Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Dreaming in Color (by guest blogger Jonathan Ichikawa)

Thanks to everyone for some really interesting discussions about methodology last week. I found them valuable, and will continue to think about them. But for now, I'd like to turn to a discussion of a different issue.

One of my pet theories is the imagination model of dreaming. I used to blog about it on Fake Barn Country (may it rest in peace) a lot. According to the imagination model of dreaming, when we dream, we do not have false beliefs, as Descartes assumed we do. Instead, we imagine things, much the same way we imagine when engaging with fictions or deliberate daydreams. Similarly, on this model, we don't experience percepts -- the kinds of sensory experiences we have while perceiving -- while dreaming. Instead, we have imagery experiences.

My first contact with our Splintered Mind host was through this 2002 paper: Eric Schwitzgebel, "Why Did We Think We Dreamed in Black and White?", Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 33 (2002), 649-660. Eric remarks on a surprising pattern: In the 1950s, just about everybody thought that dreaming was a black and white phenomenon. Dreaming in color was considered a sign of insanity. Today, most of us report that we regularly dream in color. How strange!

Eric theorizes that the explanation may have to do with the predominant film media. People who watch black and white movies describe themselves as dreaming in black and white; nowadays we self-attribute technicolor dreams. He's got some cool data to support this theory.

I think that if this theory is right, it provides support for the imagination model of dreaming. If the sensory-like content of dream experience is pretty much like waking experience, it's very weird that black-and-white movies should make dream experience black and white. Watching black-and-white movies doesn't cause my waking experiences to be black-and-white. The imagination theorist's explanation is much easier. He may say that the familiarity of black-and-white film associates black-and-white imagery with imaginary events; when I tell myself a story while sleeping, I imagine watching it occur, and I do so in black and white, because that's what I'm used to in fictions.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting post, Jonathan. I'm sympathetic to your "imagination model" of dreaming, but I'm inclined to disagree with your reasoning in the last paragraph.

It seems to me that you're assuming, there, that the reports of black and white or colored dreaming are generally accurate, and that the challenge is to explain how seeing movies could create such a change in our dream experience. To me it seems more plausible to suppose that the reports are inaccurate and media exposure doesn't actually change our dreams very much.

One bit of evidence for the latter is in my China data: Reports of colored dreaming varied not with individual exposure but with subgroup exposure. So even if a Chinese respondent personally saw very little black and white media, she thought she dreamed in black and white if black and white media were prevalent in her immediate community.

One consideration, though, still favors the imagination model here, I think: It may be easier to misconstrue waking imagery experience than waking sensory experience. Although I couldn't find good data on this, I have a memory of people sometimes in the 70's saying that waking imagination was black and white; they never said (to my knowledge) that waking perceptual visual experience was! And if waking imagery is relatively easier to misconstrue than waking perceptual experience, the same might be true of dreaming; and then it's easier to see how we could be so easily swayed in our dream reports by the culturally dominant media.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Eric -- I totally agree.

I was assuming that the reports were accurate only for the purpose of argument; I agree that the alternative is more plausible. But not, I think, for the sensory-experience-theorist. Visual sensory experience, unlike visual imagery, is always either colored or black-and-white. So to think it's sensory experience and that it doesn't change, you'd need a story about why one of the groups systematically gets it wrong, and why this should track film. I have no idea how a story like that could go.

Anonymous said...

Here’s a stab: Reporting on a dream or past waking imagination requires phenomenal recollection. But some argue that any form of episodic memory is 1) a reconstructive process and 2) shaped by broader social narratives. Perhaps, then, the original dream or daydream could be phenomenally full-grained while the reconstructive recollection of that dream or daydream is not. This might explain the China data: the individual’s reconstructive processes would be guided by the community’s narratives of recollection – the tellings of what it is like to remember a dream – or indirect symbols of dreaming. I might be a believer in the beep test here; however, the act of reporting could be seen as a limited reconstructive process too, and so this could be an and/or hypothesis.

Unknown said...

First of all, I find it hard to believe that visual mental imagery could be neither colored nor black and white. How for example, could we detect contrast between different (illusory) objects? It seems to me that whenever I imagine something visually I can always say what color it is, if I were asked while imagining it.

Letting all that pass, it seems to me there is a relatively simple way to test the hypotheses of color vs. black and white vs. neither. Some people report having lucent dreams--dreams in which the subject realizes they are dreaming and can affect the content of the dream to some extent. Some can answer questions while they are having a lucent dream. So one way to test the hypotheses is to ask the subjects, while they are having a lucent dream, to describe their visual experience. If they fail to describe colors at all, even black and white, and instead just describe kinds of objects (e.g. "I see a room with three chairs"), we could conclude that perhaps they were only representing their shape and function or perhaps some more attenuated properties. However, if they described their (illusory) surroundings in terms of black and white or color, we could conclude that they were representing things in black and white or color, respectively. As long as we don't mention color or lack thereof in the questions, the responses should be unbiased.

