Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Meaninglessness of dreams

I read a currently popular pocketbook bestseller where an American journalist (David Randall, was his name) gives an overview of the subject of sleep. The first two chapters introduce some exciting basic facts about sleep that are not generally known, and I was beginning to wonder if this book was going to be one of those "popular revelations" like Krause's book on natural sounds, or Pretor-Pinney's book about clouds, or Johannesson's-Klingberg's book about Swedish extreme metal. But already chapters 3 and 4 are substantially weaker than 1 and 2, and in chapter 5 (only in chapter 5!) he comes to the subject of dreams, and reveals colours.
    First he gives a recollection of the Freudian way, a somewhat incomplete but far from unsympathetic and not very superficial account: he even examplifies with the famous analysis of the "Irma's injection" dream and gives the whole "broken kettle" argument!
    Then he comes with summaries and interviews of modern dream researchers, who all complain about being pariahs in science because everybody thinks dream research is necessarily about new age, but who have all stubbornly clinged to a cognitive program and thereby conclusively disproved Freud once and for all.
    One American professor disproved Freud by collecting 50 000 dreams and formalising their key elements, finding that dreams are not meaningful, symbolic, "surrealistic" or wish-fulfilling – because they are in fact meaningless, banal, standardised, boring, negative and anguish-filled! For example, if a stranger occurs in a dream, he will invariably start pursuing and attacking the dreamer. And when ex-partners, family members and dead friends pop up, it is only to trigger bad conscience.
    Another American research team proved that dreams are meaningless because they are totally random memory fragments, and just because of that, they contribute usefully to solving everyday problems because we can see things in a different constellation.
    The author of this popular book enthusiastically agrees with all this, and explains that dreams are so consistently negative and anguish-filled because they are fundamentally the playing out of worst-case-scenarios in our everyday worries, and the reason they are negative is not that they are meaningful in any way but they simply reflect that everyday life is mostly about worries.
    Any reader with a sense for irony will appreciate this elaborate parable. If dreams are meaningless because they are boring and anguish-filled, systematically negative and totally random, just a continuation of waking thought and entirely meaningless, does not this list provide a rather exhaustive set of self-contradictions that just once more illustrate the case with the broken kettle?
    So clearly, this is just a case of the classic philistine "hatred against the marvellous".
    Many aggressive common-sense views of the "cognitive" side of the spectrum typically postulate apriori that things are meaningless. They usually take sadistic pleasure in "debunking" the romantic views of the naively meaning-ascribing primitives around them; but as long as the lack of meaning is a postulate, it is also rather logically consistent and escapes counterarguments. You have to have faith in this meaninglessness, or it becomes just a hollow stance, a rhetorical trope.
    But then many of these haters turn to actively demonstrating the absence of meaning, a task that easily becomes self-contradictory, because formulating patterns and selecting examples are activities that in themselves produce meaning, and the absence of meaning can never ever be actually demonstrated. The closest thing to a meaninglessness demonstrated is perhaps an almost perfect mathematical randomness. But demonstrating this also requires the conceptualisation, circumscription, recognition, selection and naming of elements as well as the variables measured, and therefore involves meaning.
    Another aspect is this weird identification between the common and the negative, between everyday life and anxiety – clinically, I would say that anyone this eager to identify these two very different concepts with each other is simply a very depressed person.
    Again we are perhaps reminded of the broken kettle in this credo of miserabilism: the beautiful and the pleasureable are not something very attractive, and anyway they are very very uncommon, and when they do occur they are not real but only illusions.
    Yes, and by the way, the rest of the book is mostly bullshit, with a few scattered interesting facts about sleep biology, sleep psychology and sleep sociology. A popular science book is after all typically a compendium of small revelations and great prejudices side by side.

M Forshage

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