Dreams represent one of the last and most mysterious frontiers of psychology and neuroscience. Although neuroscientific research on dreaming has animated sleep labs since the 1950s (see 1,2), the topic of dreams has often been shied away from in the empirical sciences. A prominent casualty of the cognitive revolution, dreams were largely left to the psychoanalysts, or filed into a category or being “too difficult” to systematically study: too messy, too impressionistic, too introspective – too odd.
Recent advances in the science and philosophy of sleep and dreaming have changed this view. Work with lucid dreamers (3), the study of sleep disorders (4), and the use of electrophysiological and neuroimaging techniques have all permitted a “new look” at dreams (5), and allowed for their exploration in unprecedented ways. Similarly, major theoretical work is being done on dreams and their relationship with topics such as consciousness (6), the self (7), and predictive processing (8).
This new dawn for dreams brings many new opportunities, but also new conceptual and empirical problems. For example, the fundamental unreality of dreams often leads to a direct comparison with states of imagination and hallucination, even in the most contemporary of dream theories. But dreams, hallucinations, and the imagination are all unruly characters that tend to ebb and flow across thresholds of reality versus fantasy, sleep versus waking, and veridical versus illusory perception. To compare these states requires an integrative approach to all three, paying careful attention to their phenomenology, their variation, their structure, and their correlates.
Our prior work at Durham has involved many interdisciplinary discussions on hallucination and imagination (e.g. 9). We believe that a similarly interdisciplinary approach is appropriate – if not demanded – by the topic of dreams. Much of the new wave of dream research includes psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and philosophers – but arguably few fully interdisciplinary teams. For a truly integrated approach to dream research, we need the arts, humanities, and social sciences: to refresh our concepts, question our assumptions, understand the benefits and findings of each discipline, and move towards a more comprehensive and exploratory account of dream states and phenomena. Methodological advances may have made them more tractable, but dreams are still among the most mysterious and elusive kinds of experience known to humankind.
And understanding dreams – including their relation to imagination and hallucination – is not just of a conceptual or philosophical interest – far from it. As COVID struck the world, millions were plunged into unusual dreams which affected and reflected their new moods and anxieties (10). Sleep problems, intrusive dreams, and nightmares make a major difference to mental health, particularly those with diagnosed disorders (11). And the boundaries of sleep are well-known for prompting a range of unusual and sometimes unpleasant experiences, such as sleep paralysis, hypnagogic hallucinations, exploding head syndrome, and “intruder” or presence phenomena (12). Each of these phenomena are common in adults, yet typically not talked about – leaving sufferers to struggle on their own. The encroachment of dreams, across the thresholds of our mind, has real-world consequences for many.
This term we will be hearing from a range of scholars all working on dreams in different ways. Our core team includes literary and narrative theorists, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, an artist, and a religious studies scholar. We are offering zoom seminars open to all, planning workshops for late November and early December, and contributing to the Institute of Medical Humanities new series of “Atrium” events. On this blog we will also be “thinking out loud” as we go, covering recent news in dream research, reflections on major works, prior research of our own, and promoting new studies.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch. In the coming weeks we will also be asking for your dreams, via our anonymous dream portal.
Ben & Marco, September 2020.