In his interview with Raphael Reuben, Tom Stoneham, the head of the Philosophy department at the University of York, explained his position on dreams, dream culture and the unreliability of human memory. This follows from his research into the nature of consciousness, including the nature of dreams.
Q – What do you mean by experience?
A – The crucial thing that is being debated about here is whether during sleep, you are having conscious experiences, as if you were having some sort of perception. If we start with the thought that when you’re perceiving, you’re experiencing something consciously; so then you’re seeing or hearing. The standard view of dreaming is that it is a conscious experience, which goes on during sleep but clearly isn’t a perception because there aren’t bears and elephants in your bedroom. The idea behind the view I’m objecting to, is that there is something which is like an ordinary perceiving, which goes on whilst you’re dreaming. What I mean by experience is, whatever is going to be sufficiently like a perceiving for someone to think ‘I’ve gone through a similar sort of conscious episode’. It’s a difficult one because I’m inclined to say that we should be very sceptical of the philosopher’s use of the word ‘experience’, because they misuse it in the case of perception. There are some philosophers that would say “Right now you have a perceptual experience of this room or of the trees outside the window and then to dream is to have an experience”, meaning the same kind of thing as perceiving but whilst dreaming. This is the view I am sceptical about.
It’s good to have interesting dreams. People that have interesting dreams are interesting people.
Q – Given your definition of experience, what do dreams in your view entail?
A – My project is to be sceptical. I am not obliged to give a positive view of dreaming. However, no one believes a word I say unless I can say something vaguely positive. It is quite obvious that a lot of dream reports are made up. There is an awful lot of embellishment in dream reports. We have a culture around dream reporting which says “it’s good to have interesting dreams. People that have interesting dreams are interesting people.” Having bad dreams or nightmares can be reassuring. We say to kids that wake up crying and distressed “Did you have a bad dream? Don’t worry, it’s only a dream.” How could such a culture arise? A culture like this could arise if it was the case that waking from sleep was, at least sometimes, a confusing experience. Waking from sleep is a confusing experience, because during sleep you are aware of your body and you are aware of a certain amount in your environment; that’s how alarm clocks work. A lot of physiological changes happen during sleep, but you have some bodily awareness, such as awareness of your posture. You wake. You’re in this state when you awake where you are slightly confused by what is happening to you. Telling a story which has a characteristic which is exotic and interesting, but not real, is an incredibly powerful way of coming to terms with that confused state. Once people start doing it, they find it very reassuring and they do it more. Then they build up this culture of interest. What has happened is that the basic human psychological capacity to make up stories to explain odd and unusual things kicks in to explain the experience of waking occasionally, then our fascination develops the dream culture and extends it.
Q – Is it the subject who consciously makes up these stories as they wake, justifying the feeling of confusion they have?
A – I must admit that I have these experiences of having dreamed with the same conviction as lots of people, but when you examine that, one often wakes up with a stronger conviction that they’ve had a dream than the details. The details seem to follow as you start reflecting back. Equally, it’s not always immediately upon waking but sometimes later on you have a sudden sense, “I dreamt something like that” and then start exploring it. None of this works like actual memory. The psychology of memory and the experiences we call dreaming behave very differently. I’ve been looking at research on sleep and dreaming, empirical research. A lot of people talk about “you dream during REM sleep”. When looking at the evidence, it’s very sensitive to how you ask people the question. Original evidence showed you predominantly dreamed during REM sleep and not in NREM sleep. Researchers woke subjects and asked them “What were you dreaming?” – notice they used the word dream. When they changed the question to “What were you thinking just before you woke?”, we see an 80% increase in the number of respondents answering something in NREM sleep. Already you’re seeing sensitivity to the culture in the research. Ask people about their dreams and you kick in the culture. The definition of the different stages of sleep used in empirical research is an interesting feature. It turns out that the definition of REM sleep makes explicit reference to wakefulness (it contains the characteristics of wakefulness). Recently, I’ve been thinking that perhaps our sleep patterns are not quite as homogeneous as we think. We know about the REM cycle, but why do we think of it as a continuous period of sleep with different cycles rather than a period of partial wakening and going back into sleep? The imagination really kicks in when you have periods of partial wakening. If that’s happening during the night, you’re going to wake with memories of that imaginative activity – caused by partial wakening. It’s a complex set of factors which lead us to form the dream culture. The main point is, there is a great and interesting thing which is dream culture and our reporting dreams; it tells us an awful lot about ourselves, but it is not clear that it tells us an awful lot of what went on during asleep.
Q – Does the fact that other animals have what we would consider dreams, have any effect on the argument?
