Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Truth in Dreams

I recently dreamt that a friend of mine was -- despite all appearances to the contrary -- a cat. I don't recall the superficial events of the dream as providing any supporting evidence for this (I was surprised to learn that she had children, but they looked like baby owls, not kittens, so go figure). Nevertheless, I must insist that it was true in the dream that she was a cat. This raises the philosophically interesting question: how? What determines the "facts" internal to a dream?

It won't do to appeal to the simplest or most charitable interpretation of the sense data. In any remotely realistic possible world where events unfold largely as experienced in my dream, I am simply mistaken to believe my friend is a cat. She has every appearance of being human (well, until you factor in the avian offspring! But a revisionist might as well claim that I was mistaken to think the owls were truly her offspring, too.), and there is nothing in the dream -- apart from my firm belief -- to suggest that she is actually a cat instead.

Still, it seems to me, authorial intuition trumps all. Dreams don't have to be simple, sensible, or even consistent. If a dreamer intuits (with psychological certainty) that P, then P is true in the dream. As subconscious authors of our own dreams, we have a special authority and privileged access to their content. Appearances can be misleading, even in dreams, and dreamers may have "authorial intuitions" to inform them when this is the case.

This raises difficulties, because we must also recognize the possibility of being deceived within a dream. Here I think we must appeal to a sort of 'duality' to the dreamer's sense of self. This arises from the multiple roles we play in our dreams, as both authors and actors, third-personal narrators and first-personal characters.

(This strikes me as supported by phenomenology. It seems like I sometimes switch between third- and first-person perspectives while dreaming, going from spectator to participant and back again. I may know things as a spectator that cannot influence the actions of my 'character' -- perhaps due to a kind of compartmentalization, or perhaps due to my refusal as an "actor" to break from the "script".)

With this distinction in place, I want to say that our authorial, spectating, third-personal self is the ultimate arbiter of what's true in the dream. While in the first-personal mode, we might sometimes be deceived or mistaken about the internal facts of the dream. But even the participating dreamer can sometimes attain infallible insight into the dream-facts, by way of what I call "authorial intuitions". These are accompanied by a distinctive phenomenology, a feel that this is how things are, which allows the dreamer to recognize them as certain facts (within the dream). We might consider this a sort of communication between the two parts of the dreaming self, an exception to the "compartmentalization" posited above.

Does any of that sound even remotely plausible?


  1. Is a dream constructed prior to you experiencing it?

    I would be inclined to think that your brain was a little confused as to what it would do next and half started to make a cat and half started to make your friend. Your friend "won the day" and yet the "cat" identifier stuck.
    Being in dream your brain wasn’t really running fast enough to resolve this issue so it "let it slide".

    What counts against this is that you say you switch between third and first person. this implies for you there really are two parts...
    I think I do this to an extent but not really in such a way as to be genuinely seperate. When I change to first person the third person perspective genuinely ceases to exist - i.e. the rules I saw in that situation no longer need to hold.
    Or I can be third person and find breaches to rules I thought existed or physical assaults from "behind". (Which usually warrant a fire ball!)

    I can also, in a sense, feel these thoughts creaping up on me (for example I think "what if somthing was behind me").
    One of my friends used to talk about the eternal arms race between him and his nightmare subconcious. he was proud in a sense of the fact that his subconcious could in the end defeat him, a mighty subconcious it was.

  2. In my dream last night, I found out that my boyfriend of 10+ years and my friend were getting together behind my back. To get this information I had to damage my boyfriends guitar - as a form of torture. Physically hurting him or myself gained me no information. I woke up upset, snuggled up to my boyfriend and told him I had a bad dream. He didn't care to know what upset me. I have no one else to tell this to, so thank you for listening.

  3. I don't think we need to admit the possibility of being deceived within a dream. I don't think even standards of objective truth make much sense when we're talking about a dream.

    Could the characters in a crime fiction novel deceive the author? Was Conan Doyle sometimes wrong about whodunnit in the Sherlock Holmes books? If you have full authorial control, the only things that exist are your creations.

