Are you dreaming?

Often when I’m dreaming I “feel” that I’m awake.  When I’m awake, however, I always  “feel” that I’m awake and have no conscious doubt (except in the philosophical sense) that I’m not dreaming.

But logically when I “feel” awake I should believe there is a non-trivial chance that I’m dreaming.  This has implications for how I should behave.

For example, imagine I’m considering eating spinach or chocolate.  I like the taste of chocolate more than spinach, but recognize that spinach is healthier for me.  Let’s say that if the probability of my being awake were greater than 99% then to maximize the expected overall quality of my life I should eat the spinach otherwise I should pick the chocolate. 

Rationally, I should probably figure that the chance of my being awake is less than 99% so I should go with the chocolate.  Yet like most other humans I don’t take into account that I might be dreaming when I “feel” awake.

Over the long run you would likely reduce your inclusive genetic fitness if when you  “feel” awake you act as if there is a less than 100% chance of your actually being awake.  For this reason I suspect we are “genetically programmed” to never doubt that we are awake when we “feel” awake even though it would be rational to hold such a doubt.

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  • Bo

    You can do a test to see whether you’re dreaming or not: pinch yourself, or look at a text and see if it has changed the second time you look.

    When you are in fact dreaming, you don’t find yourself wondering whether you are dreaming, and if you do, you will soon find out that you indeed are dreaming. This distinguishes sleeping and waking.

  • Nick Tarleton

    When you are in fact dreaming, you don’t find yourself wondering whether you are dreaming

    This is my experience too (although I have poor dream recall), and completely settles the issue in my mind. The fact of asking the question determines the answer.

  • matt

    This is a clever thought, but not that interesting.

    I think a more interesting question to answer is what is the evolutionary explanation for repeated dreams that are almost universal. For example: falling, losing teeth, being naked, etc.

  • Tim Tyler

    “Tonight in your dreams you must look at your hands.”

  • Martin

    “Often when I’m dreaming I “feel” that I’m awake”.

    I don’t. Well, normally, in a dream, the question doesn’t come up, but if I ask myself whether I’m dreaming or not, I always know.

    “repeated dreams that are almost universal. For example: falling, losing teeth, being naked, etc”.

    I haven’t had those dreams.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    Coincidentally, I had a dream on almost this exact topic, two nights ago. I was out for dinner with my wife and I realized at some point that I was dreaming. So I went ahead and ordered all this chocolate and other treats that I would normally not eat (so much, anyway). My wife looked a little concerned so I assured her it was just a dream, and that she could go ahead and eat anything she wanted too. (I did not realize that since it was my dream, she was not an independent conscious entity, I had in mind I think that she might be dreaming too.) Unfortunately the dream did not continue in this state long enough for me to enjoy what I had ordered, it diverged into some other path as dreams often do. But I remember the happiness when I realized that I could enjoy a guilty pleasure without consequence.

    On another note, people do sometimes report uncertainty as to whether they are awake or dreaming, even when awake. This usually happens when something very unusual or bizarre happens. “I felt like I was dreaming, I kept waiting to wake up,” you sometimes hear.

  • Nominull

    Whenever I try to specifically make a rational decision during a dream it always wakes me up. So, by the time I had figured out to eat the chocolate I would have already woken up.

  • Carl Shulman

    “Whenever I try to specifically make a rational decision during a dream it always wakes me up.”

    I think the causality is more likely from being nearly awake to rational decisions.

  • frelkins

    @James

    But logically when I “feel” awake I should believe there is a non-trivial chance that I’m dreaming

    The reality is of course that parts of our brains are various states at different times. Parts of it are “awake” when you dreaming, and parts are “asleep” when you are awake.

    Whenever you measure brain activity, different parts are running at different “speeds.” You can see wacky proof of this in the unusual demonstration given by Dr. Eric Miller of translating his wave patterns into sound. And it seems the faster speeds rely on the slower ones for co-ordination of different brain parts.

    The only thing that makes our “feelings” different is what brain wave set pre-dominates at that time. Parts of my brain are doing alpha, beta, gamma, theta, and even a minute portion of delta waves as I sit here typing. This is especially true of younger children, who even while awake have a lot of delta activity, according to a 2002 finding by Dr. Eric Taylor.

