Perplexities of Consciousness

Perplexities of Consciousness

by Eric Schwitzgebel


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ISBN-13: 9780262525220
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 09/13/2013
Series: Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 1,278,215
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Eric Schwitzgebel, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, is the co-author (with Russell T. Hurlburt) of Describing Inner Experience? Proponent Meets Skeptic (MIT Press, 2007).

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Perplexities of Consciousness

By Eric Schwitzgebel

The MIT Press

Copyright © 2011 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-262-01490-8

Chapter One

Recoloring the Dreamworld

If you took all the girls I knew when I was single And brought 'em all together for one night I know they'd never match my sweet imagination Everything looks worse [1973 version] / better [1981 version] in black and white — Paul Simon, "Kodachrome"


In 1951, Calvin S. Hall announced in Scientific American that 29 percent of dreams have at least some color in them. He called such dreams "technicolored," explicitly likening them to the technicolor movies that were increasingly prevalent at the time and implicitly contrasting them with lower-tech black-and-white movies and dreams. Some of Hall's contemporaries might have thought he was overestimating the occurrence of color in dreams. In 1958, Fernando Tapia and colleagues found that only about 9 percent of their non-psychiatric hospital patients reported dreaming in color (versus 12 percent of "neurotic" men and 21 percent of neurotic women). In 1953, a large majority of Manfred de Martino's undergraduate respondents said either that they never saw colors in their dreams or that they saw them less than once a month. In 1942, Warren Middleton reported that only 10 percent of his students said they saw colors in their dreams frequently or very frequently, and 71 percent said they rarely or never did (19 percent said they saw colors in their dreams "occasionally"). A widely shared opinion was that dreams were predominantly black-and-white phenomena, comparable to black-and-white movies, with an occasional splash of color here and there.

Scientific opinion changed dramatically in the 1960s, beginning with a report by Edwin Kahn and colleagues in 1962. Kahn and colleagues asserted that people awakened during rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep attributed color to 83 percent of their dreams. In 1963, Ralph Berger, using a similar technique, found that color dreaming was reported after 71 percent of REM awakenings. In 1968, John Herman and colleagues reported 69 percent. In 1970, Frederick Snyder suggested that all dreams may contain color, even if the colors are not always remembered. Table 1.1 summarizes all the English-language studies I could find that report either the percentage of people claiming to dream in color or the percentage of dreams experimental subjects described as containing color. (The table excludes discussions based on personal experience or experience interpreting dream reports in psychotherapy, which are listed in note 3.) Two of the studies are my own. Schwitzgebel 2003, version 1 was as precise as possible a replication of Middleton's 1942 study, using Middleton's question "Do you see colors in your dreams?" and his response options "very frequently," "frequently," "occasionally," "rarely," and "never." Schwitzgebel 2003, version 2, given to different respondents, asked "Do you dream in color or black-and-white?" The response options were "color" (selected by 62 percent), "black-and-white" (0 percent), "both" (23 percent), "neither" (0 percent), and "don't know" (15 percent). The thesis of this chapter is that the last of those response options is, unfortunately, the best. I don't know, and you probably don't know, whether we dream in color or not. Although I have found in conversation that most people answer confidently when asked about the coloration or non-coloration of their dreams, that confidence is misplaced.

Before the rise of scientific psychology in the late nineteenth century, scholars interested in dreaming generally stated or assumed that dreams contain color. For example, Aristotle specifically includes colors among the remnants that sense impressions may leave in the organs and which thus appear to us in sleep (4th c. BCE/1996, 459a23–462a31). Epicurus says that our impressions in dreams have color and shape (3rd c. BCE/1926, Letter to Herodotus, 50–51). Descartes in his famous Meditations (1641/1984)—the same meditation in which he finds it impossible to doubt that he thinks and exists—describes a piece of wax as seeming to change color, and wants to grant that such an appearance could come to him in sleep. Indeed, the skeptical idea that ordinary waking experience is not qualitatively different from dream experience (also familiar from Descartes) requires that dreams be pervasively colored, since our ordinary waking experience is pervasively colored—at least presumably so. (I will raise some doubts about this, however, in chapters 6 and 7.) More explicitly, in The Passions of the Soul, Descartes asserts that "everything the soul perceives by means of the nerves [i.e., sensations] may also be represented to it through the fortuitous course of the spirits [i.e., in dreaming]" (1649/1985, §26). In general, I have not found in my wanderings through the pre-scientific literature on dreaming any assertion that dreams lack color. Commonly, dreams were likened to paintings or tapestries—typically colored media.

