Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Life of Fear: Dreams of Scale

I've mentioned once before that in my real-life job is in the field of astrophysics. At its core, my task is to take some of the most massive objects in the galaxy and render them in symbols, code, and glyphs until they become comprehensible. Reducing unfathomably large objects such as supergiant stars to abstractions that can be easily held within the mind is something I do daily, but I'm frequently aware that it dulls some of the wonder I used to feel when thinking about the scale of the cosmos.

A simulacrum of the universe.
The human mind is limited to the realization of small collections of objects. We can only accurately judge sets of four or less before dividing larger sets into smaller groups. We are able to maintain close relationships with about 150 people at most. When trying to comprehend large numbers, I often think of the film Paper Clips, in which a class of middle school students attempt to gather a single paperclip for each life lost in the holocaust in order to better comprehend its true scale. What started as a cute idea for a project balloons into a devastating realization of the magnitude of the tragedy. The macroscopic world operates on a scale that's beyond our ability to fathom - the universe as a whole is orders of magnitude more complex. At the same time there are multitudes of infinities within each of us. Cells, molecules, atoms, and quarks equally vast in number as the stars in the sky. At the risk of sounding too Lovecraftian, I think there may be something to the idea that insanity would accompany a true understanding of the size and emptiness of the gaps between stars, or atoms.

These are streams of galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars.
Ever since I was a child, I've had intermittent nightmares in which my perception of scale was altered. The dreams typically accompany illness or fever, but I've had them a few times when perfectly healthy - most recently about a year ago. The dreams are identical each time. I find myself formless, floating in a large void. I'm without a body, but retain my normal human sense of vision. There's nothing to see though, just darkness in every direction. After floating for some time I sense an object approaching me. I can't see it, but I know it's there because of how terrifyingly massive it is. In real life I'd be torn to shreds by its tidal forces long before reaching the surface, but in the dream I'm drawn ever closer, until it dwarfs me.

Eventually I find myself alone again, approached by another object, but one that quickly shrinks in size. As before, it's formless, almost invisible, and as I get closer the object continues to shrink. I loom over it as it becomes pointlike, then somehow smaller. I have nothing more than a sense that it's becoming tinier and tinier with time, but where a normal object would vanish, I'm acutely aware of this one. I seem impossibly huge until the object it finally vanishes and the cycle repeats.

It's hard to put such an abstract experience into words, but the experience evokes panic to the point where I usually wake sweating. I've searched online for an explanation, or some similar accounts, and the best I've been able to find is this, which tentatively links the phenomenon to a neurological dysfunction called macro/microsomatognosia (or Alice in Wonderland syndrome). However I try to rationalize the experience when awake, it's just as terrifying each time I encounter it. While I can explain it away as the side effects of sleep paralysis or nighttime hallucinations, there's always the lingering feeling that I haven't experienced a distorted sense of scale at all, but a moment when the veil is lifted and I'm able to perceive the universe as it truly is.

No comments:

Post a Comment