Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Recoloring the Dreamworld

I'm hard at work these days on my second book, tentatively titled Perplexities of Consciousness. Chapter One, "Recoloring the Dreamworld", draws from these three earlier essays, integrating, updating, and adding new reflections. I've posted it here.

The chapter treats the rise and fall of the view, widespread in the U.S. circa 1950, that dreams are primarily a black and white phenomenon. I argue that it's likely that dreams themselves did not change over the course of the 20th century, but rather that what changed was only people's opinions about their dreams. The view that dreams are black and white was most likely due to an overanalogizing of dreams to the black and white film media dominant at the time. It's also possible, I suggest, that the contemporary view that dreams are in color -- as opposed to leaving unspecified the color of most of the objects represented -- is also due to overanalogizing to film media.

Corrections and objections welcomed, of course, either here or by email. (Unalloyed praise is of course also welcomed, though less useful!)


Jim said...

Did b/w dreams come into vogue with the rise of cinema/TV and then go out of vogue with the rise of color cinema/film? It would seem to me (and forgive me if you cover this in your essays) that if that was the case you'd have a basically indisputable argument. But if dreams were considered b/w prior to b/w cinema/TV then you'd have an extra step to make in building your case.

Unknown said...

Hi Eric,

I distinctly remember hearing it somewhere reported as a scientific fact, when I was a young child, that people dream in b/w. (This was back in 1970s.) In fact, I thought that this was true when I was in elementary school!

I take it you've seen this fairly recent study:

E. Murzyn (2008). Do we only dream in colour? A comparison of reported dream colour in younger and older adults with different experiences of black and white media. Consciousness and Cognition
Volume 17, Issue 4, pp. 1228-1237.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

JimPanzee: It does appear that prior to the rise of black and white media, people seem to have assumed dreams have color. (I do talk about this a bit in the essay.) For example, Aristotle says that colors left over in the eyes are one of the main causes of dreaming and Descartes strongly implies that he could be dreaming of the wax changing color (in Meditation 2) and also that whatever sensory occurrences are produced by the nerves in normal perception can also occur by the fortuitous course of the spirits in sleep.

Robert: Yes, that fits very much with what I've found, although by the 1970s I think it was a minority of people who thought they dreamed in black and white. (The peak appears to have been around 1940-1960.) Thanks for the tip on the Murzyn. I do already know that one, but the literatures I'm interested in are so large and widespread that I often miss things that I shouldn't miss. So appreciate these pointers!

Unknown said...


I read your chapter on dream colouration, and found myself in agreement with your tentative conclusion that dreams are not coloured; or at least that objects in dreams only *connote* colours. I have a related thesis, and it is based on an idea that all our means of communication are reductive and interpreted[1]: perhaps we can go further, and suggest that dreams do not intrinsically include any sense component, and that they entirely consist of concepts. The mind interprets these concepts, as it does (most obviously in synaesthetes) with sense input, and forms an "image", which is what we report to "see"; I am unsure of how testable this is.

( [1] http://fulltinreality.com/blog/on-words-and-music.xhtml )

Coincidentally, the BBC last night ran a Horizon documentary on the nature of dreams, to which I wrote a response[2]:

[2] http://fulltinreality.com/blog/living-on-the-aether.xhtml

I feel a disclaimer of context is worth here. I am a 17 year old prospective philosophy student, and my knowledge - though rapidly expanding - is bound to be somewhat limited. I'm currently at grammar school in England, with an eye on Oxford for my undergraduate studies in philosophy and psychology.


Toby Smithe

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Toby! I apologize for not catching it sooner. Perhaps it was buried by a sudden burst of other comments so didn't show up in the five most recent comments bar which I usually check for comments.

Anyhow, you suggestion is an interesting one. I'm not sure how to go about evaluating it either -- but one start would be to look at the work of Jonathan Ichikawa.