Monday 2 May 2011

The role of dreams - inferences from J.W.Dunne and the Inklings


An Experiment with Time by J.W Dunne was a major influence on The Inklings, and forms a background to the posthumously-published and unfinished novels The Notion Club Papers by JRR Tolkien and The Dark Tower by C.S Lewis.


One of the most striking passages in The Dark Tower is the following:

" '... that we see the future is certain. Dunne's book proved that - '

"MacPhee gave a roar like a man in pain.

" 'It's all very well, MacPhee,' Orfieu continued, 'but the only thing that enables you to jeer at Dunne is the fact that you have refused to carry out the experiments he suggests. If you carried them out you would have got the same results that he got, and I got, and everyone got who took the trouble. Say what you like but the thing is proved. It's as certain as any scientific proof whatever.' "


Dunne had recorded his dreams in detail and in writing the instant he awoke. The method he describes is very specific, and he is clear that unless this method is followed, then the necessary information will not be available.

Dunne's conclusion - surveying these results, from himself and others - was that some parts of some dreams consisted of recollections of past events (especially the day preceding the sleep) mixed with anticipations of future events - quite thoroughly mixed, so that which-was-which only became apparent later.

My sense is that Lewis and Tolkien both accepted this by the late 1930s into the 1940s, sought an explanation, and discussed its implications - presumably in Inklings meetings.


Let us assume that Dunne was right and that Lewis and Tolkien were right to accept his evidence.

And let us take the evidence of the Dark Tower and the Notion Club Papers to conclude that Dunne's experiments were replicated, were verified, at least by Lewis and Tolkien and (probably) some other of the Inklings.

Then why has this idea died-out? Why do so few people nowadays believe that dreams can predict the future?


The reason is easy enough to understand on reading Dunne - that the dreams were a mixture of past, future and apparently irrelevant material - but there was no way to evaluate which elements were predictive until after they had been confirmed.

So, although Dunne seemed to show convincingly that some aspects of some dreams were visions of the future - this had no practical value: specifically this partial and mixed knowledge offered no powers.

You could not - therefore - use future visionary dreams to make money (e.g from bets), manipulate people, avoid disasters or anything of that kind.

To the modern mind, this means that Dunne's work seemed trivial, hence ignorable, and was eventually discarded (without consideration) as being fake, or gullible, or something...


That dreams contained visions of the future was, of course, believed by everyone until a few hundred years ago - and probably is believed by the vast majority of people in the world even now. But in ancient times, the ability to interpret dreams, and decode the future visions - so that the knowledge they contained might become useful, was regarded as a rare gift (and one associated with a lot of fakery).


On the other hand, if Dunne was correct (and I find the testimony of Lewis and Tolkien hard to ignore) then this is very interesting for what it may tell us about the human condition.

Among other things, it suggests to me the following:

1. That dreams have a natural function - and not just related to memory (the past) but also to the future.

2. That this natural function happens during sleep and does not require conscious awareness (since most people most of the time do not recall dreams - and Dunne's results depend on specific techniques of rapid recall, association and the making of an objective record, which techniques were apparently not done by anyone before him; and by very few since).

3. That - therefore - although containing material from the future, the natural function of dreams is not predictive; and that the use of dreams to predict the future is a special, individual, learned skill.

4. My guess as to one function of dreams is therefore that they locate each person in time ('in the world') in an unconscious, implicit, non-verbal way; that dreams provide our relation to reality, our embeddedness in time, which we carry with us as a background to waking, conscious life.

(Dreaming is not, then, functioning only to 'consolidate' past memories, but perhaps also to prepare for the unfolding future - time stretching-out on both sides from the present moment of the dream.)

5. That it is therefore possible that the lack of dreams, or of dreams of the right kind (perhaps as a result of some illness, or unnatural lifestyle, or drugs or something) might cause alienation: might cause someone to feel isolated, un-integrated with life, solipsistic, that life has no meaning nor purpose.


Note: The above was adapted from a posting on my Notion Club Papers blog.



Wm Jas said...

Thanks for this. I'm very interested now to track down and read Dunne's book and try the experiment myself. Have you done so?

Bruce Charlton said...

I hope to try when convenient - but the method of notation *immediately* on each and every waking is rather intrusive for spouses!

Wm Jas said...

Yes, I was thinking the same thing. I often note down the dreams I remember, but rarely immediately.

Bruce Charlton said...

Dunne is very emphatic - if you don't follow his exact method, you won't get the same results (and vice versa!).

