Towards a Science of Dreams

The other day, while watching a video lecture on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” it occurred to me to compare literary studies to dream science. Neither one is my profession, so I can be presumed to be relatively unbiased in the comparison (as well as completely unqualified to make it).

The lecture begins in a curious way. Sir Christopher Ricks, the speaker, does not begin by introducing the audience to T.S. Eliot, or explaining the historical significance of his work. He does not even offer a summary of the poem, but begins with an analysis that to even the most dedicated Eliot fan—though perhaps not to an Eliot scholar—must appear fidgety and trivial.

Perhaps it was expected that his audience would have already visited the exhibition upstairs, and so a general introduction wouldn’t be necessary. It’s possible— but the T.S. Eliot literature that is available in my local public library does exactly the same thing. It is assumed that anyone picking up a book on T.S. Eliot, or any historically significant poet, must know a good deal about him or her already. (I write “it is assumed,” but it may be more accurate to say “Harold Bloom assumes,” as he seems to have written the introductions to most of the books on the 800 shelves.)

Is it a safe assumption? In my experience, yes. The audience for poetry today is mostly composed of lit majors, lit professors, and poets, most of whom belong to one of the first two groups. The experts already know the basics, and the general audience, who knows next to nothing, is unlikely to pick up such a book in the first place. The world of poetry is a large but decidedly closed circle.

However, when I head over to the 100’s, where the books on dreams are shelved, I find an entirely different situation. (Although, to my dismay, Harold Bloom and his introductions seem to have made inroads here as well.) Practically every book on dreams begins with a general introduction to dreaming, often with a complete history of dream science. These books do not presume expertise on the reader’s part, but total ignorance. Like the literature books, they are probably safe in doing so, but it raises an interesting question.

Do dream experts actually exist? Dream science is a discipline perpetually in its infancy, characterized by competing theories that share very few assumptions among them. They cannot agree on what a dream is, much less what, if anything, it means.

Of course, poets and critics have widely varying views on what constitutes a poem; so many contemporary poems have been written trying to answer this very question that the poem about poetry is an established cliché. But other fields of study are not so different: there is wide disagreement among paleontologists about the basic facts of their science—like dream research, a science based on speculation about unobservable events. Philosophy, like poetry, goes through spells of self-definition from time to time— although funnily enough, they never seem to be the times when innovative ideas are in the air. In short, disagreement among experts should not be a problem—if there are experts.

It has been only a hundred-odd years since dream science began, led by Freud and Jung. Despite the faults in their theories, they were undoubtedly geniuses, and do not receive the respect they deserve today, even from their followers and successors. Dream studies received renewed attention with the discovery of REM sleep in 1953, and yet again in 1975, with the first scientifically valid proof of lucid dreaming— and yet it has once again lapsed into a deeper obscurity than T.S. Eliot studies have ever experienced.

As much as I admire Eliot’s poetry and criticism—and I say this as someone who has learned “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by heart—I think we need to get our scholarly priorities in order. Everybody dreams. Every member of the general public dreams. And yet, the general public, even its educated non-specialists, is almost completely ignorant about this fundamental and universal mode of experience. It is astonishing that such a vast frontier of knowledge is lying so close to basic human experience and inspiring so little curiosity. It is even more astonishing when you consider the absurd degree of specialization that scholars in fields like sociology and literary studies must attain in order to contribute to their fields at all.

Lack of curiosity may be the reason why dream science has remained in such a primitive state, but I tend to think it’s still waiting for its paradigm. Dream science wants to be measurable and objective; it thinks that these are high standards, and does not see that they are the wrong ones. It aspires to be biology—but perhaps it ought to look a little more like literary studies.

If there are any dream experts to be found, I think they’re more likely to be among the ranks of therapists and spiritual leaders than the scientific community. It’s an open question who best deserves to be called “experts beyond experience.

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