Friday, February 10, 2006

Alarm clock dreams

These are discussed in Freud's great work, The Interpretation of Dreams, which I dusted off after a discussion at Bill Vallicella's place here.

These dreams are apparently caused by a stimulus (such as an alarm clock) which the sleeper interprets as an event in the dream (church bells, sleigh bells).

The puzzle of these dreams is that the interpreted event cannot occur any earlier than the stimulus. Yet there is often a complicated chain of events in the dream that leads up to the interpreted event: how can the dreamer aparently compress such a large quantity of material into the short space between the time that the stimulus occurs, and the beginning of the dream events which conclude with the interpreted event?

A famous example is a dream of Maury, which was about the French Revolution. He witnesses frightful scenes of murder, is brought before a revolutionary tribunal, is questioned by Robespierre, Marat and other revolutionary heroes. After some other incidents which he did not remember clearly, he was condemned, and led to the guillotine in front of an immense crowd. He was bound to the plank by the executioner, the blade of the guillotine fell. He felt his head separated from his body, woke up – and found the top of his bed had fallen and had struck his head in the same place as the blade of the guillotine in the dream.

The puzzle is that the story leading up to the dream was long, and presumably must have begun long before the bed head collapsed. But it seems an extraordinary coincidence that an event in the outside world that so resembled a guillotine, should happen at that time.

Another dream, related by Hildebrandt, is of strolling through green fields until the dreamer came to a village. He saw the villagers strolling through the fields with hymn books. It is Sunday! He went to the churchyard to cool down, read some of the tombstones and then watched the bell ringer climb the tower, and watched the bell first stand motionless, then slowly swing, and finally ring so piercingly that he woke up – to his alarm clock.

The puzzle is to explain how a chance event like the alarm clock could so neatly fit into a dream plot that must have begun some time before the event.

Here is a third example: the dreamer is waiting for a long time for a sleigh to arrive. The sleigh finally comes to the door, there were detailed preparations such as the fur rug, the foot muff, until finally the sleigh started off, with such violence that the sleigh bells ring wildly – his alarm clock.

In all of these cases, the interpreted event is the denoument of what appears to be a complex plot, which happens exactly at the right time and place in the dream. Yet the dreamer (we suppose) has no knowledge or foresight of the actual event which is so interpreted.

Possible solutions are 1. That the dream is made up on waking 2. that the dreamer does have fore-knowledge of the external event (though this hardly explains Maury's dream) 3. The person who told the dream was inventing it.


Blogger Anthony said...

4. That the "interpreted event" is fit into the plot of the dream in such a way that it appears to have been foreshadowed, but never was actually foreshadowed. The brain creates an event which fits both the previous plot of the dream and also fits the external stimulus. This is somewhat amazing, but then, this sort of ad-hoc reasoning is something that the subconscious is extremely good at.

Having experienced similar things myself, I think this is a big part of the explanation. I think a combination of 1 and 3 is part of it (not that the person is intentionally lying, but people are notorious for subconsciously adding things that didn't actually happen to actual events such as crimes, let alone to dreams). And I think 2 can be part of the explanation in some cases (especially an alarm clock - our bodies have very accurate clocks of their own, and an alarm clock going off is generally not at all a "chance event").

The Maury dream is interesting. It's unclear to me what triggered the bed to fall. Depending on what it was, explanation 2 might be plausible. 4 certainly explains the dream up until being led to the guillotine. The rest, really, could be any of the 4 factors, or a combination thereof.

I used to be fascinated by a similar phenomenon in dreams that I've experienced. They would have these intricate mysterious plots which would all come together at the end. But I've concluded that my mind did not write the entire plot and then play it out, but rather that the ending would be made up to tie together the things from earlier points. This is still pretty amazing. The brain is amazing at engaging in what is, essentially, rationalization.

Witness the ability of psychotic individuals to come up with intricate ad-hoc explanations when presented with inconsistencies. These types of dream events seem to be an example of the same thing.

4:53 pm  

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