Narcomancy: Morphine, Lucid Dreaming, and Binaural Beats


If Captain Jack has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes you’ve got to dream a little dream. He doesn’t have much advice about how to build a magic system around dreams, though. N.K. Jemisin already uses the term ‘narcomancy,’ meaning dream magic, in her Dreamblood series, but after sketching out the magic system for the new story I’m working on, I found my narcomancy resembled William Gibson’s Neuromancer more than Killing Moon.

In a similar way to Case in Neuromancer, the narcomancers in my story operate by immersing themselves in an alternate reality and working from the inside. The reality in this case isn’t a Matrix, but a dreamscape that stretches across the world, with dreams and dreamers showing up as brainwave patterns, tuned to certain frequencies like bands of radio stations, each frequency representing a different stage of sleep—alpha, theta, delta, or REM.

I got the idea of imaging brainwaves as radio bands from Kevin Mitnick’s memoir, Ghost in the Wires, which explains (sometimes tediously) how he and many other hackers started out as ham radio operators. There was one repeater frequency, 147.435, that they called “the animal house,” a channel that was open for anyone to scream into, spread rumors, or meet random people. I liked the idea of tuning a radio into a certain frequency and hearing people’s dreams from all over the world, sort of like John Cheever’s The Enormous Radio. The idea for a worldwide dreamscape also came partly from Serial Experiments Lain, which touched on the Schumann resonance as a means to create a worldwide consciousness using the Earth’s magnetic field, then merge reality and the Wired into one. These ideas are really interesting to me, partly because they straddle the line between real scientific phenomena and fantasy.

The dreamscape, as I’m imagining it, can be visualized as having several different bands, or layers, each one corresponding to a different sleep stage:

dreamscape diagram

Part of the job of the narcomancers in the story is to find “bands” of dreamers in delta sleep and begin trying to trigger them into moving into REM sleep, where they can start manipulating their dreams. REM stage sleep is also known as paradoxical sleep, because it closely resembles the waking state of brain activity. It’s strongly associated with vivid dreaming, and it’s usually in this stage that you have real trouble distinguishing reality from dreaming.

REM stage sleep is also when a sleeper’s eyes begin to move rapidly behind their lids, hence the name: Rapid Eye Movement (REM). Imagining someone’s eyes moving hyper-fast, as if trying to keep up with thousands of flashing images, made me think of the mentats in Dune, who have a similar association with eyes. Their blue-tinted mélange-addicted eyes signaled their superhuman ability to think and process facts like computers, and in a similar way, I imagined  a sleeping narcomancer attaining an almost superhuman level of consciousness during REM, allowing them to deal with huge amounts of sensory input and making them able to pull off a performances.

REM stage sleep, like every kind of sleep, comes in cycles, with the brain diving and rising through the different stages several times over the course of one night. As the night goes on, REM stages become more frequent:


This brought me to another idea: sort of like a bank heist, what if narcomancers could only operate during their REM sleep, in 40-50 minute periods? It would almost be like a high that would wear off in time, forcing them to operate quickly, get in, play their music, and get out before their REM abilities wore off.

But there would have to be another hurdle for narcomancers to help distinguish them from regular dreamers: lucid dreaming. When I dream, it usually feels like I’m in a trance, like I’m watching myself doing things from somewhere slightly removed from my body with no real conscious control (Fun fact: sleep paralysis, a possible side effect of being woken up from REM sleep, often causes this same feeling, called bodily dissociation, also known as ‘having an out-of-body experience’). How could narcomancers, and musician narcomancers, hope to operate something akin to a mental DJ set when their mind isn’t working at top capacity? The only way to attain that kind of conscious acuity would have to be through lucid dreaming, where one would be able to recognize that they’re dreaming, then think and act as if they were awake.

To answer the question of how to attain lucid dreaming, I turned to 1980’s drug culture. Since the story was originally inspired by the rave-like EDM concerts of bands like Daft Punk, I turned to one aspect of rave culture: party drugs. So I invented a liquid, opium-derived product with a lot of similarities to morphine, which is apropos since morphine derives its name from Morpheus, the god of dreams. It’s also the kick-ass main character of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, but that’s another story entirely. Sezumi, this fictional drug, would have one new feature apart from morphine: it would allow lucid dreaming once it put someone to sleep.