A – ‘What about animals?’; ‘what about sleep talking, sleep walking?’. Looking at the evidence, the most commonly cited evidence is dogs – they’re the animals that most people have seen sleeping. Dogs often have this behaviour where they whimper and their legs twitch during sleep and we all say “it’s dreaming of chasing a rabbit”. Even some dog that has never chased a rabbit in its life, we say, “dreaming of chasing a cat or dreaming of chasing a rabbit”. Why draw that inference? We use a pattern of inference used on waking animals. There is certain behaviour and we explain its behaviour by reference to some sort of perceptual experience. Why did the dog suddenly run in that direction? “He must have seen a rabbit or cat or something”. We then are assuming that we can apply the same model of explaining behaviour to a sleeping animal. “Oh, it’s done something, so there must be some prior experience, similar to a perception which would explain it.” The question is, why do we think that we can extrapolate one model to another? The dog clearly can’t see a rabbit, he’s asleep! He doesn’t actually run after anything, it just twitches, but we are so tempted to over generalise with the sorts of explanations we give to waking behaviours that we just immediately apply them to sleeping behaviour. Sleeping animals and sleeping people are different in so many ways, both psychologically and physiologically, it seems unjustified without a lot of extra work to apply the same model.
Q – Hallucinations seem to fall between the dream state and waking state. What do we apply there?
A – If I am sceptical about dream experiences, I am also sceptical about hallucinations. The situation is different though – people who are sleeping aren’t able to report their dreams whilst they are having them, it seems that people who are hallucinating are. There is no kind of memory issue with hallucinations. I did some sloppy anecdotal empirical research a few years ago; I asked about 15+ philosophers if they had ever hallucinated and what their hallucinatory experience was like. It was utterly striking when the vast majority of them didn’t describe hallucinations but referred me to one of two books. I began to realise that the whole academic discussion about hallucination draws upon a very small number of accounts of hallucinations. I became suspicious that there was a sociological influence, that people described hallucinations in certain ways because they thought that’s what hallucinations were. Why should we trust reports of people who are hallucinating? Well firstly, what are the causes of hallucination? Extreme exhaustion, sleep paralysis and various types of drugs. You look at the range of cases and think, all of those causes of hallucination are also things that would make me believe the persons reports about things were unreliable. Generally speaking, you get this pattern of coincidence where people who are in a position to report hallucinations are also in a position where we don’t treat them as particularly reliable sources about other matters – yet we treat them as entirely reliable about hallucinations.
At one stage, they start hallucinating animals and people, but they always describe them as being small.
This is the basis for scepticism. There is however one case which doesn’t fit this; Charles Bonnet syndrome. It is a hallucinatory syndrome that people get when they have macular degeneration, the centre of the retina begins to degenerate, they lose vision in the centre of their visual field and have weak peripheral vision. They appear to hallucinate into the gap in their visual field. This is entirely to do with degeneration in the optical system that has no cognitive defects. It looks like it is a problem case for the sceptic. One notable thing about this syndrome is that at one stage, they start hallucinating animals and people, but they always describe them as being small. Why would you describe a hallucinated creature which is being hallucinated into visual space, which has no particular distance from you, as large or small? There are still many features to unpack. There is a general problem studying hallucination though; most of the empirical research is done for clinical purposes. If people are hallucinating, doctors are interested and they want to do something about it. However, clinical categories and clinical diagnosis aren’t interested in the same questions as philosophers or cognitive psychologists. They are not interested in what the nature of the actual thing going on is, they’re interested in what people are reporting and how that correlates with illnesses and prognosis. They find very good correlations between reports of hallucinations, so they just take them as read. They don’t have to inquire any further because there is no worry that ‘what is really happening is not how they are reporting it’ because reporting consistently matches up with the clinical condition.
Q – In some ways, human being reliability represents individuals in the hallucination state. As time goes on, our memories of events are often not accurate or the details become unclear, but the feeling still resonates. This can be shown in the creation of language and art where we capture experience that we will one day not fully remember. In this sense, can we question our own memory, our own experience of waking life, not only of dream life?
A – I don’t think there is not a problem with current experience. There are people who argue that your current experience – perceptual experience, is just an awful lot of hallucinations. I think that’s as wrong as you can get about perception. I don’t have a problem with that, I think things are the way they seem to us. The memory case is interesting because we don’t just live in the present. We have extended lives and we care about the past and future. We want to engage in thought about the past and future in some detail and yes, they’re types of unreliability. Memory doesn’t work like a film. Psychologists have known for a long time that memory isn’t a blank recording device that just stores things. There are two stages of interpretation. When you have an experience, it is interpreted before it is stored and in the process of retrieval, it assembles further degrees of interpretation. Our memories are heavily interpreted and strikingly unreliable. Elizabeth Loftus, one of the greatest memory researchers of the 20th century, did many imaginative experiments where she shows that people’s most vivid memories are strikingly unreliable. She experimented with inserting memories. In this experiment, she went to the subject’s parents and got a selection of photographs from their childhood. She got them to look through these photographs and describe the experiences. Later, they were asked to reflect back on that thing and say what they thought about that. What she did was, in the background of real photographs, she inserted one which was faked, which had them in a hot air balloon. She checked with their family to make sure they had never been in a hot air balloon before. Some 75% of subjects came out of that and even two weeks later were adamant that as a child, they had been in a hot air balloon. She has done other experiments. She has inserted memories of people being lost in a shopping centre as a five year old. Again, she checks with the family that this really didn’t happen. She uses various techniques of blending fiction into fact; they just invent memories. This sort of research actually backs up my worries about dreams and also means you have to be very thoughtful about what your memories are telling you. They’re probably not telling you just what happened in the past, they’re also telling you an awful lot of how you interpreted it at the time and how it fits into your current beliefs about what your past was like.
