Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Dreaming as Playtime

I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.  Bob Dylan

I had a funny thought while dreaming.  I don't recall the details, but I was having fun talking with someone I really liked. I don't know what provoked me to say, "if I didn’t dream, I’d be too bored to sleep", but it woke me up. I jotted down some notes, went back to sleep and the conversation continued. 

Sometimes I go back to sleep to continue a dream or to mess around with the story. I like to sleep and dream. Freud suggested that dreams function to preserve sleep and that works for me. 

My experience of dreaming is not typical, nor is it fundamentally different from other people's, just a bit more lucid.  My dreaming has been shaped by my interest and the skills that come from paying careful attention. 

As an experimentalist, I was once part of a group that empirically demonstrated that one's current problems, dilemmas and opportunities are basic units of dream content and connect dream experience to waking life. I think we clarified that the dilemmas and opportunities represented during dreaming are similar to those a person has while awake but less constrained by the realities of the waking world.  This freedom invites dreams to be fleshed out by a person's imaginative capacities and interests. Freud called this a primary process governed by a pleasure principle freed from reality testing. But clearly dreams are more than that. 

Freud also recognized that dreams involve somewhat less deliberate thinking than waking thought and this provides dreams with an impulsive and emotional quality. Deliberation is not so essential when safe in bed. Pleasure and self-interest are prominent in dreams with ethical and moral concerns diminished since there is less consequence to what we do when asleep. The diminished role of ethical considerations may follow from dreams being a less deliberate act. What I do in my dreams doesn't get me in the same sort of trouble that waking action would, and I may be less prone to think about alternatives and consequences. 

More and more as I get older, my dreams provide an opportunity to

Every dream is personal, shaped by the dreamer's characteristics relevant to the circumstances the dream offers up. I am not someone else when dreaming but I go places and do things not otherwise possible. When asleep I am very skilled at flying. It took some practice but I'm good at it now. As a child, I'd sometimes crash, but now I soar. 

When I say I am not someone else when dreaming, it occurs to me that I have sometimes dreamt I was one of my dogs. But no one who knows me would find that out of character. 

Back to my sleepy wonderings.  Here's the gist of what I wrote down: 

1. Sleep is a necessary restorative. I can’t do without it.
2. Some dreams wake me up because they are too arousing, tedious, frustrating, or frightening. (Fortunately for me, these are rare, but those feelings are also rare in my current waking life.  Knock on wood.) 
3. If I didn’t have something interesting to dream, after “x” amount of sleep, my waking concerns would grab my attention and I'd awaken and be up to my usual mischief. So I get another forty winks, whether I need it or not.

So what I am wondering, and this question woke me up, does playful dreaming help preserve sleep by providing something interesting to stay asleep and think about? Of course, sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. (That, in turn, reflects waking life's worries and opportunities).  Not to make too much of this, but most dreaming occurs in the later periods of sleep. 

As far as I know, dreams as a manner of keeping sleep interesting, as a way of playing, is under-explored in the literature. I am not arguing that the function of dreaming is to have a place to play but rather that dreams present an opportunity to play. Dreamplay might be adaptive but is a worthy thing-in-itself apart from any adaptive advantage it offers; a spandrel as Gould and Lewontin might say.

I have been thinking about play, especially creative play, as a fundamental feature of life, always an option when we're free of desperation and need, and maybe even then. Ernest Hartmann describes dreaming as making connections in a safe place. When those connections are fun, there's reason to remain asleep. 

Some references: Schwartz & Godwyn, Action and Representation in Ordinary and Lucid Dreams, 1988. Greenberg, Katz, Schwartz & Pearlman,  A Research Based Reconsideration of the Psychoanalytic Theory of Dreaming, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 1992,  and Hartmann, E. The Nature and Function of Dreaming, Oxford 2011.  Gould and Lewontin, "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme" Proc. Roy. Soc. London B, 1979.

Do certain Fat-Tailed Lemurs hibernate to maximize dreamtime? Do you like interesting animal facts, then check this out: The Mysterious Brain of the Fat-Tailed Dwarf Lemur, the World's Only Hibernating Primate.  Klopfer and his team discovered that when hibernating dwarf lemurs sleep, they exclusively enter REM-sleep and they stay in REM sleep for an unusually long time. This is counter-intuitive since REM sleep involves a higher metabolic output than other states of sleep (at least for humans) : Metabolic rate and fuel utilization during sleep assessed by whole-body indirect calorimetry. ) Do these lemurs live to dream?

 And lizards dream, too.

And maybe the play is the thing:  Playing for the fun of it. Some notes on our playful universe.


  1. 1. Is "play" a critique? There's some behavior that we judge either to be play or not. What do we judge by? I know you've been working on this for a while. For comparison influence + (something) = violence. Behavior + (something) = play.

    2. Please be careful using "deliberate" in Freud's way, esp. as it is not the DP way. Room for confusion there.

    3. It seems there's an "out of control' quality to dreaming, otherwise we wouldn't need the term "lucid dreaming" to describe dreams in which we set the circumstances and the process. Certainly there's a "thrown-ness", as one appears in the dream in a set of circumstances not chosen. Deliberate action has fewer boundary conditions (reality is relaxed), but other than that, how is it different from waking life (thrownness + boundary contitions)? For me, there's a quality of watching a movie and the zugzwang associated with that; I don't have that feeling with life, even though it is going forward, I can't rewind it, etc.

    4. Something implied by what you have written is: you lay there in your not-dreaming periods waiting for the movie to begin. I'm genuinely unconscious in those periods and don't know I'm asleep. Are you somehow just waiting for the movie to begin?

    5. Most people remember only a fragment of their total dreams each night. You imply you remember everything, and this essay is built on that. Do you? Cuz that's a lot to be remembering each night.

    6. I remember reading that folks who were awakened at the beginning of dream sleep but otherwise allowed to sleep started developing problems. If so, that would interfere with the idea of dreams preserving sleep.

    7. I'd like to see you subject your observations to a rather rigorous DP treatment.

    1. Notice I said "deliberative" and "deliberate" rather than employing the DP concept of Deliberate Action and I have used it the way Freud did.

      ( See my "Action and Representation in Ordinary and Lucid Dreams" And my "The Two Concepts of Action and Responsibility in Psychoanalysis"

      And yes, I do have more lucid dreams than most folks but even my non lucid dreams these days are more enjoyable than not. I also remember 4 or 5 dreams nightly which is not normal but I've never claimed normality. As for a rigorous DP treatment, that sounds like work. I conceptualize play a bit more clearly in the April 2013 blog entry "Play and Therapy".

      Play counts by not counting

  2. I've modified this posting since Clarke made his useful points. I think it now reflects a better use of Descriptive Psychology. I have also added the concepts of Spandrels, since I am not suggesting that playing in dreams has a necessary adaptive/evolutionary function but is simply something people can do while dreaming, whether adaptive or not. Thanks S, for reminding me of this.