In Your Dreams

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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A lot of people believe the subconscious mind is a faithful recorder of information. Dreams are widely supposed to be a good way of generating creative ideas by either getting around mental blocks or by recovering information that the conscious mind has forgotten. I have recently had a few dream experiences that bear on some of the common claims paranormalists and others make about the subconscious. 

On June 25, 1997, I dreamed I was at a business-type lunch. Playing in the background was an Italian-sounding melody. We tried to place it but could not. We all agreed it probably wasn't Verdi, but could not identify the composer. When I awoke, the tune was still running through my mind. I identified it easily as Tchaikovsky's Cappricio Italien (not a piece I listen to often). According to a lot of popular literature, the subconscious mind is more creative than the conscious mind, has better access to memories, and is able to generate solutions to problems that stump the rational mind. My subconscious: 

  1. Was not creative enough to guess that an non-Italian might have written a piece of Italian- sounding music, and 
  2. Failed to identify a piece that my conscious mind (even just waking up) instantly identified. 

A very similar experience involved dreaming in another language. Contrary to widespread misconception, you don't have to be very fluent to dream in other languages. I have dreamt in half a dozen languages, some of which I only know a few phrases of. This dream was in Serbo-Croatian, which I learned a bit of during a six-month military tour in Bosnia in 1996. I can handle simple conversations but am decidedly not fluent. In my dream, I was fumbling for some phrases. After I awoke and recalled the dream, I realized that the phrases were simple courtesy phrases I knew perfectly well. Here again, my dreaming subconscious failed to retrieve data that my conscious could access easily. 

On another occasion, I was dreaming in German, a language I speak reasonably well. I was fishing for an obscure word I would not normally know (as is the case with many dreams, the exact details are quickly forgotten). I came up with a compound word, and even a fairly convincing explanation for how the word was derived. When I awoke, I was intrigued. Did my subconscious access a long-forgotten word, or integrate other words into an inspired solution to a problem? Well, no. When I looked up the English word in a dictionary, I found the German word was completely different. The compound word my subconscious dredged up? Nonexistent. 

On February 5, 1997, I dreamed in a foreign language of a different sort. Someone needed a sorted list of computer files, and I started writing a program in BASIC to do the job. My plan was to list the files onto a floppy disk, then use a word-processor to do the sorting. When I was programming regularly in BASIC I used file access commands all the time, but in my dream I was unsure of the exact format. This was data that was at most mildly rusty, but I couldn't recall it clearly. Upon awakening, I realized two things. First, I didn't need a program to sort files; both DOS and Windows offer a wide range of file sorting options. Second, if I did want to write a file listing to a diskette, I wouldn't do it in BASIC; it can be done much more easily using DOS. Yet again my creative subconscious mind couldn't access information that my conscious mind was perfectly capable of retrieving. 

Paranormalists, hypnotists, spiritualists and others would have us believe the subconscious is a perfect recorder of information, able to integrate information that the hobbled conscious mind cannot. I'm not going to deny that for some people dreams may provide access to forgotten or blocked information, but in my experience, my subconscious has repeatedly failed to retrieve information that my conscious mind has no trouble whatever recalling. My dreams seem to be nothing more than random memory dumps. I suppose on occasion some random bit flushed out in a dream may inspire someone to think along new lines and thereby lead to a creative insight, but such an event is purely random. Flipping randomly through an encyclopedia is just as likely to inspire new ideas.

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Created 29 April, 2002, Last Update 02 June, 2010

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