Monday, 23 March 2015

Must be dreamin’

In 'A sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness', O’Regan and Noe (O&N) consider an argument from dreaming in opposition to a sensorimotor account of consciousness. According to O&N the dreaming argument says that the nature of dreaming suggests that it pulls on mental representations of the outside world; these images we see in our dreams are like ‘pictures in our heads’ and therefore must be brain-based representations of the outside world. They counter this by saying that just because it seems that we’re seeing an internal picture, this does not mean that the brain actually contains these pictures, and further argue that the fact that are dreams are so disorganized is due to the lack of external stimulus to ‘hold an experienced world steady’. They suppose the ‘pictures in the head’ idea may be an ill-founded phenomenological claim.

But in my own experience dreams do not occur to me as ‘pictures in the head’. Is this really how everyday people experience their dreams and imagining? I wonder if O’Regan and Noe are the ones making ill-founded phenomenological claims. In the same article, Revonsuo replies to O&N’s commentary on dreaming by saying it seems the brain might be perfectly capable of producing the feeling of “being-in-the-world” in dreams, as opposed to pictures. People have very rich experiences in dreams in which they are a subject engaging in a world.

This idea reminds me of Damasio’s “as-if loops”. Damasio thinks that for the most part, embodied feeling is integral to emotion. Yet he suggests that sometimes the brain can bypass the body by creating an “as if” loop; an event in the brain that produces a phenomenological experience of emotion as if feelings were occurring without anything extraordinary happening somatically. Could it be the similar for dreaming? In a dream we can experience ourselves as a subject as if we were in the world. Revonsuo seems to think this is so, and if it is the case, it might be troublesome for the case O&N try to build in their paper. [Damasio also uses as-if loops to suggest why people with locked-in syndrome report experiencing emotion. Locked-in syndrome perhaps poses even bigger problems for O&N's account. For discussion see this paper.]

An interesting discussion in area on dreaming is likely to be found in Evan Thompson’s Waking, Dreaming, Being in which dreaming is considered extensively – a book I’m looking forward to reading. In it he addresses how three different states of dreaming (hypnagogic, dreaming, and lucid dreaming) are associated with particular patterns of brain activity and argues against the idea that dreams are only disorganized hallucinations. His discussion around lucid dreaming, a sort of meta-awareness of being in a dreaming state – seems likely to be especially illuminating in this area. If anyone has been dabbling in Thompson’s discussion on dreaming, perhaps before you drift off to dreamland yourself, please share your thoughts!


  1. Kale, I like the points you raised and agree that perhaps O&N were too narrow in their counterexamples (it's like they think pictorial theorists are taking over the world). I recently came across this text. It's rather outdated (pre-O&N!), but I think it gives a clear account of the debate and some relevant perspectives. At the end there is a section on imagination in which they touch on 'seeing as'. Be warned, it gets a little fluffy at the end, but you know I'm a fan of such poetic discourse.

  2. Hi Kale,
    The link below is to a podcast by Evan Thompson I found really interesting, I think you'll like it. Enjoy