Logo IMG


Meaningful Byproducts

G. William Domhoff

Dreaming Souls: Sleep, Dreams, and the Evolution of the Conscious Mind. Owen Flanagan. 210 pp. Oxford University Press, 2000. $25.

Philosopher of consciousness Owen Flanagan offers in Dreaming Souls ideas that provide a sound basis for theorizing about dreams: that dreams are incidental byproducts of two important adaptations—consciousness and sleeping—and have not acquired an adaptive function along the way and that they nonetheless can be "self-expressive" and worth studying for personal insight, although many of them may be nonsensical. There is good evidence to support both of these claims.

Dreaming Souls also contains many questionable empirical conclusions that lead the author astray on key issues. It is an example of what happens when someone ventures into an area of inquiry without taking the whole research literature into account. In addition, the author implies that his emphasis on dreams as "epiphenomenal," personally meaningful and a form of consciousness is original and perhaps shocking. This is because he thinks the diametrically opposed ideas of Freud and Harvard psychiatrist J. Allan Hobson define the universe of important dream theorists, with Freud believing that dreams are adaptive and meaningful and Hobson allegedly believing they are adaptive and meaningless. He also claims that neuropsychologist Mark Solms (The Neuropsychology of Dreams, 1997) "is the only sleep-dream researcher I have read who insists as strongly as I do that although REM [rapid eye movement] sleep and dreaming almost invariably co-occur, they are different phenomena."

But several research psychologists have held that dreams may be non-adaptive and yet psychologically meaningful ever since the original equation of REM sleep and dreaming broke down completely in the mid-1960s. As for the author's emphasis on the distinctiveness of dreaming as a cognitive process separate from REM sleep and on the usefulness of dreaming for understanding more about consciousness, these points have been made several times since the 1980s by the most insightful laboratory dream researcher of the past 40 years, psychologist David Foulkes, author of Dreaming: A Cognitive-Psychological Analysis (1985).

Although Flanagan contrasts his perspective with the functionalist arguments he attributes to Hobson, he follows Hobson too closely in all other respects, calling his theory "otherwise brilliant" and agreeing that REM dreaming is more like psychosis than normal waking thought.

Flanagan should have taken seriously the findings of other dream researchers, who have demonstrated the coherence and everyday quality of most REM reports. Contrary to the emphasis in Dreaming Souls, several solid studies have shown that it is difficult to tell some non-REM reports from REM reports, especially after the third REM period of the night. Once these findings are accepted, as they are by just about everyone but Hobson and his co-workers, most of the author's specific claims collapse.

The author also goes astray by adopting Hobson's claims about the dreams of young children. Foulkes has shown in laboratory studies that little children do not often dream and, when they do, the dreams are bland and static. The REM reductionism still present in the author's theorizing leads him to assert that many other mammals "almost certainly" dream, but Foulkes's work suggests that dreaming is more of a cognitive achievement than the author realizes.

This book will appeal to other philosophers of consciousness, who are lionized throughout it, but it does not provide the ideal starting point for those who are interested in the development of a neurocognitive theory of dreams that has important implications for the understanding of consciousness. Without question, that honor goes to Foulkes's Children's Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness (1999).—G. William Domhoff, Psychology Department, University of California, Santa Cruz

comments powered by Disqus

Connect With Us:


Sigma Xi/Amazon Smile (SciNight)

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

RSS Feed Subscription

Receive notification when new content is posted from the entire website, or choose from the customized feeds available.

Read Past Issues on JSTOR

JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.

The table of contents for each issue is freely available to all users; those with institutional access can read each complete issue.

View the full collection here.


Of Possible Interest

Book Review: Keeping the Holmes Fires Burning

Book Review: The Organ of Reality

Nanoview: Mind Games

Subscribe to American Scientist