How the Enlightenment Went Astray on Dreaming

 Enlightenment philosophers helped to spark the scientific revolution, but they were not always accurate or justified in their assumptions about dreaming.

How the Enlightenment Went Astray on Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThe English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) played a vital role in promoting the ideals of the Enlightenment throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  These ideals included a trust in human reason, a corresponding distrust in authority and received opinion, and a demand that people who make theoretical claims about nature, society, the mind, etc., must offer empirical evidence to back up their assertions.

These powerful principles of the Enlightenment set the stage for the scientific and technological revolutions that have changed the world over the past few hundred years.  The digital technologies we use and enjoy today have emerged directly out of this cultural lineage reaching back to Locke and his contemporaries.  Unfortunately, many Enlightenment philosophers made false and misguided claims about dreaming that have also shaped the lineage of our digital world.  If we want to create a healthy ecosystem for technologically enhanced dream exploration, we have to make sure we accept and trust the philosophical assumptions built into that ecosystem.

In his greatest work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (first published in 1690), Locke explains how the mind works and the process by which humans gain true knowledge about the world and themselves. Early in the book he delves into the topic of sleep and dreaming, because he recognizes that the functioning of the mind while awake is quite different from the functioning of the mind while asleep.  Locke is here confronting a key question that many philosophers before and after him have tried to answer: how does mental activity during sleep relate to mental activity while awake?

Unfortunately, Locke makes two false assumptions about human dreaming experience right at the outset, false in Locke’s own sense of being contradicted by empirical evidence.  These assumptions allow Locke to make several other claims that do not square with actual scientific research on sleep and dreaming.  I will address those further claims in a later post; here, I want to focus on the first two missteps, to see as clearly as possible where Locke initially goes astray.

The first comes in Book II, chapter 1, section 14, when Locke is discussing the nature of ideas and the issue of whether people can dream without remembering it.  In this section he asserts, “Most men, I think, pass a great part of their sleep without dreaming.” He then mentions a scholarly friend who never dreamed until he was in his mid-twenties, after a fever.  Locke goes on to say, “I suppose the world affords more such instances: at least everyone’s acquaintance will furnish him with examples enough of such, as pass most of their nights without dreaming.”

The empirical reality is more complex than Locke suggests.  Modern sleep laboratory research flatly contradicts his claim.  If someone sleeping in a laboratory is awakened at certain points in the sleep cycle, the chances are extremely high that the person will recall some kind of dreaming content.  Research on “non-dreamers” by James Pagel has shown the proportion of such people appears to be very unusual in the general population.  Dozens of studies have shown high levels of regular dream recall people from all demographic groups, all across the social and cultural spectrum.

Locke is right that many people rarely remember their dreams. But he is wrong to suggest that such people are somehow typical or normal, and he makes a major mistake in dismissing from his philosophical theory the mental activities of other people who do remember their dreams frequently.

It might seem unfair to judge Locke’s 17th century claims using 20th and 21st century research.  But he did mention, as evidence for his claim, the experience of one of his friends, which means he did at least this much investigation on his own.  Did he ever talk with anyone else about their sleep and dream experiences?  Did his circle of acquaintances include anyone who was a vivid dreamer? Apparently not, because Locke offered no other empirical support for his assertion than this one friend.  That strikes me as a weak foundation for building a larger argument about the nature of the mind.

The second assumption comes in section 16 of the same chapter, in which Locke describes the rational workings of the soul, which he insists occur only in the waking state:

“‘Tis true, we have sometimes instances of perception, whilst we are asleep, and retain the memory of those thoughts; but how extravagant and incoherent for the most part they are; how little conformable to the perfection and order of a rational being, those who are acquainted with dreams, need not be told.”

Locke offers nothing to support this claim; he suggests it is self-evidently true to anyone who is “acquainted” with dreams.  The assumption that dreams are characterized by rampant bizarreness continues into the present day, despite there now being several decades of solid empirical research showing that most dreams are, in fact, rather mundane and non-bizarre.  Most dreams, it turns out, revolve around familiar people, familiar places, and familiar activities.  Many dreams are indistinguishable from people’s descriptions of ordinary events in waking life. Of course there are strange and outlandish things happening in dreams, too, but research on dream content shows that such bizarre elements are not a pervasive and overwhelming quality of dreaming as such.

