I hope that what I’ve written so far has been helpful in clarifying the question of dreams as communications, but now it’s time to actually try to answer it. In order to do that, we need a good idea of what communication is—something that sounds as if it ought to be straightforward, but on closer inspection turns out to be an intractable philosophical inquiry on a level with questions like “What is meaning?” and “What is knowledge?” What follows will be a very rough sketch of ways that such an inquiry might lead.
Phenomena like the ones I’ve been considering fit some dictionary definitions of communication better than you might expect, but always with reservations. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.” But we are considering something that may only involve one individual—the internal evidence doesn’t preclude the possibility of something on the other end, but it doesn’t support it either.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines it a little more broadly: “the successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings.” But what constitutes a success, and how do you recognize it? Whether something counts as communication when you’re on both ends of it is still a point at issue— but being on both ends of it seems to be the only circumstance in which you could be absolutely sure that ideas and feelings were successfully conveyed.
But while the methods of interpretation and incubation I’ve described are clearly different from the communication we take for granted in our everyday lives, they fit some philosophical conceptions, like Quine’s. Quine would have denied that exchange is a feature of communication—it makes a handy metaphor to think of meaning as something we can toss back and forth like a ball, but to take that view of communication too literally is to completely misunderstand what takes place. What we have is not a process of exchange, but a process that gets patterns of associations to match in the right way. Whether or not it was the right way is something that we test rather like a scientist tests a hypothesis: by seeing how well our subsequent observations match the predictions we made on the basis of the message we received. In this case, for “observations,” read “dreams,” and so long as you consider the “message” in general terms rather than in terms of particular dream-elements, you have a statement that most experienced interpreters could endorse.
You might notice that, unlike the dictionary definitions, this view allows us to completely bypass the problem of identifying someone at the other end. This was probably not because Quine wanted to extend the notion of communication to cover unusual cases like the one I’m concerned with here, but rather because he was concerned with capturing the dynamics of learning and using words, and the dynamics can be understood without considering either end in more than formal terms. And, perhaps in part, it was in recognition of the fact that proving that someone is on the other end is fiendishly difficult, even in the ordinary instances. This is called the problem of other minds, and philosophy doesn’t seem to be a step closer to solving it than when it first occurred to Descartes to problematize other minds 350 years ago.
This is something to take note of if you believe that it’s ridiculous even to entertain the question of whether communication could be taking place through dreams since there’s nothing you could possibly be communicating with. If you’re going to take up the skeptical position, you have to be consistently skeptical, which means being willing to deal with things like p-zombies, evil geniuses, and brains in vats. I would like to point out that even Descartes was not as radical a doubter as he might have been, as it is quite possible to question whether the “I” in “I think therefore I am” lasts longer than the thought does.
If, on the other hand, you’d prefer trying to be a consistent materialist, you get to define communication entirely in the language of the physical sciences. I would like to point out that materialism is no better at accommodating the concept of identity than skepticism is, and so it would have to be done without reference to discrete entities of any sort, including individual beings. Have fun.
Once again, this does not suggest that there is anything on the other end—e.g., gods, spirits, or other/higher/true selves, the usual candidates who are invoked when it is claimed that dreams are communications designed to help us. What it does suggest is that there is something distinctly fishy about treating identity as a fundamental fact of reality rather than a perceptual convenience—no matter how you look at it. If so, then the question of intra-personal communication hinges on a distinction that does not have a firm basis in reality, and the question of whether dreams might sometimes be communications has more to do with how comfortable one is with a non-standard use of the word ‘communication’ than with metaphysics.
The notion of identity and its limitations have come up a few times throughout this essay already—it’s one that you can’t avoid for long once you start exploring dreams. It is especially salient in lucid dreams, when you are exploring the landscape of dreaming as the dream is taking place. In such dreams, you are constantly encountering mental phenomena you yourself did not consciously create, and which often seem at least as real as waking life. You are also encountering beings who act as if they have their own mental lives, which gives those p-zombies and other paraphernalia of skepticism a significance far beyond their usual role as fodder for thought experiments. The more intelligent and well-informed the beings you encounter, the more pressing the question becomes.
Once you get to that point, the only possible explanations that allow you to keep thinking of yourself as a distinct, unified entity involve positing other distinct, unified, possibly non-physical entities with the ability to enter into your mental space uninvited. There is only one way to simultaneously maintain the belief that you yourself are such an entity and deny the existence of that other sort, and that is to ignore your dreams.