    As an adult, I “feel” awake with a lot of beta activity. But the other waves are still all there hanging out, albeit some near imperceptibly. We just have to accept that our brain and states are more complex than we might at first think. This means we probably should rethink our common notions of being awake and dreaming.

    This actually offers us all a great excuse: “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that; my sound processing center was asleep for that moment.” I use it often to good comic effect.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    One of these days, remind me to post on the most philosophically interesting dream I ever had – in fact, it’s the most philosophically interesting dream I’ve ever heard of.

  • http://www.philosophyetc.net Richard

    Like several others upthread, I don’t actually think there’s any “non-trivial chance” that I’m dreaming. (I’ve written more on the epistemic question here.)

  • http://technaut.livejournal.com StirlingWestrup

    When I’m dreaming, I always know (either implicitly or explicitly) that I’m dreaming. That said, the pinching of the self and the looking at text doesn’t work as distinguishing tests for me. Its true that pinching yourself in a dream doesn’t hurt, but when I’m dreaming I *think* that it does. Similarly, although text is seldom stable in dreams, there is usally a semi-valid explanation presented by my dream such as discovering that the text is an e-book or I’ve inadvertantly picked up a different book than last time, etc.

    One thing that does work for me is looking at a clock. Any clock in a dream will inevitably carry the message “OMG! Wake UP! You’re Late for Work!” followed by me waking up in a panic at 3:00 am. I therefore try never to look at clocks in my dreams.

  • http://ilanbouchard.blogspot.com Ilan Bouchard

    Intersting post, but it fails to take into account something I experience all the time: Being awake but feeling like I’m dreaming.

  • PK

    When I dream I’m a different person. The dream person feels like me but its not completely me like the awake me. The dream person is narrowly focused on whatever events are happening from moment to moment(dream events). The dream person is like me on auto pilot. The dream person is not capable of understanding the question “am I dreaming right now?” and all of it’s philosophical implications in the way that the awake me can.

    There is no dilemma for me. If I can ask and think about the question in the way I can now then it means I’m awake. If a dream somehow invoked the rationality and introspection hardware required to seriously think about the question it would fully activate my brain and wake me up.

  • Evolution

    For this reason I suspect we are “genetically programmed” to never doubt that we are awake when we “feel” awake even though it would be rational to hold such a doubt.

    You are not “genetically programmed” to doubt that you are awake. Note the difference. Dreams are just another bug I didn’t care to fix.
    By the way, what is “quality of life” and “rationality”?

  • http://jamesdmiller.blogspot.com/ James D. Miller

    Evolution – Quality of life is utility, rationality is maximizing your expected utility.

  • Douglas Knight

    StirlingWestrup, above, and this are the only stories I’ve heard of people thinking of dream tests and yet failing to identify the dream. SW is more extreme, since he seems to explicitly phrase it as a dream test, while Patri merely compares his experience to a dream.

  • Daniel Burfoot

    Here’s an interesting interpretation of the purpose of dreams. The brain is a statistical model of the world – an imperfect echo of the entire universe. To learn means to improve the correspondence between the brain’s model of the world and the world itself.

    In statistics there are various ways of improving the quality of a model. One way is to sample from the model and compare the samples to the real data. In this light we can view dreams as samples from the brain’s generative model of (visual) reality. This idea can explain some of the recent research about how learning depends on sleep.

    Also, if the samples closely resemble the real data, it means that the model is good. So if you have very realistic dreams, it means your brain has a good model of visual reality.

    See “the Wake-Sleep Algorithm for Unsupervised Neural Networks” by Hinton et al for a technical explanation of how this might work.

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    For a long time I was annoyed by how the obvious argument

    Am I dreaming? Well, since I’m unsure, I must be dreaming. Time to start flying!

    didn’t occur to me while I was dreaming. But in recent years it seems that it’s finally sunk in to even that level.

    It’s hard to say, of course, but I think that lately, in pretty much all the dreams I remember, I become aware at some point that I’m dreaming. But, strangely, it also seems like I remember fewer of my dreams than I used to.

