Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/November 1898/Dream and Reality



THERE is a very striking resemblance between dreams and waking perceptions. We see in dreams objects, persons, and events identical with those of the waking state. The belief in their reality is as complete as in that of what we see when awake; the emotions are as deep and vivid. Pleasures have a delicious savor, and pains are even more intense than those of the reality—as, for instance, those of nightmare, and the distresses to which we give ourselves up in full. In all cases these dream troubles seem as real as those of life, and are taken by us quite as seriously; and the existence of everything we see and feel is as evident as in life.

Still we oppose the dream to the reality. The waking world is our true, our only world; the world of the dream seems to us purely interior and chimerical. The incoherence and absurdity of our dreams surprise and amuse us, and we are amazed to find that we have been able to believe, while asleep, in such foolish things. In short, dreaming is synonymous to us with illusion, phantasmagoria, and falsehood. The clearest of the prevailing theories about dreams rest upon the postulate that waking perceptions are the true ones, and the visions of the dream are false. They have answers to the three questions we are used to ask concerning dreams—Where do they come from? why are they incoherent? and why do we take their visions for realities? They explain dreams as former sensations reviving within us under different combinations, and as therefore simply confused reflexes of the reality. Dreams may, however, times be produced by a present impression suffered by one of our senses, half awakened—a contact, the way we are lying, and the condition of the organic functions being thus the causes or occasions of dreams. The incoherence of dreams seems no more mysterious in these theories, and is explained as the result of two causes—the slumber of the "reflecting" faculties, judgment, reason, the will, the exercise of choice and control; and, secondly, the unrestricted reign of imagination and the association of ideas. Our faith in the reality of the things dreamed is accounted for by the mechanical play of the images, the law being set up that every image that is not opposed by stronger images appears to us a real object. The problem, therefore, resolves itself: the senses being asleep, the images that arise within us are not contradicted by normal sensations, and that is why we take them for realities. Further, our reflective faculties, being likewise dormant, can not contradict the images, in the absence of sensations, reasonings, or recollections. Hence a credence, as absolute as unreasonable. We purpose to show that there is something artificial and prejudiced in the classical theory of opposition between dreams and waking, which assigns illusion, confusion, and incoherence to the former, and solid and permanent reality to the latter, and that the difference between them is not so clean cut.

Most persons in talking of this subject say that they are sure of the reality of things when awake because their different senses concur in attesting it. They see a tree, and satisfy themselves that it is a tree by going up and touching it. They smell a rose, and go find the rose, look at it and handle it; while in dreams we are not able to apply these supplementary tests. The distinction is imaginary, for our senses likewise seem to support one another in dreams. We dream not only that we see an object, but also that we feel and hear it. When I dream of meeting a friend, I believe that I see him and shake hands with him and hear him speak. There is, therefore, a complete identity of the two conditions as to this point, and the thing that appears to me in a dream is a "bundle of sensations," visual, tactile, auditive, muscular, and often olfactory, just as it appears to me when awake.

We are told of another difference. When awake, we find others agreeing with us in recognizing the reality of things. I see a tree, and so do those with me; I show it to them, and they look at it; I feel of it, and they touch it; I hear the rustling of the leaves, and so do they. Our perceptions in practical life are thus tested by comparison with those of others, whereas in our dreams we have our solitary and fanciful visions all within ourselves, with none to participate in our perceptions of them.

This supposed contrast is no more real than the former one. What is true is that when we are once awake we change our point of view, and our vision of the night then seems to have been wholly interior, solitary, and subjective. But, notwithstanding the common illusion, while we are dreaming affairs pass, to us, exactly as when we are awake. It is true that in the waking state we find ourselves mingled with other men, who perceive the same objects that we do. Do we not sometimes dream that we are one of an audience looking at a play? that we are talking with a friend, and exchange views with him? and that we understand one another perfectly? There is, therefore, in this aspect, not a difference but identity between the dream and the waking. The interior condition, the sensation, the credence, are identical. The dreaming man believes, sees, and feels himself in intercourse with his fellows, just as the man awake believes, sees, and feels it. When we wake, we discover our mistake, but what of that? It does not prevent us from believing completely in it while we are asleep. And this is the point; for, after all, am I sure that I shall not awake some day from what I now call my waking life? And who knows whether I shall not then judge that I have been dreaming a solitary dream? It may be added that the agreement of witnesses is not a decisive sign by which to distinguish the reality from the dream. There are collective hallucinations.

