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The things we do in dreams!

How responsible are you for the things you do in your dreams?

All of us have had dreams where we engage in behaviors that are less than praiseworthy. A lonely wife in her 30s dreams that she has sex with someone who is not her husband. A man in his 20s dreams that he machine guns a group of strangers. Another man dreamt that he used a sledgehammer to kill a rival in a dream. A reformed alcoholic dreams that he picks up a drink and rapidly becomes intoxicated.

Anyone who has ever worked with dreams realizes very quickly that they are filled with behaviors that the dreamer would disapprove of in waking life. How should we regard the actions of characters that appear in dreams? Are they mere inventions of the mind of the dreamer? Is the dreamer responsible for his or her own actions in a dream? To what extent do dream characters exhibit full-fledged criteria of Mind and agency? If they do satisfy criteria of the mental, do they then deserve some sort of moral status as well? To what extent can we accord them the status of the real? No-one would demand that the lonely wife who dreams of an adulterous affair should be deemed adulterous.

And no-one surely would want to lock up a person simply because he dreamed of killing another person. Perhaps the characters in a dream are best treated as we do characters in a novel or a movie. Are they simply creatures of the imagination? We will see that this option is not open for characters in dreams and thus their ontological status remains undecided.

Philosophers claim that only a ‘ person ‘ can be held responsible for his or her actions. What then is a person? A person is a being who is capable of reasoning, who displays intentionality and emotion, is self-conscious, and has an identity that persists through time. Surprizingly, there is evidence that both the dreamer (dream-ego) and other dream characters display these criteria for mentality.

Take one of the dreams mentioned above, say the dream of the adulterous wife. Does the dreamer, the wife display any of the features of personhood or of the mental just mentioned? Can she reason? Apparently yes. She is aware in the dream that the lover is not the husband and that this is illicit. But she proceeds anyway. Does she display intentionality? Intentionality is the ability to direct the mind towards people or states of affairs. Clearly she displays intentionality as she directs her mind, desires, intentions toward accomplishing the adulterous affair. Does she display emotion. Yes, she experiences, desire, passion, even some shame. Is she self-conscious? The experience of shame and guilt that follows hard upon the awareness that the affair is illicit, that ‘this is not my husband' suggests that the dreamer has some self-awareness. Does the dreamer's identity persist across time. When she awakens the dreamer will remember the dream and blush or at least be surprised. She blushes because she is the same person as the dreamer who engaged in the illicit behavior in the dream. Thus, to some extent her identity persists across time and across brain states. In short, the dreamer possesses the key criteria of personhood demanded by philosophers before they are willing to hold people responsible for their actions.

But are dream characters really persons? They display all the characteristics of the Mind but they cannot be held responsible for their actions. We know that pre-modern cultures very often did hold people responsible for their dream actions. Many Native American tribes for example, accorded moral status to actions in the dream world. If a person dreamt of hurting another person in the tribe actions were taken to compensate the other person. But if the actions in dreams were egregriously immoral such as a murder the dreamer would not be executed for the murder-he would not get the punishment he would have gotten if the murder had occurred in real life. Nevertheless some penalty was exacted for immoral dream actions. This was the case in all pre-modern cultures that I have investigated-though admittedly only via second-hand accounts in books and ethnographies. Dream actions are accorded a moral status but a status inferior to waking actions.

I am not recommending we do the same as pre-modern cultures with respect to the moral status of dream actions but I do think it worth pursuing the idea of the personhood of dream characters. We cannot dismiss them outright as mere fictions but they cannot be regarded as real either. That realm of ambiguity may lead to some fruitful analyses concerning the nature of mind and morality in waking life.

More from Patrick McNamara Ph.D.
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