Q – Every student wants to find out what the best way to revise is. For me, it seems that we need some sort of emotional attachment or response to form memories. If we take this premise to be true, then in waking life, our memories will not always be accurate. Perhaps, dreaming is like our waking state, where we have internal experiences coupled with emotion. If we did not have experiences during dreams, do we then have to say that our emotions during sleep come from nothing?
A – Emotion is very important in all this. I think you’re absolutely right that it is important for memory but you’ve also brought up this problem about dreams. We wake from sleep with strong emotions. This actually takes us very much into what emotions are. Emotions are incredibly closely tied to our bodies. Often we become aware of our emotions by becoming aware of what our bodies have done. We hear the change in our voice, we feel the flush in our face, we feel the tension in our body. Emotions shouldn’t be seen as purely conscious feelings, they are closely related to how our bodies behave. Sleep does something to our physiology. It seems quite likely that it is causing a lot of physiological changes which are not only associated with but integral to emotions. It is very tempting to explain the emotion of fear when you wake up by saying there must have been a conscious experience that caused you to be afraid, because that’s the model we use to explain fear in waking people. Perhaps we’ve got the reverse explanation going on here. The body is getting into these states which you recognise as emotional and that causes in you this emotional state of fear or anger, pleasure, or let’s be honest, sexual excitement, in your sleep. Those emotions may actually be a direct result of the physiological changes, rather than responses to experiences similar to that in waking life.
Q – With all sorts of sleep irregularities, such as sleep talking or walking, we consider them as abnormal, because the normality in sleep is, we stay positioned in one spot, where we don’t talk or walk. In dreams, it seems that we are under the illusion of being awake, of talking and walking, without it actually occurring in reality. It is quite unsatisfactory to suggest that we create dreams once we wake. Cases like lucid dreaming don’t seem to fit into the picture you have drawn of dreaming. We are aware that we are sleeping whilst the dream is taking place and therefore have control over ourselves without the illusion of the being awake. How do you feel this affects your position?
A – There are two phenomena that we might want to call lucid dreaming. One is that some of us have dreams, report dreams and it is part of the dream report that we had an awareness that we were dreaming. That seems to fit in to the normal category of explaining dream reports. If I am explaining dream reports, I am explaining why you had a dream where you thought you were being chased by a tiger. I can use the same mechanism as when you’re reporting a dream when you thought you were dreaming being chased by a tiger. All that has happened is, there is this additional claim that you were dreaming and this has become part of the dream. It’s very difficult to track these things over time but it is interesting to try to work out the cultural prevalence of people talking about lucid dreaming. This takes us to the other group class of lucid dreaming, which is the stuff that is studied in the laboratory. You have lucid dreamers who try to communicate that they’re dreaming whilst they are dreaming. They often try to communicate part of the content of their dream. The empirical research is very hard to validate. There are one or two exceptions we can talk about but most of the research on lucid dreamers that have been put in sleep labs is conducted at the laboratories in the lucidity centre, owned by Stephen LaBerge. He developed methods for studying lucid dreamers.
When the funding of the research is dependent on people believing in lucid dreaming, there’s a big conflict of interest.
This is a private research centre, funded by sales of new age books about how to become a lucid dreamer. When the funding of the research is dependent on people believing in lucid dreaming, there’s a big conflict of interest. Who are the subjects? It looks like the researchers may be using themselves as subjects. They are very coy about it but the researcher’s initials crop up as subjects appearing over ten years of the research. In order to replicate the research, they realised they need to find expert lucid dreamers, so you have to find the category of people who are expert lucid dreamers. There were some people in London, in St Thomas’ hospital, who tried to replicate this and they found someone who was an expert lucid dreamer. They managed to replicate some stuff but the question is, who or what is this person we are studying? They are a self-identified expert lucid dreamer; they clearly have different capacities to us and it looks like one of the capacities they have is to form intentions to do certain things when they are asleep and do that. That’s clear, we can say to them, “Ok, when you start dreaming we want you to…” and what they do is, they put electrodes on the muscles on the arms so they can measure attempted hand movements (so they can measure the contractions). They have these pre-agreed signals “when you’re dreaming do this”, so when they are asleep the guy does it. I’m sure with enough effort I could train a person to have a pre-agreed action that they’ll do during sleep- some sort of hypnosis almost. For these reasons, I am very sceptical about that field of empirical research on lucid dreaming. People often come at me and say “I had this incredibly vivid dream” and actually they’re just building the vividness into what they’re dreaming and I have the same reason to believe your claim that was vivid as I have reason to believe that you’re being chased by a tiger, they’re all part of the dream content.