We come now to a more important difference, which includes the principle and has a characteristic apparently essentially distinguishing the dream—its looseness, disorder, inconstancy, and incoherence. In the dream visions succeed one another without connection; no law determines their order; an unrestricted fancy reigns among them, and the normal is broken up in them at every point. We are transported instantaneously from one country to another. We pass without transition from childhood to age, and causes have the strangest effects. The most essential laws of thought are constantly violated. There are facts without any causes, metamorphoses, magical disappearances. Even the absurd is realized, and the "principle of contradiction" does not seem to be any more respected than the others. We are at the same time in two places; we pronounce words, we hold conversations of which we can not when we wake recover the thread, so strange is their logic, so fugitive the sense, and so fanciful the combination. A practiced psychologist, M. Delbœuf, succeeded in taking down in the morning the last phrase of a book which he had been reading in a dream, and which had seemed then remarkably lucid. Here it is: "The man raised by the woman and separated by aberrations pushes facts disengaged by the analysis of the tertiary nature into the way of progress."

Is this distinction, then—that the dream is incoherent and the real rational—any more just than the others? It is doubtful if it is. There are rare dreams in which everything proceeds in a regular and natural way; and, on the other hand, reality is not always exempt from capriciousness and improbability. But to me the capital objection to the distinction is that it is illusory, and the contrast between the disorder of dreams and the coherence of the real is only apparent. The dream, it is true, appears disordered to us, but that is when we are awake. An essential point which we always ignore is that while we are dreaming everything seems simple and normal and regular to us. We are not at all astonished at what happens. We find it all right to be in two countries at the same time, and we undersand very well how one person can be changed into another. The conversations we have—those which are utterly unthinkable when we are awake—usually appear to us marvelously lucid, and we admire the ease, the verve, and the luminous continuity of our words. We enjoy that moving with so much suppleness and precision among ideas; our demonstrations are infinitely convincing; and it is perhaps in the dream that we have the most perfect sense of evidence.

Everything, then, that passes in the dream is—to the dreamer—as natural as events in the waking condition. When awake, events seem, without exception, natural and regular; they also seem natural and regular in the dream. It is true that we find them absurd when we wake, but what of that? They are absurd only by comparison, as looked at from the point of view of the waking man, who is no longer the same that he was when dreaming. Who can tell if we shall not awake some day from what we now call our waking condition, and that we shall not then find the events absurd that we now consider rational and real? Who can tell that we shall not be stupefied at having been so firmly attached to invisible phantoms and disordered combinations?

In setting up a fourth distinction it is said that real life forms a continuous whole, while dreams are not connected with one another. The series of my days forms a single life, which holds together. I resume to-day my life of yesterday, and shall resume tomorrow my life of to-day. While I am asleep, the course of it is only suspended. I begin again in the morning at the very point where I stopped in the evening. I find myself in the same medium, occupied with the same thoughts, subject to the same cares, involved in the same routine of events, the same storm of passions. The same thread runs through it all. On the other hand, it is said, our dreams do not form a consecutive existence. The dream of one night has no connection with the dream of the previous night. On going to sleep to-night I have no assurance that I shall find the landscapes or the personages or the circumstances of my last dream. The most diabolical nightmare may succeed a most delightful romance. In short, not only is the form of the same dream incoherent, but our successive dreams are incoherent as to one another. This was what struck Pascal when he wrote: "If we dreamed the same dreams every night, we should be affected by them as we are by things we see every day; and if an artisan was sure to dream every night, for twelve hours, that he was a king, I believe he would be nearly as happy as a king who dreamed every night, for twelve hours, that he was an artisan. . . . But because dreams are all different, and the same one is so diversified, what we see in one affects us much less than what we see when awake, because of the continuity of the waking life, which is not so continuous and even, however, but that it changes, too, though less abruptly, if only rarely, as when we travel; and then we say, 'It seems like a dream to me,' for life is a somewhat less inconstant dream."

What are we to say to this distinction? I do not believe it is necessary to take it seriously, any more than the others. When is it that we pass judgment on the discontinuity and incoherence between our successive dreams? Not while we are dreaming them. When I am dreaming, I seem to be pursuing a life that has always been the same. I have no sort of an impression that the present dream has been preceded by different dreams having no connection with it. I have, on the contrary, exactly as I have when awake, the impression of an indefinite and single series of events, of an unrolling of them without arrest and without break. There is, therefore, on this point, no difference, but another resemblance between the dream and the reality, and the same impression of continuity and unity prevails in both. It is true that the aspect changes in waking, and our several dreams then appear detached from one another. But what of that? Are we sure that we shall not awake some day from what we now call the waking state, and find then that that state, continuous in appearance, was in reality composed of a series of separate, incoherent, and incongruous fragments?