Anonymous said...

Michael: sorry, can you just clarify -- you're offering a stab at what? Just give me a context in which to read your comment.

Anonymous said...


Your test sounds plausible. The anecdotal experience I have with lucid dreamers (alas, I'm not one myself) suggests they're happy to describe colors.

This, to my mind, does not resolve the biggest question: why do black and white movies make for black and white dream reports?

Anonymous said...


I’m just trying to provide an additional explanation for the discrepancy in our dream reports. I am granting your imagination theory and fictional analogy about dreaming. But let me try re-phrasing and you can let me know if it helps. Here’s the scenario I have in mind:

I dream in full color. At a later point in time I remember my dream. This phenomenal recollection is a reconstructive process; I don’t have access to the video tape, so to speak. Further, some think this recollection is a highly creative process and significantly guided by schemas in our social environment (e.g. the corporate narratives in China about dreaming in black and white). Recollection certainly seems to at least be a limited process.

So: Living in China, my mind has trained itself to not be busy with the costly reconstruction of phenomenal dream episodes that are rich with color. Consciousness is always costly on this model and the mind is always creatively finding ways to do without it—or in this case, doing without parts of it. This would explain why I report black and white dreams: not because I dreamed in black and white, but because my community is not interested in recollecting the color information of their dreams.

I guess I’m claiming--at a minimum--that there is an important process between the dream experience and the reporting about the dream experience: the process of phenomenally recollecting what it was like to have that dream. The failure to report the color quality of our original dream could therefore be located in two different places: 1) my recollection of the dream and/or 2) my ability to accurately report the phenomenal recollection. It would take a beeper to get close to reporting the actual dream experience… . . .if that is even possible. That make sense?

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael, yeah, that all sounds pretty reasonable. Thanks.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

On your point, quirinius, let me add the following hesitation: Whether you in reporting an image or a lucid dreaming in reporting dream experience can accurately describe the color of any particular object does not necessarily show that that object was experienced as colored prior to when the question of its color arose. It could be that the colors of many imagined or dreamed objects are left indeterminate until one thinks about their color. The details of the scene are painted in gradually as one thinks about it, perhaps; but we don't notice that fact because detail is present wherever we happen to look. (I take this point to be similar to some points in Dennett's 1991 book Consciousness Explained.)

Unknown said...


Point well taken, though it does strike me as very counterintuitive (but then again, we are trying to do philosophy here!). I'd like to point out, though, that your point would seem to apply just as much to waking visual experience as it does to dreaming and imagination. Considerations of symmetry suggest that the hypothesis holds in all cases or in none, so in advance of experimental testing it seems most reasonable to me to hold that colors are only represented when they are attended to in all three cases or in none. As a matter of fact, I seem to remember something of this sort--that colors and certain other properties aren't represented unless attended to-- being proposed in some accounts of change- and inattentional-blindness. Unfortunately I can't remember where.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Quirinius!

I'm inclined to give only small weight to considerations of symmetry in this case: Visual imagery experience seems very different to me from visual sensory experience, and they might obey considerably different rules.

Although I'm committed to mistrusting even fairly confident introspective judgments, I have trouble shaking the thought that visual experience is fairly thoroughly colored. I don't feel the pull of that as much for (my) visual imagery. The evidence about the pervasiveness or not of color in visual imagery is meager and divided.

Unknown said...

Hi Eric!

You can call me Jason, which is my real name. Anyhow, I agree that the pull of intuition is strongly against the idea that our perceptual visual experiences represent color only when we think about/attend to them. Nevertheless, the Dennettian point remains that we wouldn't notice the lack of color representation unless something in our brain alerted us to that absence. Indeed, it can be argued that something like this is the case concerning our extreme peripheral vision, where we can't discern color and yet remain oblivious to this deficiency. It also seems more economical for the brain to only represent color (or indeed anything) explicitly when it is necessary to do so. But then again, I'm not a psychologist, so there's a good chance I'm off on the wrong track.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree completely with these last remarks of yours, Jason. I don't think the Dennettian considerations are in this case well enough supported to be decisive; but neither do I think the powerful introspective intuition on the other side is decisive. Right now, consciousness studies is methodologically chaotic and substantively wide open -- that's part of what I like about it! There's a chance to do real foundational work.