Clichéd question

7 Aug

New York City has at least 14 summer venues for outdoor movies this year. Out of all the films scheduled, only a handful are in black and white, mostly at Bryant Park (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The 39 Steps, The Lady Eve, High Sierra; only the High Sierra screening is still to come, on August 15).

The preponderance of color in film culture for roughly 50 years now may explain why lots of people find the question “Do you dream in color?” a little silly (“Of course I dream in color!” many of us reply). This is the explanation offered by Eric Schwitzgebel in Perplexities of Consciousness, according to Nicholas Humphrey in last week’s New York Times Book Review (“The I of the Beholder,” July 29, 2011, online; July 31, p.17 in print). Humphrey writes of Schwitzgebel’s explanation:

Back in the 1950s most said they dreamed in black and white. Presumably it can hardly be true that our grandparents had different brains that systematically left out the color we put in today. So this must be a matter of interpretation. Yet why such freedom about assigning color? Well, try this for an answer. Suppose that, not knowing quite what dreams are like, we tend to assume they must be like photographs or movies—pictures in the head. Then, when asked whether we dream in color we reach for the most readily available pictorial analogy. Understandably, 60 years ago this might have been black-and-white movies, while for most of us today it is the color version.

He’s speaking here of the memory of dreams (the dream report) rather than the dreams themselves. The converse argument could be made: that maybe we really do dream in black-and-white (although I doubt it), and our external experiences cause us to fill in the colors as we would with a coloring book.

For evidence of how vividly in color our dreams (or at least the recollection of them) can be, see Carl Jung’s dream journal, known as The Red Book (exhibited last year at the Rubin Museum of Art here in New York) and the online art galleries of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) (from the annual online PsiberDreaming Conferences, submissions open to all; each on-site annual conference also includes an art gallery, which is juried).

Of course, dream experience is actually sensorially varied from person to person and within any one person’s dreams, as Humphrey goes on to say:

But, here’s the thing: Neither analogy [black-and-white or color]  is necessarily the “right” one. Dreams don’t have to be pictures of any kind at all. They could be simply thoughts — and thoughts, even thoughts about color, are neither colored nor non-colored in themselves.

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