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Dreaming Souls by Owen Flanagan

Ilya Farber discovers a dream of a book by the quirky and perceptive Owen Flanagan.

What are dreams for? Why do we spend part of every night experiencing crazy stories, which we remember only dimly upon awakening? Where do these stories come from, and what do they mean?

Most traditional answers assume that dreams really are stories, in the sense that they have a meaning and are told for a reason. The earliest dream theories held that dreams were messages from dead relatives or from the gods. These messages might be simple or complex, might be straightforward or might be so obscure as to require the interpretive assistance of an oracle or shaman; but in each case, dreams were to be understood as communication, as somebody else telling us something while we sleep.

Within the scientific tradition, it has become implausible that there are any such entities out there to be talking to us, but the model of dreams-as-messages has not lost its appeal. What Freud and Jung saw was that dreams could be messages from ourselves, as long as there is some part of ourselves that we don’t have direct access to. This ‘depth psychological’ view robs dreams of some of their metaphysical significance, but replaces it with a deep personal relevance: dream interpretation becomes the quest to understand the hidden contents of one’s own mind.

There is a second theory about dreams that’s nearly as old, though it’s never been as popular. This is the theory that dreams are essentially just noise, a harmless but meaningless by-product of the way the mind works. In this vein, Aristotle claimed that dreams are the after-effects of waking perception, images bouncing around in the mind while the sense organs themselves take a rest. Locke, similarly, treated dream-images as faint copies of sensory images, but driven by inner association rather than mere ‘reverberation’. This allowed him to explain why dreams don’t just recapitulate the previous day’s experience: dreaming, like waking imagination, proceeds by a chain of association in which one idea summons up other ideas that are similar or that have frequently followed the first idea in previous experience.

Recently, prominent scientists including J. Allan Hobson and Francis Crick have added a neuroscientific component to this second, ‘deflationary’ approach. The common thread in these new views is that dreaming sleep plays a sort of ‘neural housekeeping’ role, cleaning up or enhancing memory traces that were laid down during the day. In one sense, this hypothesis elevates dreams above the level of noise, since it assigns them a clear and important function. But this function has very little to do with the specific content of individual dreams. It might require that we dream more about things that we were trying to learn during the day – as has recently been confirmed in rats, which appear to ‘rehearse’ while asleep the same neural representations that they used in a maze-learning task during the day. But aside from this simple correlation between dream-contents and recent experience, these theories don’t seem to leave any role for messages or stories or any deeper form of meaning. In evolutionary terms, they hold that the neural process of dreaming is an adaptation, but treat the particular subjective experience of dreaming as a functionless, meaningless side-effect.

In Dreaming Souls, Owen Flanagan lays out a theory of dreams that’s even more boldly deflationary than those of Crick and Hobson. According to Flanagan, every aspect of dreaming is a side-effect. He claims that we are not significantly more likely to dream about things that we need to remember or rehearse, and that there don’t seem to be any other plausible hypotheses about how dreaming could be fitness-enhancing. (Unfortunately, at this point Flanagan departs from his standard procedure of supporting his positions with a deeply satisfying assortment of conceptual arguments and experimental evidence: these two claims, crucial for distinguishing his view from Crick’s and Hobson’s, zip by in a few isolated sentences and are thereafter treated as fait accompli. As a result, it remains unclear how justified he is in distinguishing his view from theirs; but either way, his exposition of the view remains valuable, and most of Flanagan’s arguments do not depend on these controversial premises.) Borrowing language that evolutionary biology famously borrowed from architecture, Flanagan claims that dreaming is a spandrel – a characteristic that has no evolutionary function of its own, but arose as a side-effect of the evolution of other characteristics. Nature did not select for red-colored blood in mammals; it selected for oxygen-carrying capacity, and when you have hemoglobin cells carrying your oxygen you’re going to get red blood. Likewise, Flanagan says, Nature did not select for nocturnal experience; it selected for sleep (specifically, for the cycle of REM and non-REM sleep states), and for at least some of the various states and capacities that we call consciousness, and when you have sleep cycling in a conscious brain you’re going to get dreams.

As Flanagan is careful to point out, however, being a spandrel doesn’t prevent something from turning out to be useful or meaningful. The sound of the human heartbeat is (arguably) a spandrel; there was selection pressure for the heart to pump blood efficiently, but not for it to make an audible ‘lub-dub’ noise. This is perfectly compatible with the fact that, in the context of modern human society, the heartbeat has undeniable diagnostic uses. Likewise, there is good reason to think that dreams can be both useful and meaningful in ways that Nature never intended. Most importantly, Flanagan points out, dreams are self-expressive: they reflect and reveal our inner selves in ways that waking thought and behavior cannot. In dreams, we experience memories, thoughts and emotions that might never come to the surface in waking life. If (as Flanagan argues persuasively) all these things are important features of the self, then dreaming can be an important tool for self-discovery and self-understanding. In addition, since the content of our dreams comes primarily from within, dreaming is in some sense the purest form of selfexpressive action.

