Mary Walsh, a psychotherapist and grad student at the GTU, offered an intriguing idea about color variations in dreams: “I wonder if the change in our waking experience of color impacts our dream experience. Photopic vision functions only in good illumination which we have more of for longer periods of time nowadays. Scotopic, or night vision, I think, provides the ability to distinguish between black and white. Could the fact that we see more color for more hours each day and use our photopic vision more cause us to dream in color more often? Maybe dreams have changed.”
I think Mary’s right that more attention to the neurophysiology of vision and the cultural/technological changes of modernity will be helpful in making better sense of this question.
Also, Bob Van de Castle reminded me that his 1994 book Our Dreaming Mind has a good discussion of color dreams (pp. 253-256 and 298). After reviewing several experimental studies, Van de Castle concludes that “color appears in dreams with much greater frequency than is generally acknowledged. The saturation or intensity of color in dreams seems to vary along a continuum.” (p. 255)
Bob Hoss is another IASD member who has done especially detailed investigations of color in dreams.
I’ve just read Eric Schwitzgebel’s longer paper, “Why did we think we dreamed in black and white?” in 2002, and I’m grateful for his extensive research on this topic. He admits that he has larger philosophical fish to fry–he says “I write in service of the broader thesis that people generally have only poor knowledge of their own conscious lives, contrary to what many philosophers have supposed.” (p. 649), an argument he elaborates in his recent book Perplexities of Consciousness (2011). I don’t think I’d want to argue with him about that general idea. And I agree that “our knowledge of the phenomenology of dreaming is much shakier than we ordinarily take it to be” (p. 649).
But I suspect Schwitzgebel views this as an insoluble problem because of the fundamental limits of introspection and conscious self-knowledge. I see it as a problem that can be solved by better empirical research that builds our knowledge of dream phenomenology on firmer foundations.
Looking at some of the initial data I’ve drawn from the SDDb, it seems clear that most people dream fairly often, but by no means always, of colors and black and white.
Here’s a link to an SDDb search for reports of 25+ words with references to achromatic colors. 472 reports show up, out of 5193 reports of that length. White appears most often, black next, gray third.
And here’s a link to an SDDb search for reports of 25+ words with references to chromatic colors. 476 reports show up, out of 5193 reports of that length. Red appears most often, followed by blue, green, yellow, orange, and purple.
In studies of people who have kept long-term dream journals, I’ve found lots of variation in this area. Some people have more chromatic color references in their dreams, and other people have more achromatic references. Some people have very high overall frequencies (e.g., Merri, whose dream series of 315 dreams is available on the Dreambank, has by my count 44.4% of her dreams with at least one chromatic reference and 40% with at least one achromatic reference) and others quite low (Paul, whose series of 136 dreams is available on the SDDb, has 0% chromatic and 1.47% achromatic references).
I don’t know of any theoretical perspective that can encompass all this data. Isn’t it paradoxical to think about the colors we see when we’re asleep and our eyes are closed? Perhaps we need a new paradigm entirely to make adequate sense of the visual qualities of dreaming experience.
But I still hold to my “Dorothy Hypothesis”: This whole question in mid-20th century psychology of whether we dream in color or black & white was generated by the 1939 release of The Wizard of Oz, with its dramatic contrast between the drab black & white (sepia, really) of Kansas and the gaudy, transcendent technicolor of Oz.
Note: Schwitzgebel’s article appeared in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 33 (2002), 649-660.