired the mouse mogul to freeze himself until a cure for his fatal lung cancer could be found. Officially (and Disney corporation’s lawyers compel me not to question further) this myth has been debunked.
But it begs the question: why aren’t we working on flash-freezing sick people left and right to preserve them until such a time as a cure can be found for whatever ails them?
The simple answer: physics. Turns out that our cells and bodies contain water molecules (no duh, I drink like 3 liters in an afternoon and sweat 6 in my Zoomba class). When H2O is frozen, it forms crystals and these would damage the membranes of the body’s cells beyond repair. So, while a caveman can still look like a caveman centuries after being frozen in an ice cave, no amount of electricity will Frankenstein the dude back to life.
At least, not yet.
Omelette du Fromage
In the Dexter’s Laboratory episode “The Big Cheese,” boy scientist Dexter must study for a French test in his sleep. He invents a machine to play a “Learn French Now” record to him the night before the test, but the record skips. The next morning all he can say is the single phrase “omelette du fromage” (au anglais: cheese omelette, ohn-hon-hon).
Hypnopaedia, or “sleep learning,” was first popularized in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, where, in the dystopian future, children are brainwashed by their beds as they sleep. In the decades after Huxley’s novel, a deluge of “Learn While You Sleep!” courses sprang forth. But did they work?
Research experiments attempting to implant information into sleepers’ brains found it did not. Test subjects not only didn’t remember a lick of what they were meant to learn while asleep, but brain scans showed that whenever the record played, subjects would wake up! More recently, researchers have had better luck training subjects’ brains to consolidate memories already learned during waking life using smell! Basically, while studying a list of facts, researchers exposed subjects to the scent of roses. Subjects exposed to the same rose scent during slow-wave sleep at night showed better recall of the facts the next morning!
Perhaps Dex cracked the secret to learning purely while asleep with his funky sci-fi learning machine after all. Too bad (spoiler alert) his lab exploded at the end of the episode. Til then, I recommend studying with flowers on your desk, and then placing those same flowers on your pillow the night before a big test. The results might be a-pollen!
Do androids dream of electric sheep? You’ll have to ask Philip K. Dick, I can’t find the answer in my smartphone’s settings...
Dreams and science fiction have always been bedfellows. Heck, most sci-fi plots begin as dreams in their authors minds! Researchers have been hungry to crack the secret of dreams for decades. Why we have them, what they mean, and how we might use such knowledge for the good of mankind are just a few still undiscovered questions in the sleep equation.
While the white lab-coated masses continue to hack away at the mystery, science fiction continues to forge its own paths of dreamy ridiculousness. Among them: the blockbuster film Inception.
This over-complicated plot monster of a film gave us the theoretical dream technology to invade others’ dreams at will. It also inspired a seminal Rick & Morty episode (“Lawnmower Dog”) as well as a slightly lesser-known series which I absolutely love and is well worth a few hours’ binge-watching, for the stunningly trippy rotoscopic animation alone: Dreamcorp LLC.
A rag-tag team of semi-legitimate “doctors” led by the brilliant and scarily irresponsible Doctor Roberts claim they can heal patients’ neuroses with inception-like dream tech that can take the good doctor directly into their minds. Roberts guides his patients through the depths of their unconscious minds, seeking resolution to repressed memories, curing some of their issues while traumatizing or even killing others. Whoops.
Sadly, we are lightyears away from such advances as the scientific community is still beleaguered by the mind-brain question: essential to understanding what, how, and why consciousness (or dreams) exist at all.
For now, the best method an average person has of diving into their own unconscious mind is to consult a Jungian psychologist, or, more cost-effectively: keeping a dream journal.
Whether you remember your dreams or not, keeping a journal as soon as you wake can help dream recall. Writing what remember and record from your forty winks soon forms a special record of what occupies that dark underbelly of the unconscious, possibly allowing you to see or solve some underlying concerns or issues in the process.
Don't let the lab coat fool you—I’m no doctor. All the same, it’s fun to try it on and trace the current boundaries between technology, imagination, and reality. Science fiction has always drawn audiences in for that reason, and Clarke’s Laws crystallize its essence. We hope you enjoyed this sci-fi romp through the land of sleep.
Meanwhile, I’ll be dreaming of the bed of the future. I bet it floats. Just like you will, spending that first hundred nights on a brand new complete set of linens from Primary Goods! Figuratively (for now). Remember, a good night’s sleep is the foundation of a good night of dreams; and dreams are the stuff of great science fiction.
Sleep cozy, sci-fi fans.
Bulkeley, Kelly. “Keeping a Dream Journal.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 27 May 2017, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dreaming-in-the-digital-age/201705/keeping-dream-journal.
“Clarke's Three Laws.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Apr. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke%27s_three_laws.
Linden, Sander van der. “The Science Behind Dreaming.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 26 July 2011, www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-science-behind-dreaming/.
Makin, Simon J. “Sleep on It.” Scientific American Blog Network, Scientific American, 20 Nov. 2012, blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/sleep-on-it/.
Mikkelson, David. “FACT CHECK: Was Walt Disney Frozen?” Snopes.com, 19 Oct. 1995, www.snopes.com/fact-check/suspended-animation/.
Trenholm, Richard. “Dreams of the Future: How Sci-Fi Sees Sleep.” CNET, CNET, 23 Oct. 2018, www.cnet.com/news/dreams-of-the-future-how-sci-fi-sees-sleep/.Witkowski, Sadie. “Sleep-Learning Was a Myth, But You Could Strengthen Memories While You Snooze.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 16 Feb. 2018, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-sound-and-smell-cues-can-enhance-learning-while-you-sleep-180968180/.