Thus we are all the time coming upon the same illusion. We judge of the dream, not by what it is, but by what it seems to have been after we have waked. Instead of observing the impressions of the dreaming man while he is dreaming, we take notice of what he thinks about them after he has waked up. This is to falsify the comparison of the normal and dream life by regarding the normal life while we are in it, and the dream life when we have come out of it. The several other difficulties on which psychologists have insisted are capable of solution by the application of the same principle: the seeming suspension of the will; the want of correspondence of the moral standards of the dream with those of the waking condition; the confusion of temporal duration and sequence; and the transformations of personality and character, concerning which I would ask, however, if the eccentricities betrayed are not rather in the nature of more complete exposure. I have sometimes been surprised at the psychological revelations of dreams; faults and weaknesses that we do not avow when in the normal condition reveal themselves then with inexorable frankness; we yield to temptations that we evaded when awake, though inclined to them; to wickednesses which we kept closely shut up within us; reveal antipathies which we had dissimulated. Base desires break out, latent loves declare themselves, and things take place which, as in a play, bring the farthest depths of our hearts into the light; and when we wake we say: "That is true; it is just what I should have done under like circumstances. I had never thought of it, and I am not proud of it, but it is so."

There is this real distinction between the dream and the waking state: that when awake I know there is another condition, while in the dream I take no thaught of the waking state. Awake, I know that I have been living the fantastic dream life, and have come out of it into a real life completely distinct from the other. I am in a first state, and know there is a second. But when I am dreaming I have no thought of another state that I have come out of and must return to; I do not feel that there is another existence, radically separated from this one; and I never compare the visions of my dreams with my waking world, for I know nothing of it. I have the impression of having always lived the life I am in, which seems natural; and even if I ask whether I am not dreaming, it is a merely verbal expression, with no accompanying sense of the meaning of it. Another distinction, and the only absolutely clear one, is that while we always wake from the dream, we never wake from the reality. This is why we believe in the reality and not in the dream.

These two differences are differences in degree, but they do not necessarily indicate differences in nature. Similar facts are frequent among hypnotics. We may plunge them into a condition of somnambulism which we will call a second state; and then, from that, magnetize them over again into another somnambulism, which we call the third state. Now the curious fact comes to pass that the subject in the third state recollects the second state, but when in the second state again, knows nothing of having been in the third state. "Lucie 3," says M. Pierre Janet, "recollected her normal life perfectly; she also recollected previous somnambulisms, and all that Lucie 2 had said. . . . It was a long and hard task to awaken this subject after she had passed a few minutes in the syncope already described. She then returned to ordinary somnambulism, but Lucie 2 could not tell me a word of what had happened to Lucie 3, and supposed she had been asleep and said nothing." Thus we have the same difference between two successive stages of somnambulism as between the dream and the waking state. But as the stages 2 and 3 are evidently of the same nature, so we have a right to suppose that the dream and the waking, whose phenomena as to each other are similar, are likewise of the same nature.

In the ordinary experience of mankind we do not awake from our normal condition; but is it proved that there is never any awakening, any third state into which we may pass? The supposition of some such state into which we pass by death is one of the fundamentals of nearly all religions; and in this sense we might contemplate the possibility of an awakening in which we shall be astonished at having given ourselves up so completely to the world of sense, at having taken a passing state for the definite one, an ephemeral world for the sole and absolute world, a provisional existence for the real one.

Even among men as we find them, we see some making an approach to a third state, if not living in it. What is science but the revelation of a new world, different from the visible one? When we see light and colors, they tell us of an invisible ether with particles vibrating with almost incalculable rapidity; when we hear faint or loud sounds, sharp or grave, they tell of the more or less ample and rapid vibrations of matter. When we perceive a multiple or varied reality, it shows us the single phenomenon of motion. These formulas do not, however, signify, as some mistake, that light, color, and sound do not exist, but that there is something else; and that if we could gain new senses, a new universe would open out to us. This means, simply, that the scientific man is already half waked up from his ordinary life, and has half entered a new world.

Metaphysics is a waking up of this kind. A metaphysician who really believes his doctrines, like Plato or Spinoza, is already living in a new world and contemplating the supposed reality in which we are still immersed as a matter of indifference away off in the dim twilight. To him, what we regard as reality is only appearance, while the eternal rain of atoms or the play of immaterial forces, or whatever he supposes the world to be made of, is the true reality.

Religion is another such awakening, and to the devout man this life is only a provisional one, a trial, the prelude to the true life; and while he may regard the world of sense as real too, he looks forward to the superior reality, which it is the privilege of the elect to contemplate; and it is some feeling of this kind that has sustained martyrs and has incited men of all ages and all faiths to suffer and endure, and die for what they believe.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.