This (together with the way that past and future are so finely mixed in dreams) emphasizes that (assuming, of course, that Dunne was correct) the future-predicting aspects of dreams are not 'intended' to be *useful* in terms of planning or predicting life; but have some other kind of function.

The above is my own current best guess, based partly on science, partly on experience, and on various intuitions.

Wm Jas said...

Have you read the book? Does the method just consist of writing down the dreams immediately, or is there more to it than that? I'm really interested in trying it out, and I think my wife will be able to put up with it (famous last words, I know).

(The book is of course impossible to find in Taiwan, and if I ordered it from Amazon I'd pay twice as much for shipping as for the book itself. There doesn't seem to be a Kindle edition, either.)

Bruce Charlton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce Charlton said...

I can't find a sufficiently detailed account on the internet, and it would take too long to transcribe from the book - I shall maybe try to make a briefer summary of all the essential methodological points, and post it on this blog.

Kristor said...

One rather reductionist possibility is of course that the events in Dunne's dreams that later proved to be "about _the_ future" were really "about _a_ future." The dreamt events that turned out to be irrelevant to history would then have been "about _a_different_ future." Thus, the dreaming would be a way of exploring the potential exigencies inherent in recently experienced events, and of preparing the dreamer for the things he might be likely to encounter in the ensuing day - to plan out, or play out (is there a difference?) in imagination how he might respond to them, and what might then happen as a result. The most vivid dreams do have a sense of causal inevitability, even when the events thereof are fantastic.

Dreams, then, may be explorations of an ontological solution space. No need for the brain itself to build out the details of such a space (a massive computational project, certainly incompletable in any finite stretch of time) so that it could then (redundantly) explore that space; rather, the dreaming brain might be apprehending the solution space directly, via intuition. I mean, the space of possible futures has to _be_ there, objectively, in order for any one of the futures in it to attain actualization. So the space of futures - Borges called it the Library of the Possible - must somehow exist somewhere, and that somewhere must be somehow "adjacent" to each brain (and, for that matter, to each particle that is faced with a choice from among the lawful quantum possibilities), and, thus, immediately accessible.

Molina would have called the points in such a space the objects of God's Middle Knowledge. And that Middle Knowledge - being eternal, and ipso facto omnipresent - would satisfy the requirement of pervasive adjacency.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - thanks for your comment (and thanks too for your excellent comments on VFR and TH).

I am not very interested nor convinced by Dunne's explanations of Time - nor were the Inklings; it is the raw observations which impressed Lewis and Tolkien and which they apparently replicated.

My current ideas about time in a dfundamental sense are theological rather than scientific in origin. The following comment was first made on my Tolkien blog:

In terms of *how* dreams might predict the future, for a traditional orthodox supernaturalist Christian there are two basic sources - angelic and demonic.

Since God is outside time He sees everything (Boethius) - this could un-problematically (from a theological perspective) be communicated to the dreamer e.g. via angelic messengers.

Since demons are of greater intelligence than humans, have greater knowledge, and (presumably) a whole range of greater abilities - they might in principle be able to have greater *predictive* powers.

(i.e. Demons do not *know* the future, but can do a much better job than humans of *apparently* predicting it/ making it happen.)

Since demons (as angelic beings) are assumed to be able to implant ideas/ images and emotions into human minds, and also to influence the material world - they might be able to make impressive 'apparent' predictions on the basis of probability and demonic influence: i.e. they predict by extrapolation something likely to happen, then try to make it happen.

So, the first big question for Christians like Lewis and Tolkien concerning dreams of other times or places would probably not have been the implications for physics, but understanding their *source*: divine or demonic.

Kristor said...

Perhaps one of the reasons dreams can be so confused is that they are befogged by the War in Heaven.

Kristor said...


And thanks to you, too, sir, for your many fine comments at the many fine sites you have improved by your participation. I've learned a lot from you - and haven't time enough to learn as much as you have to teach.

Thursday said...

That dreams contained visions of the future was, of course, believed by everyone until a few hundred years ago - and probably is believed by the vast majority of people in the world even now. But in ancient times, the ability to interpret dreams, and decode the future visions - so that the knowledge they contained might become useful, was regarded as a rare gift (and one associated with a lot of fakery).

That something has survived for a long time doesn't necessarily prove that it was useful or in some way positively good, merely that it is probably harmless. It could, for example, be the by-product of something else that was useful or in some way good in itself.