If a lion could talk you couldn’t understand him. Ludwig Wittgenstein
Do dogs dream? When observing a sleeping dog you’ve let lie you’ll likely notice that it makes involuntary movements and emits sounds. While all this activity may simply be reflex, I’ll allow that it is the expression of a canine dream. I’m aware that the only true evidence of dreams is the reports of dreamers that they dream. Thus language is required to document a dream. And as the report of a dream is not a dream but a depiction of one, our knowledge of dreams not our own is necessarily second hand. As dogs lack language my assumption that they dream is open to challenge. What does a dog’s dream consist of? There is no way to know, nor can there be. His thoughts, images, and all other perceptions are forever untranslatable – just like Wittgenstein’s lion.
You might think that such a problem does not apply to the thoughts of other humans. But how can you be sure or even remotely know? When we look at a bull we all agree that it has two horns and further concede that one each is on either side of the animal’s head. We also are unanimous that the horns end in a point. But how do I know that what you see is the same as my image despite our agreement about it description? When we hear the first four notes of Beethoven’s C minor symphony we are all struck by the power of those notes and of incredible use of the motif that follows over the next 30 minutes or so. Are we hearing the same sounds? Or as students of consciousness ask what does blue look like?
Back to the dog. It sees, hears, has emotions, is capable of fear and pleasure. It is obviously conscious. But its perception of the world is clearly different from ours. It can detect things that we cannot. If treated well and given simple shelter and food it is content. It has no fear of any threat that is not immediate. Its eventual death holds no fear. Dogs do not commit suicide. They do not worry or grow depressed, again given good conditions. It is a social animal that values companionship – in both directions.
Humans speak complex languages and build machines that can build other machines. Our consciousness is clearly the result of a big jump from that of a dog or other higher mammals. But are our dreams different? They are jumbled, elusive, fragmentary, easily forgotten, shadows of reality. We have imparted meaning and portents to them over the millenia, but do they represent anything more than random electrical discharges? The are almost as many theories as to the origin or meaning of dreams as there are dreams themselves. Hippocrates theorized that during the day, the soul receives images; during the night, it produces images. That probably works as well as any. Though people blind from birth do not have visual dreams. Their dreams use the other senses.
Where does a dream reside? The brain is the only possible organ, but no one has yet localized the part of the brain from whence dreams spring. Despite the ubiquity of dreams and our lack of understanding of their true nature or even of their evolutionary role, if there is one, people have been making a living off of them for millenia. Joseph was in the dream business thousands of years before Freud imputed dark meanings to them.
Dreams have been subdivided into many variations. There are even lucid dreams. Such a dream is one during which the dreamer knows he’s dreaming and may even have control over the dream. Oneirologists say that there is convincing evidence supporting the existence of lucid dreams. Rapid eye movement was thought to indicate a sleeper was dreaming. Newer data now show that REM sleep may sometimes not be associated with dreaming while dreams may occur without REM. But most episodes of REM seem to be dream associated. Dogs, and other mammals, exhibit REM during sleep which further convinces me that they dream.
The dream has been the inspiration for artists and writers for ages. Even philosophers have entered the space. Some, not surprisingly considering the source, even postulating that all life is but a dream. If so, a lot of the dreams of life must be nightmares. The dog, of course, knows nothing of this school. I don’t think it has nightmares. All its dreams are likely sweet.
(close of Act II)
The king dreams he is a king,
And in this delusive way
Lives and rules with sovereign sway;
All the cheers that round him ring,
Born of air, on air take wing.
And in ashes (mournful fate!)
Death dissolves his pride and state:
Who would wish a crown to take,
Seeing that he must awake
In the dream beyond death’s gate?
‘Tis a dream that I in sadness
Here am bound, the scorn of fate;
‘Twas a dream that once a state
I enjoyed of light and gladness.
What is life? ‘Tis but a madness.
What is life? A thing that seems,
A mirage that falsely gleams,
Phantom joy, delusive rest,
Since is life a dream at best,
And even dreams themselves are dreams
Pero Calderon de la Barca, XVII century