This article explores the notion that the brain is genetically endowed with an innate virtual reality generator that - through experience-dependent plasticity - becomes a generative or predictive model of the world. This model, which is most clearly revealed in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep dreaming, may provide the theater for conscious experience. Functional neuroimaging evidence for brain activations that are time-locked to rapid eye movements (REMs) endorses the view that waking consciousness emerges from REM sleep - and dreaming lays the foundations for waking perception. In this view, the brain is equipped with a virtual model of the world that generates predictions of its sensations. This model is continually updated and entrained by sensory prediction errors in wakefulness to ensure veridical perception, but not in dreaming. In contrast, dreaming plays an essential role in maintaining and enhancing the capacity to model the world by minimizing model complexity and thereby maximizing both statistical and thermodynamic efficiency. This perspective suggests that consciousness corresponds to the embodied process of inference, realized through the generation of virtual realities (in both sleep and wakefulness). In short, our premise or hypothesis is that the waking brain engages with the world to predict the causes of sensations, while in sleep the brain's generative model is actively refined so that it generates more efficient predictions during waking. We review the evidence in support of this hypothesis - evidence that grounds consciousness in biophysical computations whose neuronal and neurochemical infrastructure has been disclosed by sleep research.
Keywords: consciousness; free energy; neuromodulation; pontine-geniculate-occipital waves; prediction; rapid eye movements; sleep; virtual reality.