But another aspect of narcomancy, one of the key elements of manipulating dreams, comes from a unique phenomenon that’s also connected to lucid dreaming: binaural tones. Caused by playing two high-frequency notes with slight difference in their frequencies, binaural tones are sine waves that cause the brainwaves of the listeners to begin to synch with the binaural frequencies, meaning that you can ‘tune’ your brainwaves to certain patterns, such as theta or delta rhythms. This would be tremendously useful for a narcomancer who has to move between different stages of sleep, but there’s another use for it that makes it the central skill of narcomancy when paired with lucid dreaming: synching your brain waves with the brain waves of dreamers, then manipulating them.

Consider it a very primitive form of hacking, to use the Neuromancer analogy again. While lucid and on your REM high (with a 40-minute window) you find a frequency band with many dreamers’ brain waves operating on that wavelength, then start using binaural beats to manipulate them into attaining REM stage, then fine-tune your brainwaves to match theirs. Once you’re on the same frequency, you’re the only lucid person around, while everyone else is operating on the subconscious level. From there, you can begin manipulate and shape the dreams into something like reality-bending art, using music as your tool.


Narcomancy: Morphine, Lucid Dreaming, and Binaural Beats

Dreamwave: Fantasy Writing, Quantum Theory, and Daft Punk

Almost two years ago, Rolling Stone ran an interview with Daft Punk, who I’ve had an ongoing obsession with for the past five years. Before I started college, I had already built my own prototype of Guy-Manuel’s gold helmet. They’re triangulists after my own heart.

daft punk conspiracy illuminati

Besides sweeping the 2014 Grammy awards with Random Access Memories, the two are famous for the visuals of their ALIVE 2007 concert tour, playing live remixes from a 24-foot-tall aluminum pyramid covered in screens, flanked by giant honeycombed triangular panels that synched images with the music. ALIVE 2007 elevated kaleidoscopic sensory overload to an art form, and to be in the crowd, looking up at glinting figures enshrined in a monolithic pyramid of sight and sound, it must have been surreal.

At home in their Paris studio, though, Daft Punk showed the Rolling Stone interviewer another side of their work:

“He moves toward the room’s centerpiece: a massive modular synthesizer roughly four feet tall and six feet wide. “This is a custom system, new and handmade for us by a guy in Canada,” he says. Bolted into four dishwasher-size wooden cases are dozens of oscillators, noise generators and envelope followers; above these are Borg filters, Boogie filters, step sequencers and a vintage oscilloscope. Blinking lights, silver switches and 933 different knobs sprout from the facade within an overgrowth of red, gray and yellow cables…

Bang­alter shows me a little magic on the fly. He tweaks an oscillator on the massive synthesizer, and a piercing drone rings out. He drops to a knee, runs a cable from an output into an input, turns a knob a millimeter. Scratchy distortion musses the edges of the signal. He fiddles some more, and the drone flips into a hypnotic hiccup, then down into a mighty house-music thud. Bang­alter beams like a kid with a chemistry set.”

To me, there’s something magical about this moment in the article. To anyone who’s seen a studio mixing board, an old-school modular synthesizer, or even the exposed circuits of a motherboard, there’s something mystical about the person who has the knowledge to create wonders out of those hidden patterns.

And there’s something fascinating to me about the connections between music, mathematics, and reality. A couple months ago, I decided to write a story that would involve all three. It started, as most of my story ideas do, with psychotropic drugs: if listening to music on substances like LSD and MDMA transported your mind to a higher level of consciousness (as claimed in the 70s), what happens when your body gets used to that high? What happens to the people who are looking for an even higher level of mental ecstasy? Is there a way to get to an ever higher level than Timothy Leary’s Eight-Circuit Model of Consciousness? We’ve already gotten to a point that concerts like Tomorrowland and ALIVE 2007 have become surreal bacchanals, but there’s one step farther, one that takes you outside of reality altogether: dreams.