Q – Concerning plausibility, if we are going to assume that as human beings, we don’t have what we would consider to be dreams, in terms of this vivid experience that we explain to others, write about and sometimes even rant and rave about, at what stage in human development did the culture around dreams become so abstracted from reality yet so acceptable? Yes, we are very imaginative, but some of the dreams people come up with are truly exceptional; people will convince themselves that they met someone in their dream they had never met before. At what point did human beings collude in such a way where we could create fantasies in the evening time, where it becomes acceptable to go to such extreme lengths, with all of us doing it?
Some people like to explain it in terms of transmigration of souls but most of our culture is to say, this is clearly an odd experience…
A – I’ve obviously got to speculate. It is useful in this case to say when looking at this, something that could have happened yet we don’t know. Before I forget I’ll just address the other point you dropped in which was, sometimes people dream of meeting a person, as you say, they have never met before and then later they meet them and they say “Oh, my goodness, I dreamt of meeting you.” When we think of that experience and what is happening there, we must also compare it to the experience of déjà vu. The interesting thing is that people often have the experience of déjà vu thinking ‘I feel I’ve been here before’ where the concept and culture around déjà vu actually resists the explanation. Some people like to explain it in terms of transmigration of souls but most of our culture is to say, this is clearly an odd experience and the best way to explain it is that something has gone slightly wrong. You are having a completely new experience but you’re getting for some reason some sense of familiarity. Given that we explain déjà vu like that, it looks like we can explain these dream phenomena like that. If you dream something, later you say, “wow, I dreamt that!”, it seems more plausible to push those experiences to déjà vu as what is actually happening, though of course because we have this dream culture, we love to describe it in terms of dreams, again, because it makes us more interesting; even if only to ourselves. So where does it come into human history? I have done historical research on the history I know about, so that’s mainly the late renaissance and early modern period. There has got to be a starting point. As I say, I am just speculating but one that struck me as very useful if it were true and would fit well with what I am to say is Robert Winston, who made a very good series about human evolution and the evolution of human cognitive capacities. He says “Fire”. Why? Well, once we had fires, we stayed awake later talking to each other. This generates imagination and thought processes. That’s a speculation on his part but if he is right, it’s very interesting because it ties the development of the imagination to night time as well. If you need to keep the fire going to protect you during the night, people have to go in and out of wakefulness to keep the fire going. They’re not going through a pattern of “Oh right, good night, switch off the light and see you in eight hours.” As a group, they’re going in and out of wakefulness during the night. If he is right, this is also what is triggering imagination and our ability to think through plans. But it looks like a time where we might start making up stories, stories associated with out night time experience. That account fits together with what I want to say rather well.
Philosophers shouldn’t be allowed to have children because they always do experiments on their children.
Q – I am actually quite pleased with what I have heard because I am impressed with myself for some of the dreams I have come up with. In some ways though, I am still wonder, would we have an ability to know this process of fabrication? If we did, would people believe dreams with the same conviction that they do now? Or perhaps that’s up for contestation. Do people truly believe their own dreams? However, there are many nights where we do not dream, or would not come up with these dreams. Would there be any reason for that?
A – We know in other cases that people fabricate explanatory stories without realising they are doing it. This would be a particularly large scale of that, which is why I emphasise the connection to dream culture; that will explain how it is such a large scale thing. Interestingly, I am a cruel parent. Philosophers shouldn’t be allowed to have children because they always do experiments on their children. Challenging children who come up with dream reports about whether they actually dreamt that, is interesting because it kind of puzzles them, not in the sense that you challenge them in something that they did yesterday because they might be offended that you’re challenging them. Challenging them about dream reports doesn’t seem to have the same effect. But that is just anecdotal, that’s just me being cruel to children. We do know there is a lot of parallel development between children’s ability to write stories and their dream reports. As they learn to write stories, their dream reports start to become more detailed and have more narrative structure. We also see that if we ask people to keep dream diaries, they get richer and richer and richer, but that seems to parallel asking people to write a story every day. What about your point that we go through periods where we don’t dream very much. It is interesting, you’d need to do a lot of nitty gritty research to find out. One of the things that strikes me, again it’s anecdotal, but we do dream a lot during a disturbed sleep.