Thursday, June 13, 2013

Portrayals of Dream Coloration in Mid-Twentieth Century Cinema

From the 1930s-1950s, people in the U.S. thought they dreamed mostly in black and white. Nowadays, people think they dream mostly in color. In previous work, I've presented evidence that this change in opinion was driven by people's over-analogizing dreams to movies -- assuming their dreams are colored if the film media around them are colored, assuming their dreams are black and white if the film media around them are black and white. A few days ago, I summarized my research on this at the Velaslavasay Panorama Museum in L.A., and media scholar Ann-Sophie Lehmann, who was in the audience, raised this question: If people thought they dreamed in black and white in that period, did the cinema of the time tend to portray dreams as black and white?

Here's the idea: If Hollywood directors in the 1930s-1950s thought that dreams were black and white, then color films from that period ought often to portray dream sequences in black and white. This would presumably have been, by the directors' lights, a realistic way to portray dreams, and it would also solve the cinematic problem of how to let the audience know that they're viewing a dream sequence. But that doesn't seem to have been the pattern. In fact, one of the most famous movies of the era actually goes the reverse direction: The Wizard of Oz (1939) portrays Oz in color and Kansas in black and white, and arguably Oz is Dorothy's dream.

I'm not worried about my thesis that people in the U.S. in that era didn't think they dreamed in color -- the evidence is too overwhelming -- but it's interesting that American cinema in that era did not tend to portray dreams as black and white. Why not? Or am I wrong about the cinema of the period? It seems worth a more systematic look. Thoughts? Suggestions?

22 comments:

Howie Berman said...

How did people report their dreams before there were any movies at all? Do we have that on record?

Michel Clasquin-Johnson said...

Am I Kansas-Dorothy dreaming that I am Oz-Dorothy, or am I Oz-Dorothy dreaming that I am Kansas-Dorothy? (with apologies to Zhuangzhi).

Your thesis attributes an immense psychosocial influence to the film medium. How far does it stretch? Did people not report auditory dreams before The Jazz Singer? Television remained B/W for a good ten years after movies, at least in my neck of the woods. Would that have an effect?

Before movies became the mass medium of choice, there were plays, operas, ballets. These things were not always the sole preserve of the cultural elite. In Shakespeare's days, the uppercrust would enjoy the theatre - suitably disguised, since they couldn't be officially seen in such low company. It may well be that the black-and-white movie dream was a step backwards from the colour live theatre dream.

Sorry, this is a fascinating idea, but it just raises more questions.

Anyway, I think you're reading too much into the Wizard of Oz. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starts off in sepia tones and slowly turns into full colour, but you wouldn't call it an awakening. Schindler's List uses B/W with colour splashes. There are other examples where a director decides, for whatever reason, to mix B/W and color cinematography.

The wikipedia page for TWoO gives one possible reason: "In his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum describes Kansas as being 'in shades of gray'. Further, Dorothy lived inside a farmhouse which had its paint blistered and washed away by the weather, giving it an 'air of grayness'. The house and property were situated in the middle of a sweeping prairie where the grass was burnt gray by harsh sun. Aunt Em and Uncle Henry were 'gray with age'. Effectively, the use of monochrome sepia tones for the Kansas sequences was a stylistic choice that evoked the dull and gray countryside."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Howie: Before the 20th century, dreams were typically compared to paintings or tapestries -- not very often to theater, I've found (to my surprise).

Michel: Given that the *reports* of coloration in dreams clearly changed (see the link to chapter 1 of my 2011 for detailed evidence), my hypothesis that it had to do with overanalogizing to film media attributes considerably less influence to film media than does the alternative hypothesis that the dreams *actually* changed!

Bryony Pierce said...

Could it be that people didn't think about whether their dreams were in colour or black-and-white until prompted by the question, then, with the suggestion in their minds that they might be black-and-white (or why ask?), if they failed to recall specific colours from recent dreams, they assumed they should say black-and-white? So it would be a consequence of the experimenters' methods, together with poor recall of detail, which is probable, I think, as experiences in dreams can be presented at a higher level of abstraction than those had when awake.

Michel Clasquin-Johnson said...

"Howie: Before the 20th century, dreams were typically compared to paintings or tapestries -- not very often to theater, I've found (to my surprise)."

That is absolutely fascinating. I envy my ancestors the restful sleep they must have had.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Bryony: Yes, that sounds just about right to me. But don't just blame experimenters: It was in the popular culture, too. In an era where some media were colored and some were black and white, it came to seem natural to people to ask whether dreams were one or the other, in a way it had never been natural before.

Callan S. said...

Doesn't media also tend to depict the 1920's in grainy black and white, typically?

Like some kinda mega genre expectation that needs to be met.

That'd be an interesting trick for a movie - have the scenes go in colour for some time, but the minute the first thing that's indicative of the era shows up, snap to black and white. Then as we get back to people interation/non era material, fade back into colour.

Callan S. said...

Oh, also it might be worth looking at a series called 'How art changed the world' - the narrator looks at cave paintings...and suggests that actually the strobing flicker of torchlight probably prompted the vision of animals and their subsequent depiction.

How did people dream back then, in the time of cave paintings?

Ned Block said...

