Sunday, July 31, 2011

What Are Dreams?

Nicholas Humphrey:
When people today are asked whether they regularly dream in color, most say they do. But it was not always so. Back in the 1950s most said they dreamed in black and white. Presumably it can hardly be true that our grandparents had different brains that systematically left out the color we put in today. So this must be a matter of interpretation. Yet why such freedom about assigning color? Well, try this for an answer. Suppose that, not knowing quite what dreams are like, we tend to assume they must be like photographs or movies — pictures in the head. Then, when asked whether we dream in color we reach for the most readily available pictorial analogy. Understandably, 60 years ago this might have been black-and-white movies, while for most of us today it is the color version. But, here’s the thing: Neither analogy is necessarily the “right” one. Dreams don’t have to be pictures of any kind at all. They could be simply thoughts — and thoughts, even thoughts about color, are neither colored nor non-colored in themselves.
I have spent quite a bit of time pondering dreams. Like Humphrey, I am skeptical of what people say about the pictures in their dreams, because in my dreams the images are not fundamental. I cannot answer the question about whether I dream in color, because color is not important to my dreaming. We often recount dreams as narratives, in which happens and then this, and I do this sometimes as well. But it seems clear to me that the nonsensical narrative is not the point of the dream, either.

I think the point of my dreams is feelings. I have dreams that consist almost entirely of me trying to run from a nameless dread but finding that my legs are too heavy to move. In other dreams I battle against a nameless dread that stubbornly refuses to take form and be fought. In others the dominant experience is flying, or a sort of falling, swooping feeling. There is a narrative involving, say, travel in a car and a car wreck and being hurled from the car and flying with a sickening, stomach-sinking rush to the top of a nearby building, but my main impression is that somehow the feeling is the primary thing and the narrative is just a context for it, dreamed up by some other part of the brain.

I have long pondered this because I think our dreams, and the related experiences of trance and hallucination, are fundamental to the origin of religion. I think a lot of religion is rational dress put on things that spring from the dream world. If I had grown up in a different culture I might interpret my own very vivid dreams of being hunted by invisible, untouchable evil as experiences of demons, the Devil, or an enemy wizard. Beings of light, which many people report in their dreams, are the obvious origin of angels.

The point is not that the feelings are somehow more real than the interpretations we put on them; both are only thoughts. The point is that our experience of dreaming is put together from different strands, some of them coming from our cultures, through the rational centers of our minds, others welling up from emotional centers or from our centers of balance. Our dreams are made of what we feel and what we think about those feelings, or feel about them; the dream world is as many-layered as the world of consciousness thought.

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