A Different Kind of Dream Analysis

Is it possible to dream without knowing it?

I realize this sounds like the tree falling in the forest question, but I think your answer will reveal a lot about your philosophical views, specifically on the mind/body problem. Could be fun? Maybe?

Well, let us go then, you and I…Photo on 9-23-15 at 12.51 PM #3

If we can dream without knowing it, doesn’t that mean that whatever physiologically/objectively constitutes a dream is the dream? This would be strange, especially since we tend to think of dreams as utterly subjective, so much so that even relating them to others seems at times to be an impossible task. We own our dreams, whether we want to or not.

Dreams are one of the few ways we get to have such intensely personal experiences, outside of psychedelic drugs and such. Ever notice how ridiculous the dream seems when you recount it to yourself upon waking or tell someone else about it? What was in the moment taken without skepticism is now stripped of that credibility, and sometimes even meaning, perhaps because it is so divorced from objective reality. Even those who believe that dreams evoke universal symbols usually concede that it’s up to the dreamer to make those connections, to do the interpreting. (Plus, those symbols vary to some extent from culture to culture. For Koreans, dreaming about feces means it’s time to buy a lottery ticket.) To say that dreams are a physiological occurrence that might be unknown to us is to empty dreams of their content.

Some people—usually the ones who find the tree in the forest question profound—like to ask how we know we’re not dreaming right now. Kant answers this somewhere by saying that dreams are recognized as such by their contrast to our experience of objective reality. To put it another way, it’s not just: “Dreams are weird.” It’s: “Dreams ARE weird.”

Imagine this conversation:

“I had a dream last night.”

“Oh yeah? What was it about?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t actually experience it.”

If we take the view that dreams are lived experiences that become known only in relation to experience of reality, this conversation is nonsense. If we don’t, we might say the matter is paradoxical, but possible.

The belief that we can dream without knowing it seems to go without saying in scientific articles, like this from the Scientific American:

“Dreams are notoriously difficult to recall. In fact, if a dream ends before we wake up, we will not remember it.”—Deirdre Barrett, What Processes in the Brain Allow You to Remember Dreams?

Most of us would read the line above and find nothing unsettling about it. Sure, we have dreams we can’t remember. That happens all the time. But—and this is a big but—we know we don’t remember them only because we remember a part of them. This forgetting is kind of like forgetting someone’s name, but upon hearing it, recognizing it as the right one. Does this experienceable lapse of memory of dreams indicate that we regularly forget entire dreams, waking up only to say “I slept a dreamless sleep”? I would say this is a presumptive leap. To be clear, I remain agnostic on the larger matter, but this particular argument doesn’t work for me.

Plus, in order to find a correlation between two things, we must be able to have access to both of those things. I wouldn’t find it terribly problematic for the scientist to rely on a person’s remembered account of a dream in order to find out what happens to the brain during that particular sleep cycle. However, the wholly forgotten dream is inaccessible to both the scientist and the sleeper. How is a correlation to be made? (And let’s ignore that correlation is not causation. Establishing correlation seems problematic enough.)

Perhaps it’s this: I’ve heard that REM sleep is the time during which we dream. (I’ve also read we can dream during other times as well, but let’s ignore this one too.) We might be tempted to say that if we can objectively monitor and verify that REM is happening, we can establish that a person is dreaming. But there’s a problem here. We can’t say that we always dream during REM sleep or that REM sleep is a reliable indication of a dream occurring.

Or maybe it’s this: The scientist watches the sleeper sleep. The sleeper jerks, kicks, talks in her sleep, maybe sleep walks. Maybe she even screams out the Ten Commandments while beating on the mattress. Then she wakes up and says, “I slept a dreamless sleep.” Only the most Cartesian of us will insist that the sleeping subject might not have dreamed.

Photo on 9-23-15 at 12.51 PMI often watch my dog sleep and smile at his muffled barks and kicks, imagining that he’s chasing down a lizard in his mind or maybe even whining at me for being unable to operate the toy drone he so loves. I realize I’m anthropomorphizing to some extent here, and I know I can never know what he’s dreaming, but I don’t find it all that problematic to say that he’s dreaming. And in his case, he can never tell me and I will never really know. But I’d find it incredibly over-scrupulous if someone argued this point.Photo on 9-23-15 at 1.05 PM

On the one hand, I want to give the observed behavior of a sleeper/dreamer credibility, but on the other hand, I want to preserve that common sense definition of a dream as the 1st person narrative.

Where do you stand on the matter?