Friday, March 09, 2007

The Pinch Test for Dreaming

"Pinch me, I must be dreaming!" What assumption about dreaming lies behind this saying? I see two main candidates:

(1.) If I'm dreaming and someone in the dream pinches me, I will wake.

(2.) If I think I might be dreaming and someone in the dream pinches me, I'll be able to tell whether I'm dreaming or not.

The more dominant and more plausible view, I suspect, is (2). The thought presumably is this: In dreams, we don't have tactile sense experiences, or pain experiences, or we do have such experiences but they're different from waking tactile experiences in a way discernible to a dreamer.

A plausible assumption, I said. And appealing, I think, to many contemporary Americans. But is it right? Let me mention one reason to think it might be, two reasons for doubt, and two questions.

Reason to think it might be: I've read a lot of dream reports in the course of my research on dreams (e.g. here), and indeed it's not unusual to remark on the absence of tactile and pain sensations in dreams. For example, someone might report dreaming of being stabbed in the stomach and seeing blood come out, but without feeling any pain.

Reason for doubt #1: Traditional theories of dreams, like Descartes's, as well as most contemporary theories of dreams, don't give us much reason to suppose that we'd experience vision and hearing in dreams (or have visual and auditory imagery) but not other senses.

Reason for doubt #2: In the 1950s, people thought they dreamed in black and white. Both before and after the 20th century, people generally report dreaming in color. The best explanation for this, I think, is not that our dreams themselves changed from color to black-and-white and back again, but rather that our reports about our dreams assimilate them too much to the dominant media of our culture. (There was even a brief period when some psychologists said our dreams were generally silent, like Charlie Chaplin films!) Hence I suspect that if the dominant media involved tactile sensations, our dream reports would include them.

Question 1: I know there is considerable cortical activity in visual areas during REM sleep (including in regions associated with color experience). Is there a lower level of activity in brain regions associated with pain and tactile sensation?

Question 2: Is the "pinch me" thing primarily just American, or anglophone, or confined to Western cultures, or is something like it widely cross-cultural? If we don't have tactile and pain experiences in sleep, one might suppose that the reasons for that would apply cross-culturally.


Jonathan Ichikawa said...

Interesting thought, Eric. I've never really been inclined to take that sort of talk seriously -- I think of it as a sort of urban legend -- but you've got me wondering where it came from.

A Google search" suggests there was some academic work done about the pinching method in the '60s and '70s; I can't get to it just now because I can't get the jstor and SpringerLink from home. I'll be interested to read what it has to say.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the tip, Jonathan! I skimmed through Nelson and Kantor articles in Phil Studies. The Nelson article is primarily of interest as evidence that some people have taken the pinch test seriously, but the reasons he gives for taking it seriously are pretty unconvincing, I think. The Kantor article points out some ways in which they are unconvincing.

It would be interesting to try to trace the "pinch me" test back to its historical origins. Does it appear in any pre-20th century work, I wonder?

Eric Sotnak said...

Suppose it is true that one does not feel the pain of a pinch in dreams. It seems to me the test can still fail as one might dream THAT one feels pain in the dream without actually feeling the pain. One might, then, fail to note in the dream that one is not in fact feeling pain. Now, one MIGHT note that the pinch is not painful, and so decide one is dreaming, but as we all know, dreams can be odd. So I'm not convinced the pinch test helps as a method for deciding one is dreaming or not. But I also think that's not the interesting question.

But also, people have reported feeling pain in dreams (I turned up some reports by Googling on the dreams of the blind -- I wonder if blind people are more prone to dream painful sensations that sighted people?), so there, too, the pinch test would seem a failure.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree completely, Eric. Thanks for the interesting comment!

Yes, it wouldn't be surprising if blind people's dreams were more vivid in other modalities.

There's so little sufficiently skeptical, rigorous work on the content of dreams!

Clark Goble said...

I've felt pain in dreams before, although I usually can control it. But then I've also had dreams where I don't feel pain but act as if I do. Given the logic of dreams I'm not sure why anyone takes the pinching test seriously.

The other one I find interesting is the old myth about falling in dreams and what happens if you land.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes -- strange views we have about dreams! Consciousness seems to be an area where you can say almost anything and get away with it!

Shevek Moore said...

Very interesting hypothesis, Eric. I have been looking into dreams and dream theory for a form of animation and happened upon your Blog.

I must say that your theory on Media influences on dreams holds very true. I mix with a very game-oriented circle and upon questioning them I have found that many have game-related dreams. Some dream of shooting enemies in a very "First person Shooter" style. Others dream that they are the character/personality/avatar that they pertain to be on online games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life.

I would love to reference your theories in my piece, so please email me at if this would please you.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks! It would be very interesting to know if people who play 1st-person games report more 1st-person type dreams (even when they're not dreaming of gaming) and people who play avatar style games have more avatar-style dreams!

