More Black & White vs. Color in Dreams

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.

Dreaming in Black and White

The Wizard of Oz was originally released in 1939, viewed by millions of Americans who delighted in its novel cinematic analogy that waking is to dreaming as black & white film is to color film.  I’ve always assumed the question “Do we dream in color or black & white?” originated with the huge cultural impact of The Wizard of Oz.  I’ve study many dream traditions around the world, and while some typical dream phenomena are cross-cultural (e.g., flying, snakes, teeth falling out), the color vs. black & white question does not seem to be one of them.  Perhaps such a question can only arise in a culture in which people are viewing both color and black & white photos, films, and television shows.

Recently I found an article I wish I had known earlier, by Eric Schwitzgebel: “Do People Still Report Dreaming in Black and White? An Attempt to Replicate a Questionnaire from 1942.”  Schwitzgebel says, “In the 1940’s and 1950’s, dream researchers commonly thought that dreams were primarily a black & white phenomenon…However, by the 1960’s, most researchers reported a high incidence of color in dreams” (p. 25).  To investigate this strange psycho-cultural shift, Schwitzgebel replicated a 1942 study by W. C. Middleton in which college students were asked about their dream recall and colors in their dreams.  His results from a 2001 sample of students found a big difference: “The undergraduates in the present study reported much more colored dreaming than Middleton’s undergraduates in 1942.” (p. 28)

The exact question was, “Do you see colors in your dreams?”  “Very frequently” was the answer of 3.3% of the 1942 students (N=277) and 26.6% of the 2001 students (N=124); “Frequently,” 7.0% vs. 25.8%; “Occasionally,” 19.0% vs. 22.6%; “Rarely,” 30.8% vs. 13.3%; and “Never,” 39.9% vs. 4.4%.

Schwitzgebel ends his paper by saying, “If it is plausible to suppose that dreams themselves have not changed from black and white to color in this interval, we may conclude that one or another (or both) groups of respondents were profoundly mistaken about a basic feature of their dream experiences” (p. 29).

This seems too harsh to me.  As I mentioned at the outset, this color vs. black & white question is not a natural one.  The participants in Middleton’s 1942 study would have been high school students when The Wizard of Oz came out three years earlier.  I wonder if they interpreted the survey question as meaning, do you ever dream like Dorothy did in the movie, in fantastically vibrant technicolor?  In the cultural shadows of World War II and the Great Depression, it may not be surprising that most of the students answered “no.”

Another finding in Schwitzgebel’s study, which he doesn’t discuss, is that dream recall in general seems to have risen.  The participants in both studies were asked “How frequently do you dream?”  “Very frequently” was the answer of 13.4% of the 1942 students and 27.4% of the 2001 students; “Frequently,” 24.9% vs. 33.9%; “Occasionally,” 41.5% vs. 25.0%; “Rarely,” 30.8% vs. 13.3%; “Never,” 0.3% vs. 0.4%.  Based on these findings, it seems that not just color in dreams but dream awareness overall is greater now than in 1942.

However, Schwitzgebel’s study was performed in 2001, with students who passed their formative years in a decade of relative peace and prosperity.  Would we find the same results today if we replicated the questionnaire a third time, with students in 2012 who grew up in the cultural shadows of the War on Terror and the Great Recession?


Note: Schwitzgebel’s article appeared in Perceptual and Motor Skills, 2003, vol. 96, pp. 25-29.