It’s interesting to speculate: how many of the characteristic assumptions and attitudes of the modern world could only have taken root in a society where paying attention to your dreams is atypical? Most people in the West nowadays do not consider dreams important. Most of them do not consider it important that they don’t consider dreams important. And yet, if this attitude towards dreams were to start changing—which actually seems to be happening!—there’s no way it could fail to bring along a cultural revolution.
But to return to the main point, there is yet another angle of approach for understanding the question of dreams as communication: communications theory. This discipline offers some interesting possibilities. It was founded in a time when the traditional notion of communication was having to be redefined and widened in order to capture a type of communication that had never before existed—mass media—and so it may be able to handle an unusual case of a different type.
One theorist—an early and an influential one— was Marshall McLuhan, whose central idea has provided this essay with its title. The medium is the message—but what does that actually mean?
McLuhan was one of those thinkers who wrote in his own idiom, and so it’s possible to find any number of interpretations of what he meant by it. For an outsider to communications theory, it’s rather a lot to pick through. But the important point seems to be that, when considering what is conveyed by a medium, what people are trying to convey through it is far less important than what the medium is communicating simply by existing and being available to us and changing the way we live our lives. And a medium is anything that is capable of communicating in this way—not just what we would ordinarily consider a channel of communication. Television is a medium, according to McLuhan, but so is a light bulb.
What happens if we consider dreaming as a McLuhan medium? Actually, something fascinating happens: we are led to consider the form of the dream itself as communicative. Could the formal characteristics that have earned dreams a reputation for being random, for being meaningless, for being brain static—static, in communications theory, signifying something that impedes the reception of a message—be themselves communicative, simply by virtue of what they are? If so, then dreaming as a medium would tell us exactly what my chocolate mustard bio bun dream told me: leave nothing out.
Out of all the claims that have been made about the benefits of dream interpretation, one of the most common is that it is a path to personal wholeness—and the typical characteristics of dreams do seem to provide an unexpected reinforcement for the “path to personal wholeness” view, while simultaneously raising a serious question as to whether it’s the interpretation that’s the beneficial part. By failing to observe the barriers we place between the various times and places of our lives, between ourselves and our emotions, between illusion and reality— even between the present and future, or between one person and another, if the more unusual accounts are to be taken seriously—dreams are already communicating a message of wholeness to us, even if we don’t take the trouble to interpret them. And no spooky metaphysics whatsoever are required. All we need to do is to tune in.
In the dream, the dog’s barking has just woken me up. I’m in bed (read: floor mattress) in a room very much like the one I actually fell asleep in, and someone’s at the door. It turns out that someone has sent me a postcard. Strange, I think—who would be sending me a postcard when I’m on vacation in—
Greece, my brain nudges me.
Right, Greece. Thank you. The picture on the card shows a cemetery,with rows of what look like war graves, and a colorful sky in the background. I turn it over and see that it’s written in German—which narrows down who it’s from, anyway. I’m terribly curious, but I decide to read the card through before looking at the name at the bottom. The card folds out, becoming larger, and then it’s like I’m watching a movie. A room full of people are talking in turn, many of them wearing fancy, old-fashioned clothing. But my alarm wakes me partway through, and I never do get to find out who the postcard was from. (March, 2017)
So, in the end, it looks like we can’t say one way or another whether something other than ourselves might be trying to communicate to us through our dreams—something that those with an appreciation of Occam’s Razor might take note of. If you believe that dreams are by nature expressive and that our dreaming selves have access to various kinds of mental content that our waking selves do not, and that human beings tend to be concerned with their own well-being no matter what state they’re in, then helpful messages from dreams should come as no surprise.
But even if you’re hesitant to call this process communication, you could do a lot worse than treating it as if it was. I spent practically all of the time in which I practiced dream interpretation deliberately withholding judgment on the ontological status of the various beings I encountered in my dreams, and it doesn’t seem to have done any harm. It may even have been helpful: leaving a question open effectively prevents us from getting so attached to our own theories that we’re tempted to distort our experiences to obtain additional support for them.
Once we’ve formed a false opinion of something, confirmation bias has a tendency to block off the flow of new impressions that might lead us to realize it’s false—and a true but overly narrow opinion can be almost as bad. If we do not find ourselves surprised by our dreams every once in a while, it is almost certainly because we don’t want to be surprised. And if wholeness is the message of our dreams— even if an uninterpreted dream is not very much like an unopened letter after all—it’s one that can easily be missed if we’re selective about what we take to heart.