I recently received this email from a reader:
"Dear Professor McNamara,
I read with great interest your article "Counterfactual Thought in Dreams" during a research on counterfactual thinking, and a recurrent dream came to my mind, which I had between 20 and 25, more or less. I wonder whether it can be considered in the category of counterfactuality. Actually the scenario changed from dream to dream, in one case I remember a wild west story, but the structure was always the same, as in the following dream:
I am on a boat in a city crossed by canals, where a battle rages. Suddenly I am in the midst of enemies, who overwhelm me and are about to kill me. But a moment before I'm killed the scene stops and I start going back with my boat, like in a backward slow motion, up to the point where I turned into the channel which proved fatal, and I take another one. If also this canal leads me in the hands of enemies, I go back once more to another turning point, until eventually I escape unharmed from the city. And now the dream ends and I wake up."
The reader asked if this dream might be an example of counterfactual content in dreams and I answered yes. In its simplest form a counterfactual thought is an "If-then" sort of statement..."If I had taken an umbrella this morning, then I would not be wet now"
A counterfactual undoes something that happened in the past. I can imagine myself not being wet since I can imagine myself having taken the umbrella in the morning. In the reader's dream above the dreamer undoes his near death experience by returning to the point in the channel where he and his boat were not in danger....and then re-running the simulation until he finds a way out of the danger.
We humans do most of our everyday learning via these sort of counterfactual simulations. The learning comes from the logical implications that follow from the counterfactual simulation and If-then statement: "In the future I will take an umbrella when it looks like it will rain".
I have received a few other such examples from readers and I am more convinced than other that the dreaming mind relies heavily on counterfactual thought patterns in its processing.
From a formal point of view a counterfactual is a simulation of a state of affairs and of course this is what dreams are so good at. Simulations. Dreams are visual, life-like simulations of various possible worlds...worlds near to the one we are familiar with but not quite the same as the one we are familiar with. They undo some past event in order to make things right.
The greater the number of attempts to undo some past event, the more the simulations are run and the more complex they become. Each new simulation attempts to undo a different parameter of the original event. With complexity comes greater number of unusual or bizarre features in the simulations.
Now if it is true that dreams are at bottom counterfactual simulations then we can learn more from our dreams by analyzing them in this way. The reader's dream above is an obvious counterfactual, but most dreams are not fully remembered and so are more difficult to see as counterfactual simulations. But if we assume some counterfactual processing, then we can work with most dreams and learn from them.
If I approach each dream as a potential counterfactual, I can ask what the dream simulation is trying to undo and then work from there. Of course, not all dreams are counterfactuals. So this interpretative method won't work for all dreams, but it will work for some significant number of them, I believe. We therefore can potentially learn from at least some of our dreams..