a blog about things that I've been thinking hard about

The Bird-Spotting Tetris Effect

16 July, 2006
bird-spotting in dreams

People who play Tetris often dream about Tetris

I was once an enthusiastic bird-spotter, and I (still) sometimes dream about bird-spotting.

In these dreams I always dream that I see one or more birds that I don't recognize.

A tendency for certain things and not others to appear in our dreams might be telling us something about what dreams really are.


Bird Spotting

Bird-spotting is a type of bird-watching where the emphasis is on seeing how many different species of birds you can spot.

Varying degrees of fanaticism can be applied to this pastime, but it is most easily enjoyed when you are in some location that actually has a large number of resident bird species. I've lived in New Zealand and England, and I have recorded the various species I have seen in those countries, but neither has large numbers of bird species in accessible locations. Most of my bird-spotting has been done in Australia, particularly in Canberra (the capital city), when I was on a work-trip and temporarily disconnected from the many and various obligations of family (mostly because they didn't come with me).

Canberra is probably not even the place in Australia that has the most birds, but it is a good compromise between easy city living and accessibility to bush and countryside. Armed with nothing more than money for public buses, a rucksack, binoculars and Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (Simpson and Day), I was able to clock up about 61 species in six weekends, while being exposed to nothing more dangerous than the occasional aggressive magpie.

Is Bird Spotting Like a Video Game?

Before you start, some strategy is required when you decide which different locations to visit in order to see different kinds of birds. In Canberra there is bush, farmland, rivers, a lake and the botanical gardens (where they can provide you a copy of their 99 bird spotting list).

Once you've decided where to go, it's mostly a matter of keeping your eyes and ears open. Conclusive identification is necessarily visual, because the field guide only has pictures, and even if you had a CD of bird songs, it would be difficult to be certain of identification in many cases (bird songs can vary, whereas variation of appearance is more limited, and usually well covered in the guide). Learning the birdsongs is however crucial to spotting new species, because if you can learn to recognise the songs of the birds you have already seen, then you can easily recognise a new song, and then you know it's worth it to make the effort to hunt down the source of that song and get a closer look.

Bird-spotting is similar in many ways to a video game: you are "hunting" a quarry, concentration is required (putting you "in the zone") and there is a running score. If there is a difference, it is that success or failure in bird-spotting is not determined by human contrivance – whether or not the birds are there and whether or not they make themselves visible is often due to factors beyond the control of any human agency.

The Tetris Effect

The Tetris Effect, as documented in Wikipedia, refers to many different effects that a game-playing activity may have on your mental life outside of playing the game. The article Tetris Dreams (Scientific American) refers more specifically to the influence of the video game "Tetris" on players' dreams.

The Bird-Spotting Effect

My interest in bird-spotting has found its way into my dreams. Almost always this takes the form of unusual looking birds which appear in my dream (often while something else is happening), and which attract my attention. I am always aware that the birds are unusually different from any bird I have seen before.

There are, however, some significant differences between the bird-spotting which occurs in my dreams and the bird-spotting that happens in real life:


Although the bird-spotting that occurs in my dreams is a very cut-down version of real-life bird-spotting, it is surprisingly persistent. Apart from very occasional trips to Australia where I might be in the right location and have sufficient spare time to do some bird-spotting, it is not something that I spend any significant portion of my time on. And these days I wear glasses, which make it harder to see things through binoculars, especially when there might only be a split-second available to get a bird into the field of view.

Nevertheless, those birds continue to make occasional appearances in my dreams.

The "Dream-Maker"

This "bird-spotting effect" is consistent with my Dream-Maker theory of dreams. The theory states that our dreams are a result of goal-oriented creative effort by a specific dream-generating component of our brains which creates dreams in order to achieve certain effects in the dreaming "self" which experiences them. The implication with regard to bird-spotting is that my "Dream-Maker" has taken the experience of real-life bird-spotting, and selected from this experience one component, i.e. the very moment in which a new bird species is first seen, and incorporated that moment into my dreams as something which reliably helps to achieve the goal of dreaming (whatever that goal might be).

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