Culture At Large

Google’s Deep Dream and spiritual perception

Kory Plockmeyer

When Google showed a group of its computers images and asked them to visually describe what they saw, the results were full of vibrant color and kaleidoscopic patterns, resembling something from a dream or a hallucination. Indeed, the name given to the code that was used is Deep Dream.

The human race has long been fascinated with the content of dreams and the ability of the mind to invent impossible landscapes and larger-than-life situations. And dreams have also been a part of many religions throughout history, including the Christian tradition.

In many ways, the dreamscapes of Google’s project should not surprise us. As Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic points out, the results come from the way in which a computer processes different layers of the image before it: color, lines and shape. The Deep Dream code is designed to enhance these layers. LaFrance goes on to describe how our brains process the world in a similar layering fashion, but then constrain and filter our perception to present us with an image of reality that we are capable of processing. The hallucinatory effect of Deep Dream’s images comes from removing those constraints, similar to the way mind-altering substances operate.

The ability to code for a computer’s perception should give us new-found appreciation for our ability to operate in this world. Deep Dream helps us see what unconstrained perception looks like. Such unconstrained perception, while beautiful in its own way, does not always help us steer safely through reality.

The prevalence of spiritual interpretation of dreams seems to be making a comeback.

Deep Dream also gives us good reason to pause and reflect on the nature of spiritual perception. A renewed interest in the work of the Holy Spirit has led many - myself included - to find deep appreciation for mystical traditions and practices, such as prayer labyrinths. The prevalence of spiritual interpretation of dreams seems to be making a comeback - at least in my own experience as a pastor, first on the globalized campus of Michigan State University and now in rural Iowa. At a local prayer summit in Sioux Center, Iowa, breakout leaders shared prophetic dreams. On Michigan State’s campus, many students were drawn to churches that celebrated charismatic gifts, including prophecy and visions.

On the one hand, I think this renewed spiritual interest is a tremendous gift of the Charismatic tradition. While many of us may acknowledge the possibility of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing activity through gifts such as prophecy and visions, for too long we have been able to easily write them off. To speak with one who believes they have had a vision from God is to be in the presence of someone who is excited and passionate about their faith.

Yet it might be good to retain a measure of skepticism. Deep Dream reminds us that unconstrained perception, dreamscapes and distorted layers of experience are not themselves always trustworthy or reflective of reality - spiritual or otherwise. Spiritual experience is not always the indicator of God’s will for our lives. Just as Deep Dream distorts the images it sees with its own predetermined set of data (Google’s computers were more likely to see animals than anything else), so too our unconstrained perception is filtered through our own sets of experiences, subconscious (and conscious) desires and our deep-seated fears. We can be quick to read our own hopes and dreams into such experiences, creating the reality we wish to see.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Technology, Theology & The Church, Faith, Prayer