Early scientific psychologists were divided. The prominent psychophysicist Gustav Fechner writes "I also never dream in color, but all my experiences in dreams appear to me as though proceeding in a kind of twilight or night." (1860, volume 2, p. 470, my translation) Freud, in contrast, frequently reports color in his Interpretation of Dreams (1900/1931) without any special comment, apparently taking its presence for granted. (By my count, 50 percent of the long dream reports—those over 15 lines of text—in Interpretation of Dreams explicitly mention colors other than black, white, or gray.) Mary Calkins (1893), in a long and detailed description of the phenomenology of dreaming, describes dreams as consisting of reproduced and recombined images, never once mentioning any lack of color in those images, though in a 1900 paper a research assistant of Calkins reports color in fewer than half of her dreams (Andrews and Calkins 1900). In 1898, Edward Titchener describes "flashes of color" as a primary cause of dreams, but by 1912 his opinion too appears to have shifted—mentioning (evidently on the basis of a dinner conversation) that some people see only shades of gray in their dreams (Titchener 1912a). A few years later, Titchener's former student Madison Bentley, waking people randomly at night, reports about four times as many grays as chromatic colors in his participants' dream descriptions (Bentley 1915). By the 1930s, Warren Middleton and Richard Husband were finding that the majority of people denied dreaming in color.

So there appears to be an arc of opinion: before scientific psychology, a consensus or assumption that dreams are colored; divided opinion into the early twentieth century; a consensus that dreams typically have little color from about 1930 to 1960; and then a sudden overturning of that consensus in the 1960s. Why?


The early to middle years of the twentieth century were, of course, the heyday of black-and-white media. Black-and-white photography was first made public in the 1830s and became increasingly popular through the early twentieth century. Although color photography was invented in the 1860s, color photos did not become easily obtainable by the public until the 1940s. Motion pictures, invented around 1900, were from very early on occasionally hand-painted with colors, and two-color filming was sometimes used in the 1920s (for example in the 1925 version of Ben Hur). Nonetheless, motion pictures were overwhelmingly black-and-white until the late 1930s, when a few technicolored movies, including Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, drew huge crowds. It was not until the 1950s that color movies became commonplace, and as late as 1960 a black-and-white film, The Apartment, won the Academy Award for best picture. Black-and-white television became widespread after World War II; color television did not become popular until the late 1960s.

It can't be chance that this flourishing of black-and-white media coincided with the opinion that dreams are mostly black-and-white. In 2006, to further confirm the relationship between available media and opinion about dreams, I collected cross-cultural data with Changbing Huang and Yifeng Zhou, taking advantage of the fact that different groups in China had very different access to technology at that time. Huang, Zhou, and I examined three groups of Chinese students of different socioeconomic status and consequently different levels of exposure to black-and-white and color media: low-status rural high school students, high-status students at an elite urban university, and intermediate-status students at a non-elite urban university. We gave each group the same questionnaire that Middleton gave to his American students in 1942 and that I gave to mine in 2003, supplemented (at the end) with questions about the respondent's current and past media exposure. As Table 1.2 shows, the percentage of students reporting seeing colors in their dreams corresponds nicely with their subgroup's media history across the five replications of Middleton's study.

One possible explanation of all this is that a ubiquity of black-and-white images in film media changes people's dreams. Although Aristotle, Epicurus, Freud, and their contemporaries dreamed in color, the average American in 1950 dreamed mostly in black-and-white. And now that color media again dominate, our dreams are returning to color.

But is this plausible? It does seem plausible that black-and-white media would affect people's dreams in various ways. After seeing a black-and-white film about Frankenstein's monster, one might have a nightmare in which his black-and-white figure appears as one's tormentor. And perhaps, since most romantic movies seen by people living in English-speaking countries in 1950 were black-and-white, some of those people dreaming of themselves as romantic heroes would paint their dreamworld that way. However, most of our dreams are not so directly modeled on motion pictures. Every day a person sees her house and family in full color. It would be odd to suppose that whether she dreams about them in color depends on what she sees in the cinema or on the television screen. Despite their cultural importance, photography, film, and television seem unlikely to have so profound an effect on our cognition as to regularly transform our dreams of all the things we normally see in color to black-and-white. If so, then, although people's opinions about their dreams changed dramatically, their dreams remained approximately the same.

One person's plausibility is another's tendentious guess, I suppose, so let me buttress this assertion with two more concrete pieces of evidence. One is the consistency of the use of color terms in dream reports since the 1940s. Calvin Hall and Robert Van de Castle (1966) collected hundreds of dream reports from 1947 to 1950. In these reports, about 0.19 percent of all words—about one word in 500—is a color term other than "black," "white," or "gray." Although that may seem like low rate of color-term use, it is virtually identical to the rates of color-term use I found in four sources of dream reports from the end of the twentieth century—rates ranging from 0.19 to 0.23 percent. It is also somewhat higher than the color-term rates of approximately 0.02–0.14 percent in samples of English drawn from various other sources. Nor is there any notable difference in the use of "black," "white," and "gray" between the two eras. Those achromatic terms constituted 0.09 percent of words in Hall and Van de Castle's report and 0.13 percent of the words in the modern dream reports (pooled together)—if anything, a trend in the wrong direction. So if Hall and Van de Castle's respondents were dreaming in less color than people 50 years later, that fact is not reflected in their use of color terms when describing those dreams.

