The Universe of Discourse

Sun, 24 Jun 2007

Do you dream in color?
People have occasionally asked me whether I dreamt in color or on black-and-white, by which I suppose they meant grayscale. This question was strange to me the first time I heard it, because up to then it had not occurred to me that anyone did not dream in color. I still find it strange, and I had to do a Google search to verify that there really are people who claim not to dream in color.

One time, when I replied that I did dream in color, my interlocutor asked me if I was sure: perhaps I dreamt in black and white, but only remembered it as being in color later.

I am sure I dream in color, because on more than one occasion I have had discussions in dreams about colors of objects. I can't remember any examples right now, but it was something like this: "Give me the red apple." "Okay, here." "That is not the red apple, that is the green apple!" And then I looked and saw that the apple I had thought was red was really green.

One could still argue that I wasn't really dreaming in color, that it only seemed like that, or something. It's a delicate philosophical point. One could also argue that I didn't have any dream at all, I only thought I did after I woke up. I suppose the only refutations of such an argument either appeal to neurology or involve a swift kick in the pants.

And then suppose I have a dream in which I take LSD and have marvelous hallucinations. Did I really have hallucinations? Or did I only dream them? If I dream that I kill someone, we agree that it wasn't real, that a dream murder is not a real murder; it is only in your head. But hallucinations, by definition, are only in your head even when they are real, so don't dream hallucinations have as much claim to reality as waking hallucinations?

One might argue that dreamt LSD hallucinations are likely to be qualitatively very different from real LSD hallucinations—less like real LSD hallucinations, say, and more like, well, dreams. But this only refutes the claim that the dream hallucinations were LSD hallucinations. And nobody was going to claim that they were LSD hallucinations anyway, since no actual LSD was involved. So this doesn't address the right question.

Stickier versions of the same problem are possible. For example, suppose I give Bill a little piece of paper and tell him it is impregnated with LSD. It is not, but because of the placebo effect, Bill believes himself to be having an LSD trip and reports hallucinations. There was no LSD involved, so the hallucinations were only imaginary. But even real hallucinations are only imaginary. Are we really justified in saying that Bill is mistaken, that he did not actually hallucinate, but only imagined that he did? That seems like a very difficult position to defend.

I seem to have wandered from the main point, which is that I had another dream last night that supports my contention that I dream in color. I was showing my friend Peter some little homunculi that had been made long ago from colored pipe cleaners, shiny paper, and sequins by my grandmother's friend Kay Seiler. Originally there had been ten of these, but in the dream I had only five. When my grandmother had died, my sister and I had split the set, taking five each. In place of the five originals I was missing, I had five copies, which were identifiable as such because they were in grayscale. Presumably my sister had grayscale copies of the originals I retained. I explained this to Peter, drawing his attention to the five full-color homunculi and the five grayscale ones.

So yes, barring philosophical arguments that I think deserve a kick in the pants, I am sure that I dream in color.

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