What if you woke up one day and your life was completely different? What if all the things you wished for were suddenly a reality–you have the job you always wanted, the person you want to be with loves you back, and the people you thought were lost forever are alive again. One of the most remembered episodes of Batman: The Animated Series is “Perchance to Dream,” a powerfully dark story in which Bruce Wayne essentially wakes up to a “perfect” life. His parents, Martha and Thomas Wayne, are alive and well, he is engaged to Selina Kyle, and he is no longer burdened with the job of being the Batman. In fact, Bruce learns that someone else, some other disguised vigilante, is effectively ridding the streets of criminals. No need for him to be Batman anymore. Bruce is initially ecstatic, grateful, almost relieved to learn he can live a normal life. “The nightmare is over,” he tells himself.
Only it’s not. When Bruce attempts to read the newspaper, he notices all the words are random strings of letters and symbols. He rips through the books in his library–everything is unintelligible. It’s a shocking realization: This is all a dream. His quest to find out who is responsible, why they would trap him in this seemingly ideal world, and what this means about his identity makes for a heavy but exhilarating episode of BTAS. In our analysis, we discuss the fascinating neuroscience of dreams and the growing research supporting our ability to control our actions in dreams. Furthermore, by raising the scenario of being “plugged into a dream machine,” this episode dares us to contemplate the importance of an existence in which we have free will, motivation, and actual contact with an unfiltered reality. Before Keanu introduced us to The Matrix, before Picard got stuck in the the Nexus, before Leo told us how to control dreams in Inception, there was Batman in “Perchance to Dream!”
Can we control our dreams? Neuroscience says “yes.”
Research in the neurobiology of dreaming reveals some exciting findings. We know that, for instance, certain parts of the brain are more active while we are dreaming. Visual and emotional processing centers of the brain are activated during REM (the sleep stage in which most dreaming occurs). Bruce is wrong, then, when he explains that reading is a function limited to the right side of the brain, while dreams come from the left side. In fact, reading (while awake) requires multiple parts of both hemispheres of the brain. Likewise, both hemispheres are active–though, some areas more than others–when we are dreaming. But there is also something called lucid dreaming, the kind of dreams that you can control. It’s having the awareness that we are dreaming and knowing that we are not really awake. Just like Bruce’s ability to problem-solve, make decisions, and direct his actions in “Perchance to Dream,” we, too can gain the ability to control the content of our dreams. Experts in this area have explained that certain parts of the brain that aren’t normally active while dreaming are reactivated during lucid dreaming. These areas are responsible for giving us enhanced focus, reasoning and self-reflective awareness during such dreams. What about reading? Was Bruce correct when he explained that we couldn’t actually read in our dreams? Many people have reported the ability to make out words and sentences in dreams, and no research to date has disproved this phenomenon. Helpful Inception-like strategies that can help us gain more control of our dreams are provided by this professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
The Dream Machine: Would you plug in?
This episode of Batman: The Animated Series raises important questions about our awareness of our own consciousness and what philosophers call “contact” with our own reality. The original dream machine was thought up by the philosopher Robert Nozick. He posited that if we were offered a direct line into what he called the “Experience Machine,” a technological device that provides constant pleasure while we are in a dream-like state, we would choose our ordinary, less pleasurable but wakeful lives. His conclusion seems counter-intuitive, but ask yourself whether you would have remained hooked up to the Mad Hatter’s “fancy world.” Although the experiences created by the machine would be indistinguishable from real life ones, Nozick argued that few people would choose to be plugged in like “indeterminate blobs.” In an article, “If you like it, does it matter if it’s real?” a contemporary philosopher explains why we choose our gritty life over a man-made utopia. Like “Perchance to Dream,” the article reminds us that active thinking, self-direction and volition are very important to us. We want to partake in things like choosing our friends, taking risks, falling in love and having aspirations. We want to be the dreamer, not just be a part of someone else’s dream.
“To be, or not to be?” Bruce Wayne contemplates suicide
It is rare for an animated series to portray the suicide of a hero. Few shows will even dare to bring up issues related to suicide like helplessness, devastation, and depression. In “Perchance to Dream,” Bruce realizes he is essentially stuck in a some kind of virtual reality, a simulated world in which everything seems to be perfect. But because it is an illusion, he wants this life to end. At the end of the episode, Bruce makes the decision to jump off of the belfry overlooking Gotham Cemetery. The harrowing scene shows his body falling toward the ground (the scene cuts before impact, revealing that Batman’s body was actually strapped into the Mad Hatter’s horrific “dream machine” and that he is alive, after all). Bruce’s choice to “make the nightmare end” is portrayed like a suicide, a risky direction for any after-school show to take. However, we learn that Bruce’s self-directed act reflects his decision toward choosing to live. He would rather exist in an imperfect world–inevitably filled with loss, struggle, and pain–but one in which he has free will and self-determination, than his ideal world, a “heaven” that only exists in his imagination. “Perchance to Dream” is, in fact, a phrase from the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy spoken by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a character who contemplates ending his life, wondering what might be waiting on “the other side.” The phrase is a direct reference to Bruce’s attempt to “end his life” in the virtual world in order to “wake up” in the real world again. For Bruce, living as Batman–making personal sacrifices, suffering psychological and physical injury, experiencing pain–isn’t actually the nightmare he originally thought it was. Loss can have meaning, tragedy can give way to purpose. Within this episode, Bruce is able to find the value in being Batman, realizing it is a more fulfilling existence than any paradise created in his own imagination.
“I chose this life. I know what I’m doing. And on any given day, I could stop doing it. Today, however, isn’t that day. And tomorrow won’t be either.”
Note: This episode of The Arkham Sessions was recorded on August 10, 2014, one day prior to the tragic death of Robin Williams. Because we lightly touch upon the subject of suicide, this episode has content that may impact some listeners. You can learn more about suicide prevention and receive direct help at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Anyone who is feeling depressed, hopeless, or suicidal can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Someone will always answer, day or night.