Not long ago I had a dream: I answered the front door, and three strangers stood there. Their faces were rotating swirls and whorls, like petroglyphs or crop circles --- but dynamic, constantly turning, incomprehensible gray-on-gray fractal spirals. Then I looked at a printed page. The text was a crawling quiver-flicker binary speckle --- like TV picture noise between stations, or the jitter-chaos that comes from closing one's eyes and pushing on the eyeballs.
Then I awoke, and began to wonder. Had I glimpsed, for a few moments, pure information? In a temporary dream-state breakdown of sensory processing, could I have seen a slice of raw low-level brain activity?
Similar hallucinations (though more abstract) sometimes precede migraine headaches, and may provide clues as to neural structures in the brain. (see Migraine Visions, 29 Nov 2001) Marvin Minsky speculated many years ago (Society of Mind) about the emergence of consciousness from the interrelationships of simpler subroutines. Douglas Hofstadter wrote analogously (Gödel, Escher, Bach); so did Daniel Dennett (Consciousness Explained).
Still earlier David Marr (Vision) wrestled with the processes that might convert bits of optic nerve stimulation into coherent images. And more recently in the science fictional sphere Neal Stephenson (Snowcrash) painted fantastic patterns that could tap directly into deep mental states. Decades ago A. E. van Vogt (The War Against the Rull) sketched similar pictures. And in antiquity there were creatures like the Medusa or the Basilisk that could change men to stone with a glare.
Probably what I saw, as usual, was "only a dream". Perhaps my techno-interpretation of the vision was driven by the too-many books I've read on computational notions in neurophysiology. Most likely there's nothing worth reporting here. Move on, eh?
But maybe, just maybe, I had a peek behind the scenes into the low-level machinery of the mind --- processes that function pre-consciously when we glance at a person and say "Joe", or at a word and read "dream" without perceptible thought. Did I catch sight of some raw data processing, unfiltered, not yet organized into faces and features, letters and words, lines and curves and edges? I wonder ....