  4. Hobbes, as a character within a dream, we can be surprised about what happens (thus suggesting that our expectations were in error). That's consistent with recognizing our authorial selves as having the final say -- as proposed in my main post.

    G. - you ask, "Is a dream constructed prior to you experiencing it?" Probably not, but I'm not sure how that affects the question of what's true in the dream. Presumably the facts will need to be built out of what we experience; but that leaves open what aspects take priority. Do the human-like sensory experiences trump my authorial intuition (which is also part of the dream "experience") that she's "really" a cat, or vice versa?

    Some of my phenomenological reports were fairly speculative reconstructions. I'm not very confident about their accuracy. I've definitely had your "creeping thoughts" before; in nightmares, "what if X" reliably leads to "X is true", and recognizing this I often make that very inference while in the dream!

  5. Richard,
    so are you sometimes/often aware you are dreaming?

    > Do the human-like sensory experiences trump my authorial intuition (which is also part of the dream "experience") that she's "really" a cat, or vice versa?

    I presume neither. It would appear in your dream that you failed to resolve this. I.e. you saw her as a friend but thought she was a cat. I don’t think this is particularly uncommon - you might do it when awake too but generally only where you are not paying much attention.

    I guess in the long run if the dream went on long enough you might ask the question of yourself and decide maybe something is wrong - like that it is a dream and your friend isn’t really this cat like thing. I would be more surprised if you slowly decided it was NOT a cat despite evidence but I guess that is possible too.

  6. This post reminded me of something Daniel Dennett wrote (either in Kinds of Minds or Consciousness Explained, I can't remember which) that struck me as very insightful and intuitively plausible. He speculated that the weirdness and inconsistency of dreams is caused by a lack of normal sensory input, due to the body's being asleep. In such an environment, deprived of their normal stimulation, the sensory faculties begin to seek patterns in noise; the brain "does its best" to interpret random and erratic neural firings as content, leading to these strange disjointed storylines.

    Dennett says that something similar may be operative in the case of a hunter who mistakes his friend for a deer and shoots him, despite the fact that his friend was wearing a bright orange vest. The hunter is deep in concentration looking for one thing - in effect, his brain keeps asking itself, "Is this a deer? Is this a deer? Is this a deer?" - and when some stimulus suddenly impinges on his perception, the resultant burst of neural activity is mistakenly interpreted as an affirmative answer and he fires without thinking about it.

    Something similar could have happened in your dream. Perhaps your brain asked itself, in effect, "Is this a cat?" and interpreted a random neural firing as a "yes", and then asked itself, "Is this my friend?" and again received a "yes", and then did its best to combine those two conflicting sensory inputs in the only way it could.

  7. Adam,

    I bet there is a Dick Cheney joke in there somewhere... And I agree with the "is that a deer" part

    But regarding the sensory shutdown argument I think that there is something more to sleep than that because otherwise if you meditate (shut off your senses) I would think you would hallucinate (having said that, maybe some do).

    I think sleep is related to parts of your brain being shut down and others being test fired (the REM sleep just happening to be the one that allows a meaningful dream to occur). basically at least part of the "this is me" in the frontal lobes is “intentionally” being activated and allowed to have thoughts pass through it while come parts of critical thinking and sensory parts of the brain and so forth are largely shut down and rested.

  8. Well, extended periods of sensory deprivation do produce hallucinations (and as that antediluvian Britannica site points out, a "slight amount of stimulation of the hallucinated sense may enhance the likelihood of the hallucination's appearance", which is just as this hypothesis would predict). As for meditation I'm less certain, but maybe it just takes a certain amount of time before this phenomenon begins? Or perhaps meditation does induce a mildly hallucinatory state, which is what the meditator is seeking to achieve - this could be that satori phenomenon that Buddhists refer to.

  9. hmm and yet other forms of sleep doesn't produce dreams (from what I have read)...
    Still I expect that a burst of sensory input would wipe out a dream anyway and I did think of satori...


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