  • jb

    Whenever I write about the possibility that we are all just simulations in a full-earth/galactic/universe physics simulation, I have a strange tingling sense in the back of my neck, like the whole thing is going to shut down because too many people are talking about it, and ruining the creator’s experiment.

    I feel compelled to continue to write about it, because I’d rather get used to the tingling, than perpetually be afraid of it.

  • http://lightskyland.com Matthew C.

    JB,

    I think you are on to something.

    Here’s something a bit further along that line. When we create simulations, very often we “go inside” the simulation, for example, becoming characters in Second Life, soldiers in FPS games, etc. The very purpose of the simulation is to provide an environment to “play around” in and experience the simulation from a first person perspective, not a third person perspective.

    So if this universe is a simulation, what does that say about who / what we might actually be?

  • ShardPhoenix

    “I think a more interesting question to answer is what is the evolutionary explanation for repeated dreams that are almost universal. For example: falling, losing teeth, being naked, etc.”

    I used to have dreams where my teeth would fall out fairly often. Then I went to the dentist, who noticed that my teeth were getting worn down, probably through grinding them while sleeping. He gave me a plastic mouth-guard thing to wear at night, and now I don’t have teeth-falling-out dreams any more. Perhaps dreams of falling also have a physiological explanation (some process inducing vertigo while sleeping), though I’d guess that naked dreams are more based on social fears.

  • Dark Lords of the Matrix

    Whenever I write about the possibility that we are all just simulations in a full-earth/galactic/universe physics simulation, I have a strange tingling sense in the back of my neck, like the whole thing is going to shut down because too many people are talking about it, and ruining the creator’s experiment.

    Don’t panic. If you weren’t meant to guess you’re simulated, you wouldn’t be in a physics that invites simulation arguments.

    Unsimulated JBs in the same situation would also write simulation wonderings, so stopping you from doing so would invalidate the accuracy of the simulation.

  • frelkins

    Dr. Mark Ast the neuroscientist once argued to me that dreams are possibly the experiential by-product of the brain writing long-term memories.

  • Pete Carlton

    Often when I’m dreaming I “feel” that I’m awake.

    You could also say, you often wake up from sleep and feel the urge to tell a story that you had a dream in which you felt like you were awake. But what your brain was really doing, and what “you” were experiencing, while you were asleep is anybody’s guess.

  • Cameron Taylor

    I assign higher utility to eating spinach when I’m dreaming, completely independently of any doubt of my awake status.

    I do not consider instant gratification to be beneficial inside of dreams. In fact, if anything I would prefer my dreaming self to be more self controlled than my waking self. I would thereby benefit from reinforcing and processing the outcomes of rational behaviors without some of the associated stress.

    I reject the implicit assumption that we should want to submit to instant gratification in our dreams. I accept your conclusion. I acknowledge that there is likely a good reason for evolution to have made it difficult for us to be aware that we are dreaming. I wouldn’t trust people with that sort of information either. At least, not until they were able to rationally explain the purpose of dreams and demonstrate that they can use that knowledge to effectively achieve reproductive goals.

  • Vicky

    These are all interesting experiences, but we have to take into account that not al people experience dreams and waking reality as most. I, myself, find it very hard to distinguish between dreams and wake reality; philosophically speaking, there is no difference. My memories of dreams present themselves the same as ‘actual’ memories. And so, for myself, i can never 100% guarantee that I am awake right now.

    I ALWAYS dream in first person. I have NEVER experienced lucid dreams, or that realisation that I am dreaming, when dreaming. The ‘pinch test’ doesn’t work for two reasons: 1, I am not in control of my dreams, so I cannot decide to test myself. 2, If I experience pain in a dream, it is experienced the exactly the same as being awake. Pain being a mental event (philosophically termed ‘mental event’, despite whether mental events exist, to which I believe they do), if experienced in dreams, how then can one distinguish it from the experience of pain in waking reality?

    I realise that I am quite unique in the topic of dream experience. I know this from philosophical classes, and discussions with friends. And I may be alone with how I experience dreams, but this IS how I experience them; and so long as there is one variable, there cannot be a unified theory/concept/thought.

    Other than ‘in waking reality’ I go to bed and rise from bed, I have NO way to distinguish dreams from reality. It’s a very weird, scary, exciting, and philosophically interesting experience.