Again, Locke could have gained this insight if he had taken the time to talk with a few different people about their actual dream experiences.  It would not have been difficult for him to reach the empirical conclusion that dreaming includes a mix of both bizarre and non-bizarre elements. But Locke evidently felt his philosophical ideas required him to mute or eliminate entirely the possibility of significant mental activity in sleep, and so he did his best to discourage any further attention to this realm of the mind.

The irony is that this topic of bizarreness is actually an excellent example of where dream researchers have put Locke’s principles into practice, to wonderfully liberating effect.  Empirical studies of thousands of dream reports, using careful and systematic methods of analysis, have produced results that have overturned an authoritative but irrational assumption, transforming a false opinion into true knowledge.  Locke’s powerful method is an excellent means of refuting Locke’s weak assumptions.

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Note: all the references to research findings are cited in Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Nietzsche’s Prophetic Childhood Dreams of Death

Nietzsche's Prophetic Childhood Dreams of Death by Kelly BulkeleyIn Ronald Hayman’s 1980 biography Nietzsche: A Critical Life, he mentions two dreams that came to Friedrich Nietzsche early in his life.

1. “I heard the church organ playing as at a funeral. When I looked to see what was going on, a grave opened suddenly, and my father arose out of it in a shroud. He hurries into the church and soon comes back with a small child in his arms. The mound on the grave reopens, he climbs back in, and the gravestone sinks back over the opening. The swelling noise of the organ stops at once, and I wake up.”

Quoted in Ronald Hayman, Nietzsche: A Critical Life (Penguin, 1980), p. 18.  Nietzsche had the dream at the age of 5, at the end of January in 1850, six months after his father, a Lutheran pastor, died from a long and painful “softening of the brain.”  Nietzsche’s description continues: “In the morning I tell the dream to my dear mother.  Soon after that little Joseph [Nietzsche’s infant brother] is suddenly taken ill.  He goes into convulsions and dies within a few hours.”

2. “He saw the parsonage lying in ruins and his grandmother sitting alone among the debris. Waking up in tears, he was unable to sleep any more.”

From Hayman, p. 32.  Nietzsche had this dream the night of August 2, 1859, when he was 14 years old, after a big family party celebrating the 70th birthday of his grandfather, a Lutheran pastor like his father.  Hayman’s account continues: “In the morning he told Elisabeth [his sister] and his mother, who said neither of them must talk about the dream.  Always robust, their grandfather was still in good health.  But before the summer was over he caught a bad chill, which developed into influenza.  By the end of the year he was dead.”

These two dreams prefigure Nietzsche’s later philosophy in several ways.  They express a profound appreciation for the terrifying power of the unconscious, a tragic sense of fate and mortality, an openness to insights from “irrational” sources of knowledge, and a spiritual struggle with the death of God, the church, and His representatives on earth.

Hayman’s biography helps us see how Nietzsche’s early dream experiences gave fuel to the coming explosion of philosophical creativity.  In 1870, as a 25-year old professor at Basel University, he wrote in his notebook, “In one half of existence we are artists—as dreamers.  This entirely active world is necessary to us.” (p. 135)

These notes served as the basis for The Birth of Tragedy (1871), Nietzsche’s first published book.  The opening section of this work lays out an understanding of art, philosophy, and history that centers on the creative power of dreams.

“The beautiful illusion of the dream worlds, in the creation of which every man is truly an artist, is the prerequisite of all plastic art, and, as we shall see, of an important part of poetry also.  In our dreams we delight in the immediate understanding of figures; all forms speak to us; there is nothing unimportant or superfluous.  But even when this dream reality is most intense, we still have, glimmering through it, the sensation that it is mere appearance; at least this is my experience, and for its frequency—indeed, normality—I could adduce many proofs, including the sayings of the poets….And perhaps many will, like myself, recall how amid the dangers and terrors of dreams they have occasionally said to themselves in self-encouragement, and not without success: ‘It is a dream! I will dream on!’ I have likewise heard of people who were able to continue one and the same dream for three and even more successive nights—facts which indicate clearly how our innermost being, our common ground, experiences dreams with profound delight and a joyful necessity.” (Translated by Walter Kaufmann, 1967, pp. 34-35)

This is not the place to explore the influence of dreams on The Birth of Tragedy or other writings in Nietzsche’s later career.  But it’s worth pointing out that both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung knew of Nietzsche’s philosophy and wove his ideas directly into their new psychological theories.  If you want to understand Freud and Jung better, go back to Nietzsche and his childhood dreams.

(Note: the picture shows Nietzsche in 1861, at the age of 16 or 17.)