Hi Eric, I doubt that the changes in reports of color in dreaming reflect poor access to the experience of dreaming. I think where you go wrong is here:

“Every day a person sees her house and family in full color. It would be odd to suppose that whether she dreamed about them in color would depend on what she sees in the cinema or on the television screen. Despite their cultural importance, photography, film and television seem unlikely to have so profound an effect as to transform the dreams we have of the colored world around us into dreams of black and white.”
However, it is easier for me to base mental images on photos or other 2-D representations. If I want to recall the face of a loved one, I do better by trying to image a photo than by trying to image the person in real life. The same may be true of dreams. I have occasionally mentioned this to others and have found that some other people seem to be aware of a similar phenomenon.
I can recall vividly the first time I had color in a dream—blood was red. This is something I wondered about at the time in waking life. I can date it to around 1950. We had a black and white TV at the time but I had seen the Wizard of Oz in the late 1940s and lots of other color films. My guess is that the influence of media on dreams was not so much a matter of what media one had viewed but what media was saliently represented in memory.

howard berman said...

My guess, without much reflection, is that most people do not report let alone remember their dreams. For evidence we can rely on individuals reporting on specific dreams, or dreams in general. Or we can rely on experts.
The one expert I can think of from before the days of black and white movies, is Sigmund Freud, who was professionally at least, obsessed with dreams.
Whatever you think of his theories, he may have somewhere commented on the coloration and general presentation of dreams.
Perhaps this is a question proper for his biographer Peter Gay, that is if you really want to pursue the matter

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: Yes, there are some movies that do that -- e.g., an episode of Moonlighting. And thanks for the suggesting about cave painting!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ned: That's a very interesting suggestion. I wonder if there's a way to test it empirically. I do have one type of empirical evidence that seems to go against it: I've looked at rates of color term use ("red", "blue", etc.) in a collection of dream reports from the 1940s and 1950s and compared it at the rates of color term use in collections of dream reports from the 1990s, and the results were almost identical (about 0.20% of words were color terms in both samples). But it would be interesting to consider whether there might be some other type of evidence for building dream images from photos.

I seem to remember people having thought of memory images as often being in black and white, but when I took a quick look through the psychological and popular magazine literature for evidence of this, I wasn't able to find much confirmation. Might be worth another round of exploration, though, since search technologies have advanced so much since the early 2000s!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Howard: I actually did a color term analysis of the dream reports in Freud's 1900 Interpretation of Dreams. I found that color terms were quite commonly used in the dream reports, but they didn't seem to attract Freud's analytic attention. At least, that's what I remember now; it's been more than 10 years since I did that analysis. Counterinstances welcomed if you know of any!

howard berman said...

If dreaming is in someway the convolutions of the brain in a disturbed or distorted condition, might we not expect aspects of mental life such as color to function differently?
Dreams are in a sense through the looking glass, and the psychology is strange. Freud thought ultimately dreams were grounded in the same laws as waking thought; but maybe he was wrong.
Or maybe something like this suspicion motivated your study.

Michael Caton said...

I have heard reports that military people who control drones, and spend the days looking at infrared displays in black-and-white, have dreams with that same color scheme. Still black and white but very different from a black and white movie. So we can generalize since now we have more than one type of altered color input.

Callan S. said...

Michael - given that account comes from drone pilots, that's kinda an extra creepy account! Not arguing it, just sayin' it's creepy!

Ned Block said...

There is plenty of evidence that the specific properties of mental images are derived from perception. We have black and white mental images of Winston Churchill but color mental images of George Clooney. Here is a passage from a recent paper on this: "Overall our results suggest that mental imagery for the appearance of individuals such as Albert Einstein or Winston Chur- chill preserves surface information present during the perception of original black-and-white media images. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that because visual memory representations of B&W-era individuals derive predominantly from experiencing monochromatic depictions, subsequent mental imagery for these individuals are experienced as being sig- nificantly less colourful." See Consciousness and Cognition 22 (2013) 148–154
What is still left open though is why our images and dreams might be based on photos when the real people are available in all their colorfulness. My guess is that imagery and dreaming are not as 3-D as perception and so imagery and dreaming are more likely to be based on 2-D subject matter. It would be interesting to compare 2-D and 3-D movies in that regard.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Nice comparison point, Ned. Further anecdotal evidence in support of it is how striking very early color photographs are, e.g., of Russian peasants from circa 1910.

It's an interesting question whether imagery is more 2D than visual experience. I don't know any work on that, but it seems worth a lit search -- maybe when I'm back in town!

Arnold Trehub said...

Ned: "My guess is that imagery and dreaming are not as 3-D as perception and so imagery and dreaming are more likely to be based on 2-D subject matter."

I would suggest that our imagery must be 2-D because the cognitive brain mechanisms that generate our imagistic recollections are "designed" to learn and store only the 2-D projections of what we perceive in 3-D.

We have the phenomenal experience of what we perceive as being something out there in the world around us, the real thing. Our phenomenal experience of what we imagine is not taken as something really out there, but merely as an internal *representation* of something. If a mental image were experienced as really being out there then it would be a hallucination. For a striking example of the experimental creation of such a hallucinatory image, see the SMTT experiment on pp. 324 - 325, here:

http://people.umass.edu/trehub/YCCOG828%20copy.pdf

Arnold Trehub said...

Ned, can you clarify something on the distinction between phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness? As I understand it, having access consciousness depends on one first having phenomenal consciousness. For me, "phenomenal consciousness" is our *global* egocentric/subjective experience of the world, whereas "access consciousness" consists of the parts that have been subjectively targeted and parsed out of our global experience and perceived as objects and events within our phenomenal world. Does this accord with your distinction?

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Therapist Los Angeles said...

However, the director whose movie is in color would dream in color, since his most familiar medium is color. Therefore, his consciousness considers color even though the majority of people might think they dream in black and white.