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According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, neuroscientists in Rome have figured out exactly how we remember our dreams. Apparently, dream encoding reveals brain patterns similar to those during our waking lives. In other words, dreaming and being awake are identical, neurologically speaking.

Big news for science. Old news for philosophy. Without knowing it, these neuroscientists are answering a question as old as human thought itself: How can we be sure we’re not dreaming right now? And if we can’t rule it out, what’s to say we’re ever awake?


The Original Butterfly Effect

The Daoist philosopher, Zhuangzi, tells a story of having dreamt he was a butterfly. Upon waking, he asked if he was a man who’d dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. How was he supposed to tell the difference?

This was on the Greeks’ minds, too. Plato poses a similar question when investigating the nature of knowledge, and Socrates asks, “How can you determine whether at this moment we are sleeping, and all our thoughts are a dream; or whether we are awake, and talking to one another in the waking state?”

He continues:

“[A] doubt about the reality of sense is easily raised, since there may even be a doubt whether we are awake or in a dream. And as our time is equally divided between sleeping and waking, in either sphere of existence the soul contends that the thoughts which are present to our minds at the time are true; and during one half of our lives we affirm the truth of the one, and, during the other half, of the other; and are equally confident of both.”

It would be Aristotle who systematically examined dreaming and sleeping. He thought of dreaming as a kind of after-effect of waking experience. When awake, we can imagine objects that are not present to our senses; it follows, then, that when we dream, our imagination takes over. It is so powerful that the dreaming experience feels real.

Descartes focused on this problem in the most famous philosophical work on dreaming. Descartes, of course, sought the unshakable. Not satisfied with probability, he wanted fixed, secure, indubitable knowledge.

On what, he asked, could this knowledge be based? If we say we know what our senses tell us, we’re in trouble. After all, our dream experiences — what we feel emotionally, or what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell — are, while we’re having them, as real as our waking experiences. We cannot rely on our senses to tell us the truth.

Indeed, for all we know, we’re in a continual dream.

For still other philosophers, dreaming is more akin to hallucinating. That’s hardly any more comforting than the prospect of living in a perpetual dream. After all, the skepticism about the reality of dreaming is connected to the notion that somehow we’re hallucinating, that perception is somehow as deceptive as a hallucination.

St. Augustine

The Moral Responsibility of Dreams

We’ve all had dreams in which we’ve acted, shall we say, improperly. Maybe we cheated on a romantic partner, or perhaps harmed someone (deservedly or not). When we wake up, most of us feel bad.

But should we? Should we take moral responsibility for the missteps of our dreaming selves?

According to Augustine, the answer is no. The peculiar, vivid nature of dreaming may cause us to fret over our moral responsibilities, but there are several reasons why we should reject them. For starters, dreams are not — despite aforementioned ponderings — real. At least not in the sense that you actually did something wrong. For an action to be bound to moral accounting, they must be volitional. In dreams, free will is reduced to near nothingness.

This can be little comfort. Often, after committing a sin of some kind while asleep, we can’t shake the feeling that, somehow, we are responsible. Most likely, we are punishing ourselves to immoral urges we believed to have suppressed, deep in our subconscious minds.


Subconscious as Myth

In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes declares:

“I am, I exist – that is certain. But for how long? For as long as I am thinking. For it could be that were I totally to cease from thinking, I should totally cease to exist.”

For Descartes, consciousness — self consciousness, to be precise — is the essence of the mind. If it’s the case that, when we enter a dreamless sleep, we no longer think, then that means we no longer exist. Remove our essence, remove our existence.

Descartes, then, had to find a way to keep us thinking — to keep us existing. How can he account for what seems to be a gap in thinking, a gap in existing, when we are in a dreamless sleep? According to the venerable philosopher, we are still, indeed, conscious.

Yes, Descartes’ view sounds counterintuitive. Most of us are perfectly content to believe that we’re unconscious during dreamless sleep. The more we think about it, however, the trickier things get — and the more uncomfortable we feel about not existing during sleep.

If we consider our fundamental self to be associated with consciousness, it’s scary to think you disappear or cease to exist when you fall into a dreamless sleep. Consider this the next time you settle into your comfy bed: You’re preparing for self-annihilation.

Descartes’s solution, as strange as it seems, is to say that we are conscious — we simply don’t generate any new memories. The lack of new memories, Descartes asserts, is due to the mind effectively detaching from its engagement with the body. That’s why, when we awaken, we feel sort of like we’d blacked out.


Locked Out of Consciousness

One of Descartes’s critics, the British empiricist John Locke (the same Locke whose work in political philosophy influenced the Founding Fathers), thinks the “consciously sleeping” position is hogwash. For Locke, there’s little point in saying that you’re not aware of your awareness — that you’re not conscious of being conscious while you sleep.

It’s certainly not commonsensical. When we wake up, we feel there’s been a period in which we were aware of nothing, of which we remember nothing, namely that period between falling asleep and waking.

A major problem, Locke contends, emerges from the Cartesian view. This is the problem of personal identity. You take for granted that you are the same person over time, regardless of how much you’ve changed in discernible ways — there’s a fundamental you that continues unchanged. So, if you are conscious when you’re asleep, but you’re not aware of yourself, then who is it really that’s aware?

Is there some other me inside me that I can’t know anything about? It can’t be me, since it’s not continuous with the me I’m thinking about now.

Good old Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, perhaps most famous in literary circles for having been ruthlessly satirized by Voltaire in Candide, tries to find a middle ground between the two views expressed by Descartes and Locke. Leibniz agrees with Descartes that we’re always thinking, but the quality of these thoughts is not the same at all times. In other words, when we’re fully awake, we have focused thoughts. As we drift off to sleep, our thoughts become more fragmented, less coherent and, in a sense, more peripheral. When we fall asleep, we have thoughts and perceptions, but we’re not aware of them.

This is not a nutty view. Consider what happens when you’re awake. You can’t focus on everything all the time. Some stimuli are pushed to the margins, so to speak. You could be sitting in a room full of people chatting, and you don’t really register the noise until it suddenly drops. The fact that you do register the reduction in noise suggests you were perceiving the louder sounds, but not attending to them.

It could be, Leibniz proposes, that sleep occurs at levels of more or less careful attention to our perceptions.

Sleep Tight

These are just a few comforting thoughts on dreams, reality and our sense of self from history’s more esteemed philosophers. As scientists struggle to define and quantify every aspect of the human psyche, it seems they’re just catching up to the ancient Chinese, Greek and Romans, not to mention countless more philosophers from more recent eras.