A second piece of evidence that seems to support the idea that it is mainly opinions about dreams that have changed rather than dreams themselves is a finding from the Chinese study mentioned above. It turns out that in those data there is only a weak relationship between individual-level exposure to color or black-and-white media within each Chinese subgroup and reported black-and-white or color dreaming. The effects were mostly at the group level. What this means is that respondents' opinions about color dreaming depended more on what sort of media exposure was characteristic of their group overall than on what they themselves had been exposed to, contrary to what one might expect if individual exposure to media was directly affecting dream experience. These results suggest that whatever is affecting people's reports is something shared at the group level—something, I suspect, like cultural attitude, or the availability of certain metaphors, or certain ways of thinking and talking about one's dream life.

The profound changes in opinion about the coloration of dreams, then, do not appear to correspond to equally profound changes in the dreams themselves. It follows that at least some people must be pretty badly mistaken about their dreams. If dreams really are mostly in color, then most of the 91 percent of Tapia's respondents who claimed not to dream in color must have been wrong, and Tapia must have been wrong when he believed them. If dreams really are mostly black-and-white, then most of us now must be wrong. Or maybe dreams are neither color nor black-and-white (a possibility I will explore in section v) and nearly everyone is wrong.


One might attempt to defend the view that dreams are mostly black-and-white as follows: The failure of Aristotle, Descartes, and others to notice this feature of dreams was due to the lack of black-and-white film media in their time. Absent those media, it may have been natural to assume that since the things dreamed about are colored in real life (family, locations, etc.), they are colored in dreams. Once black-and-white media gained prominence early in the twentieth century, people came to recognize that their dream images resembled the images in those media. Now that black-and-white media are losing importance, most people have returned to mistakenly assuming that their dreams are thoroughly colored, though an observant few maintain that their dreams are mostly black-and-white. People may even mistakenly attribute color to black-and-white dream objects in the course of a dream, just as in a dream I might judge something to have the layout of my house when in fact it does not resemble my house at all. Slightly differently, one might simply know that an object is red without experiencing a red dream image, just as one might know in a dream that someone is one's sister even if she looks nothing like one's real sister.

A weakness in this argument is that it isn't clear that pre-twentieth-century media were generally colored. Black-and-white ink sketches and prints were common in some periods, as were monochromatic representations of people and animals on pottery and as sculpture. If dreams were black-and-white, they could as easily have been likened to those media as to colored paintings and tapestries. To this objection, the defender of black-and-white dreaming might counter that if dreams really are in color they could in 1950 just as easily have been likened to color media. Paintings and tapestries did not cease to exist. However, I think the suggested parity fails. Black-and-white movies had other advantages over the competing media of the time that may have compelled comparison to dreams. They integrated visuality with movement and narrative as had no other medium previously—except perhaps theater, if that's a medium. (Why wasn't it more common, I wonder, to describe dreams as like plays on the mind's stage? Not even Shakespeare, who writes so much about dreams and plays, ever seems to make that comparison.) Another problem for the friend of black-and-white dreaming is the implication that people who still report black-and-white dreaming are the ones who are most observant of their dreams. Recent evidence suggests that this isn't so. Michael Schredl and colleagues (2008) and Eva Murzyn (2008) have found that people reporting relatively high percentages of black-and-white dreams also report recalling fewer dreams and recall the dreams they do report less well. Schredl and colleagues interpret this as evidence that reports of black-and-white dreaming may simply reflect errors of memory, while Murzyn takes the reports of black-and-white dreams at face value, but neither Murzyn nor Schredl and colleagues find any special acumen among people reporting black-and-white dreams.


Excerpted from Perplexities of Consciousness by Eric Schwitzgebel Copyright © 2011 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Excerpted by permission of The MIT Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 Recoloring the Dreamworld 1

2 Do Things Look Flat? 17

3 Galton's Other Folly 35

4 Human Echolocation 57

5 Titchener's Introspective Training Manual 71

6 Do You Have Constant Tactile Experience of Your Feet in Your Shoes? And Some Pessimistic Thoughts about Theories of Consciousness 91

7 The Unreliability of Naive Introspection 117

8 When Your Eyes Are Closed, What Do You See? 139

Notes 161

References 187

Index 219

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