As an aside, I should note one entertaining consequence of this view that may disconcert some readers: contra Augustine, Flanagan concludes that it may be a sin to have immoral dreams. There are two ways that this could turn out to be true. First,assuming you have some control over the content or direction of your dreams, you might commit fairly straightforward violations by failing to cut short dreams involving the immoral pleasures of adultery or workplace homicide. And second, dreams may provide the only detectable sign of well-disguised character flaws, such as racial stereotyping or selfdeception, which you should be working harder to eradicate. Fortunately, for those who find the prospect of moral vigilance in dreams too taxing, I can suggest a ‘workaround’: simply avoid lucid-dreaming exercises and dream diaries!

With this model in hand, Flanagan goes on to tackle all the traditional thorny questions about dreams. He considers what can and cannot be salvaged from the Freudian project; addresses the problem of whether dreams have ‘narrative structure’ and who, if anyone, counts as their ‘author’; and considers the relationship between waking and dreaming consciousness. He also provides a fresh perspective on a number of abstruse philosophical puzzles, such as Descartes’ worry that we can’t tell dreams from reality and Dennett’s observation that we can’t tell whether dreams really happen during the night or whether they’re just ‘morning stories’ (false memories that appear, fullyformed, just as we wake up).

There’s only one line of investigation that seems notably absent from the book. On Flanagan’s theory – as, to an extent, on Hobson and Crick’s – the experienced content of dreams is the product of an interplay between neural noise and conscious interpretation. Presumably, this is a two-way interaction; the noise may come first, but as consciousness imposes an interpretation on it, that interpretation might be expected to exert some influence on subsequent activity. This influence could explain some of the less noise-like features of dreams, such as their momentto- moment coherence and their tendency to reflect the dreamer’s overall understanding of the world. Unfortunately, Flanagan stops at the claim that there is such interaction, without delving much into its deeper structure or dynamics. To be fair, that would be a difficult project, and one which might call for different methodologies; but it does seem the next natural step in the elaboration of the deflationary approach to dreams.

An important feature of the book is that even readers who remain unconvinced by Flanagan’s own theory will find much of value in his exposition. Flanagan is committed to what he calls the ‘Natural Method,’ a research ideology which holds that we should develop theories about the mind by moving back and forth between many different sources of evidence, including phenomenal experience, neuroscience, psychology, the social sciences and evolutionary biology. In keeping with this spirit, Dreaming Souls leads the reader through a broad variety of arguments and empirical investigations, incorporating everything from pure philosophy to electrophysiology. In a lesser author’s hands this might have produced a book that was confusing or unfocused, but Flanagan is a particularly gifted explainer, and takes care to make it very clear just how any given point fits into the overall structure of his argument. Also, a nice feature of the Natural Method is that it lets him pick and choose from the most relevant and interesting aspects of each discipline, which means that the book is richly packed with intriguing little details like the surprisingly strong evidence that we do in fact have dreams (albeit of a degraded sort) in non- REM sleep. Of course, this also means that he can choose which evidence to leave out, and here critics might take issue with some of his choices; for example, he never discusses the above-mentioned animal studies linking dreams with learning, studies which pose perhaps the single clearest empirical challenge to his theory.

It’s also worth mentioning that this book provides a refreshing change of pace from the chatty, vague style currently in vogue for ‘accessible’ books on the mind/brain. Rather than talking down to his readers or waxing poetic about the ineffable wondrousness of life, Flanagan makes the book accessible by explaining himself in language that is both evocative and clear. As a consequence he is able to retain much of the precision and directness of a more narrowly-aimed academic work, which will be a relief to those readers familiar with the subject who just want to find out what Flanagan is up to. At the same time, he takes advantage of the intimate nature of the subject matter – along with the fact that he has to use his own dreams as examples, since, as he tells us in the introduction, nobody else was willing to let him recount their dreams in print – to lend an unusually intimate and personal tone to the book. Flanagan himself is a quirky and complex character, and Dreaming Souls is suffused with his personality. He makes the reader his confidant, and stylistically this is quite compelling. I must admit, though, that by the end I was a bit worried on Flanagan’s behalf: a consequence of his personal style, and one that he must have foreseen, is that he may find strangers sending him email and approaching him at conferences to offer him unsolicited psychoanalysis. Accepting this burden for the sake of his readers’ entertainment was a noble sacrifice indeed.

© Ilya Farber 2002

Ilya Farber is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

•• Dreaming Souls: Sleep, Dreams and the Evolution of the Conscious Mind, by Owen Flanagan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000; ISBN 0- 19-512687-4)

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