Friday, January 18, 2008

Color and Dream Experience in Philosophy, 1940-1959

As regular visitors to this blog may recall, I've occasionally discussed a historical trend in reports of the coloration of dreaming -- a tendency for Americans (that is, residents of the U.S.) to report overwhelmingly black-and-white dreaming in the 1940s and 1950s, and a tendency for pre-20th century philosophers and psychologists and 21st century Americans to report predominantly or exclusively color dreaming. With Changbing Huang and Yifeng Zhou, I found the same trend in subgroups in mainland China, where rates of reporting of black-and-white dreaming varied with the prevalence of black-and-white media in one's community. My hypothesis is not that the actual content of the dreams changed between these periods. (For example, rates of color-term use in dream diaries are amazingly consistent.) Rather, I hold that it was only the reporting that changed -- more specifically, that at least some people mistakenly assimilated the properties of film media to their dream experience.

Recently I've been wondering if I'd see the same trend among philosophers. Would philosophers of the 1940s and 1950s say that dreams were mainly black and white? This issue is especially interesting in the context of dream skepticism, the view (from the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi and from Descartes's first two Meditations and from many other sources) that we cannot, or cannot reliably, discriminate between dream experience and waking sensory experience. If waking visual sensory experience is pervasively colored and while dreams rarely contain colored objects, both of which many Americans in the 1940s and 1950s would have granted, it should be easy to tell the one from the other, right? So dream skepticism should be less compelling.

So far, however, in looking through the literature from that period, that's not what I've found. On the contrary, the issue doesn't even seem to arise in the literature on dreams and dream skepticism (though I still need to check more sources to say this definitively). Some philosophers even casually mention color as an element of dreams, without special remark or acknowledgement of the issue. Elizabeth H. Wolgast, for example, when reaching for an example of a dream in the context of a discussion of dream experience and waking sensory experience, imagines someone saying, "In my dream, I saw great blue grasshoppers" (Philosophical Review, 1958, p. 231). She does not remark in particular on the issue of coloration.

I'm not sure how much to draw from this. Even in the black-and-whitest days of black-and-white dream reporting, people tended to acknowledge the possibility, at least, of fully colored dreaming. And maybe that possibility is enough for philosophers to do their thing, and to justify dream skepticism to whatever extent it is justified?


MT said...

I know I have experienced certainty that I was dreaming in black and white, although I can't remember whether I was dreaming, half awake or awake when I held that conviction. If I were to dream I was at an FDR speech, I think I'd be unconvinced if it weren't B&W, since what I consider to be the "true" images of any historic FDR happenings into which I might insert myself, Zelig-like, are all B&W.

Seeing a photo or movie of something is to have an experience of seeing it, I'm inclined to think, at least to parts of the brain left to their own devices, as may be the case in dreams. Therefore, even if dreams were a 100% pure hash of remembered experience, anybody back in the day who read newspapers, looked at vacation photos, or watched TV, home movies, newsreels, etc would have for certain people, places and circumstances only black and white memories. All of these people, places and circumstances would be outside personal experience, so to even to creatively dream of going someplace or meeting someone new, what would have seemed more real than B&W? Dreaming you were in an episode of the Honeymooners, would you suddenly see Jackie Gleason in color for the first time? Maybe some people would, but I think they'd be exceptions rather than the rule.

I've heard it claimed that people who lose their retinas continue to remember and dream in color, but when people lose color vision as a result of a cortical lesion and otherwise retain sight, dreams and memories from before turn B&W.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, MT! That all seems plausible, but since most of our dreams are about the everyday people and things we see in color (aren't they?) it can't explain the opinion that the vast majority of dream experience is black and white, which many psychologists and ordinary folks in the 1940s and 1950s evidently thought.

On your last comment: I've heard the same. It seems plausible; but it's so clean and neat that I wonder....

Anonymous said...

I was born in Tijuana in 1961 and I watched B&W TV at home until 1976, and my dreams were always B&W, I only had about three in color during that period, I can only remember one about several beautifuly colored tortoises in metallic blues, reds and greens, I always wondered why my dreams were in B&W despite the fact that we see real life in color.
In 1977 I had saved some money and I finally was able to buy a Sony Trinitron TV, I craved a Color TV to watch cartoons since my early years. Afer having that TV I started dreaming in color, I don't know if having a B&W TV caused me to dream in B&W, it is something that I have never understood.
Now that I am aware that color is an illusion created by the brain, and understand that the real images that fall on the retina are composed of light of varying intensities and wavelenghts I can
infere that those images are in shades of gray, that is black from the abscence of light up to white where there is intense light.
I believe the brain gets that B&W precursor image and then, by an additional post-processing the brain recodifies the image based on a matrix created by the frequency values generated by color receptors in the retina and colorizes the final image that is perceived by the conscious mind.
It amazes me when I think about it as I realize that the brain processes about 24 of this images per second maybe more at such high definition, the amounts of computing power to achieve such a task are immense!!!
The final truth is that we see in black and white (shades of gray) but we never get to see that image because the brain tricks us into believing we see in color when in reality such thing doesn't exist!!!

Seeing in color is a very convenient feature that helps us to better discriminate things in an image, predators need that feature to discover an animal hiding behind bushes for example.