Dream logic helps us understand the workings of the brain and mind.
Posted Sep 27, 2020
You are walking along with the moon following you like a helium balloon on a string. Remarkably, you can see yourself as another person would but you know that this person really is you. The world below your feet is but a large blue ball and you are walking in the most beautiful starlit night imaginable, unlike anything you have ever seen before. You have a peaceful sense that all is well with the world and everything is as it should be. You begin to notice a distant, incessant sound. Gradually the moon, stars, and earth dissolve into a drowsy haze as you instinctively reach for the alarm to shut it off. As the room around you comes into focus you are puzzled by the images that you have been seeing and the strange world you were just visiting.
I have always been fascinated by the strange logic of dreams. We are aware, from an early age, that the events within a dream often do not seem bound by the same laws of physics and norms of social convention as those of day to day life. As in the example above, the most fantastic events and unlikely scenes play out in our dreams. What does the structure of dream logic tell us?
The online Urban Dictionary defines dream logic as: “1. The nonsensical logic one possesses while dreaming that makes perfect sense until he or she wakes up and 2. information one magically/automatically possesses in a dream without having learned it before.” The term “dream logic” is used in film studies. Some movies exploit the unusual logic of dreams to create a certain kind of emotional experience in the audience. This seems to work because we all have an intuitive sense of how events play out in dreams and how they differ from ordinary day-to-day life. When operating with dream logic we do not expect that events will progress as they do during the waking state.
This term has become common. It is the name of a comic book series by Marvel. DreamLogic is the name of a computer software development company as well as a sleep aid supplement. And an episode of the science fiction television series Fringe. Perhaps most appropriately it is the name of a collective of artists and technologists who create immersive art experiences such as the 747 project at Burning Man in 2017.
You can find a list of movies and TV programs with significant dream logic elements to them on the Internet Movie Database website. In the cinematic realm, the term dream logic has most often been applied to the work of director David Lynch. While all of his works have a component of dream logic in them, the two most often noted are the movie Mulholland Drive and the television program Twin Peaks. These challenging works push us to think in ways that are nonlinear and emotional rather than rational. Mr. Lynch was asked in an interview what role dreams play in the development of his ideas and he responded, “Not much, except daydreaming. Very rarely have I gotten ideas from nighttime dreams, but I love dream logic. And cinema can [show] dream logic.“ His work has been the subject of academic study for decades as he has illuminated some of the darker aspects of human experience in a way few directors can. He has been true to his artistic vision and has resisted explaining his productions. Each viewer determines for themselves what they mean.
David Gelernter is a computer scientist at Yale University and has made the point that in order to fully understand human thought and experience it is necessary to understand not only ordinary logic but also the logic of dreams. As he has said:
“We need to see, first, that in approaching the topic of human thought, we usually stop half-way through. In fact, the human mind moves back and forth along a spectrum defined by ordinary logic at one end and ‘dream logic’ at the other. ‘Dream logic’ makes just as much sense as ordinary ‘day logic’; it simply follows different rules. But most philosophers and cognitive scientists see only day logic and ignore dream logic—which is like imagining the earth with a north pole but no south pole.” (David Gelernter, 9/13/2020, Dream-logic, the Internet and artificial thought, The Edge)
As to the question about what it is that dream logic tells us, the most likely answer is that dream logic arises out of the basic brain processes that are active during REM sleep. As we drift into sleep and later transition into REM sleep, certain areas of the brain that are dominant during the waking state are less active while other areas of the brain become more active. During dreaming information is not flowing into the brain from the external world so the images being experienced are generated internally and are interpreted independently from the constraints of external reality. The limbic system, which is responsible for the processing of emotional material, is especially active in the dream state leading to powerful emotional experiences that are unrelated to any external stimulus. Higher cortical areas that are involved in logical reasoning during wakefulness are shut down during REM sleep. This deactivation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during REM sleep has been hypothesized to occur because of the release of acetylcholine during sleep (Muzur, Pace-Schott, & Hobson, 2002).
From a psychological perspective, it seems that dreams may not be just random images that we try to make sense of. Instead, they may represent the use of imagination during sleep. In this way, as pointed out in the book, Fan Phenomena: Twin Peaks, “Dream logic embraces embodied instinct and cosmic self-awareness, our lowest animal desires and our highest spiritual aspirations, our darkest fears and our brightest joys. It governs a much wider range of experiences and realities than is normally recognized by waking consciousness.” This freedom, while it can be unsettling, is a potential source of creativity that extends beyond our day to day reality and may be necessary to fully understand human experience, as David Gelernter has suggested.
The very strangeness of our logical processes during sleep arises from brain processes. Examining these processes can help increase our understanding of how the brain works and what actually occurs during dreaming. It is interesting that certain directors have found cinematic ways to tap this unusual logic to create works of art that challenge us. They draw us in to experience images and ideas in new ways that are disconnected from our ordinary understanding of reality. To fully understand human experience it will be necessary to understand dream logic. Cinema may help us to achieve this.
If you want to explore your own dream logic, I suggest keeping a dream journal. With practice, when you notice lingering traces of dreams upon awakening and focus on them, you will retain them long enough to write them down. Quickly recording these memories will allow you to collect and analyze your dreams’ themes and emotional states. Over time your recall will improve and you will gain more from looking at your dreams’ content and themes. You may learn something about yourself in the process, and your own personal dream logic just might increase your daytime creativity as well. You may want to sleep on it—then give it a try!
Muzur, A., Pace-Schott, E.F., & Hobson, J.A., (2002). The prefrontal cortex in sleep. Trends in Cognitive Science, 6(11), p. 475-481. doi: 10.1016/s1364-6613(02)01992-7.