E.M. said...

I might go as far as to say that in my personal experience, pain and tactile sensation are vivid and perhaps enhanced in my dreams. One particular example comes to mind- I once had a very vivid and graphic dream (I won’t go into too much detail) that I was the subject of an experiment which involved various sharp objects being stabbed through my right hand. The pain was as intense or perhaps even more intense than I imagine it would feel if this was actually being done to me. Not only that, but when I woke up, there was a very intense pain in my physical right hand in the exact spot it was being injured in the dream. As I awoke more fully, the pain faded away slightly. But for a few days following, I had a lingering pain in my right hand as if I actually had received puncture wounds there. It was very disturbing because I had not otherwise injured my hand in my waking life, and there was no indication that I had physically injured it in my sleep either (it was lying harmlessly on the bed next to me when I woke up). That is probably my most vivid memorable experience with pain in dreams, but I recall others instances in which I have experienced the vivid sensation of pain in a dream and have continued to feel the pain when I woke up (usually just for a few mins following), for no apparent physical reason.

As for the "pinch me" thing, I would suggest researching some of Carlos Castaneda’s ideas about dreaming. I recall his suggestion that a dreamer try to "find their hands" in a dream in order to become conscious of whether or not they are dreaming. Often when one thinks of looking for their hands in their dream, they end up waking up. I think the idea is that performing the conscious act of looking for one’s hands is enough to wake our mind and pull us out of sleep OR if one does look for their hands (and inevitably realizes there is something “wrong” like too many fingers or no hands at all where they should be), they will become aware that they are dreaming, and thus enter a state of “lucid dreaming”. I think Carlos is coming from a Native American/ Mexican shamanistic perspective. The idea seems to be similar with pinching. Either the mere fact of thinking to pinch oneself or ask to be pinched is enough to wake us up if we are in fact dreaming, or if we are pinched and bring our critical attention to the matter, we realize there is something “dreamy” or not quite right about the whole thing, and wake up.

marc f said...

I too just experienced some very strange and intense pain in a dream, which led me to this site. It was in my left hand just below my first two knuckles, I incurred some sort of cut or sting in my dream. The pain was low at first, but then salt water was poured onto it and I could feel it begin to seep in, harden my wound, and my hand became stiff. The pain suddenly shot up to an extremely intense level- pain as I've never felt pain before (and I'm no stranger to injury). My thoughts in my dream were that I was poisoned, and the pain was so severe that I thought to myself "I'm going to die..." Just after that I awoke, my heart was pounding, and the pain mysteriously vanished. Funny thing is, my left hand has been cramping up lately, which I chalked up to my sudden increase in guitar playing, but the pain never really bothered me. I guess I'll see what happens now.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for those comments E.M. (belatedly) and Marc!

It is certainly possible that the success of the pinch test (if it is successful) has more to do with the fact that trying to test in some way, any way, whether you are dreaming can often help make the matter obvious, than that pain never occurs in dreams.

Feuille said...

Just stumbled across this and wanted to add my experiences.

I have often had dreams that were so wonderful that I did actually pinch myself in the dream to make sure that what I was experiencing was real. I definitely dreamed that I felt these pinches and recall that on at least one occasion I dug my nails in also. The euphoria I feel when I do not wake, (and so dream that my dream is not a dream) is incredible - my disappointment in the morning rather crushing.

Certainly I am not as aware of dreaming of physical sensations (at least, not physical sensations that correlate with what is happening in the dream)as I am of visual and auditory sensations, but I have felt pain, pleasure, and many other sensations very vividly. Sometimes they do correlate to the dream, sometimes on waking I realise that what I felt was not dreamt but was related to something my body was experiencing in reality.

I have no idea whether I actually pinched myself whilst dreaming, or merely dreamt it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Cute! Thanks for pitching in.

Anonymous said...

In Dracula, at the beginning of chapter 2, Jonathan Harker thinks he might be dreaming and comments "my flesh passed the pinch test". For whatever that contributes to your study.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Anon! Always nice to have a prominent historical reference.

Anonymous said...

when i apply he pinch test in dreams.. it is (2). waking up is a thing done by a sort of "nnnggghh" sensation where i struggle to open my eyes and get tense, i don't see pinching working in that regard.
At times my assesment of the pinch can be a bit flawed (i.e. I pinch and still aren't entirely sure) but I think it is as discussed - i.e. i pinch and it doesn't actually hurt or at least not in a intense way like a pinch might.
Anyway it definitely doesn't hurt at all to fall and land in my dreams.
as to games i play 3rd person games and I tend to have dreams Of playing games rather than of being in a game. don't know if that helps as i am a bit of a 3rd person thinker anyway....

Anonymous said...

I have pinched myself in a dream. It hurt.