I wanted to write a story about two musicians who would play their music in a dream-city, sort of like the bathhouse from Spirited Away. Instead of spirits, through, the city would be filled with dreamers and ghosts. The two musicians would bend dreams into intense, nightmarish raves and push the limits until they finally came to ultimate transcendental state: breaking the barrier between reality and dreaming. But to build the framework of a story around these ideas, I had to figure out the mechanics. Here’s how my thoughts began.
There are patterns called “sinusoidal waves,” which you’re probably familiar with as regular sine waves, the rolling hills of an oscilloscope. There are also non-sinusoidal waves, which are more jagged or irregular, like a sawtooth wave or a square wave, or not smoothly repeating. But all kinds of waves can be expressed as graphs of points over time, and summed up by their amplitude, frequency, period, etc. All of these characteristics, then, can be compressed into simple patterns, like the equation F(t) = Asin(Bt – C) + D.

Human thoughts and emotions can be expressed as brain waves, which fall into several different categories based on their characteristics: these include alpha, beta, gamma, theta, and delta waves. Neural oscillations can indicate someone’s mood, their conscious and unconscious thoughts. Theta waves are of particular interest because they’re the brainwaves associated with dreaming. There are even patterns called “K-complexes” and “sleep spindles” that can reveal what kind of thoughts or stimuli the dreamer is experiencing during a dream. What’s really interesting is that theta waves have a specific rhythm, between 4 and 7 hz, or 60-106 beats per minute (techno or drum and bass music, on the other hand, has a bpm of around 120-160). Depending on who you talk to, listening to another kind of rhythm, binaural beats, allows sleepers to attain lucid dreaming, in which they’re able to consciously control aspects of their dreams.

Both binaural beats and theta waves, however, are just that: rhythms, waves. The same as sound. Synthesizers, which have a lot of similarities to medieval church pipe organs, can stretch sound waves, or oscillations, and change them into any pitch desired. Along with changing the ADSR envelope of a sound (the short attack and release of a piccolo, or the decay and sustain of a piano), a synthesizer can simulate almost any instrument. With the right kind of techniques, maybe theta waves (and by extension, dreams) could be warped and altered like the oscillations of a synthesizer. Music and dreaming, then, would have no real distinction: all of the experiences of dreams, whether that be strange mish-mashes of memories, the sexual excitement of a wet dream, or the anxiety and dread of a nightmare, could be played like a giant synthesizer, or some kind of mood organ (thanks, Phillip K. Dick).


So, anyway, the sensory, emotional, and auditory experiences of an ecstatic dream-rave can be controlled and manipulated via the same medium: waves. It all comes down to how you want to manipulate them. I like the idea of a theremin.

Now, here’s where we take a step onto a higher level, where we start to hit the Timothy Leary-type stuff. If (and this is a big “if”) all of the information present in our brain activity is the basis of what it means to be human, and that activity can be expressed as the non sinusoidal waves of brain waves, and someone had the ability to control the shape and patterns of those waves, you might have the ability to tune your brain waves to the de Broglie wavelength.

Back in the early 20th century, a physicist named de Broglie hypothesized that particles, like electrons, could behave like waves instead of solid matter. In fact, after some experiments with double-slits and electrons, all “solid” matter was proven to have a wavelength associated it, as predicted by quantum theory. Going a step further, it was proven that matter and energy are manifestations of the same thing. So the question becomes: can you take human consciousness, which behaves like a wave, and free it from the matter of the brain? Maybe, if you could take lucid control of your brainwaves, you could escape the flesh of your body using de Broglie wavelength as bridge to make the leap from matter to pure energy, then back to a wave. And that’s about as transcendental as you can get: becoming music itself, escaping your body to explore a world of infinite waves, transcending human thought to see the underlying patterns of the universe, partying with the fucking rhythm of the four seasons as your four-on-the-floor beats.

What party could beat that?

Some people party to feel alive. Some people are eternally searching for that higher level. Maybe, one night, on some dancefloor, they’ll find it. Me, I just want to make it last forever.


Dreamwave: Fantasy Writing, Quantum Theory, and Daft Punk