A Phenomenon of Dreams

—I wonder if most people get as much pleasure and profit from their dreams as I do. I always watch mine very carefully, and recall them as far as possible upon waking ; and if I perceive anything remarkable in them, I write it down in a note-book, for future reference and comparison. I am conscious of having profited greatly by the opportunities that I have found in dreams of studying my own character as if under a microscope. For I have never yet dreamed of doing an action which, upon careful subsequent reflection, I have decided to be out of character. I have at times made unpleasant discoveries as to my natural proclivities, when untrammeled by the fear of the opinions of others. There is a kind of pleasure in all this, which is not materially lessened by the accident of an occasional nightmare.

But what I set out to say was that there is one phenomenon that sometimes occurs in my dreams of which I can find no adequate explanation. This is the phenomenon of actions and ideas which seem to come from so entirely different an individuality from my own, and to be the result of an experience of life so wholly foreign to me, as to cause in me, even during the dream, a feeling of keen surprise. I find it difficult to express my meaning clearly on paper, although it is very clear in my own mind. I must first make a broad general distinction between incoherent and coherent dreams. The first class includes dreams that are merely wild jumbles of grotesque and impossible things, which are of little use to the metaphysician, and with which I have at present nothing to do. These dreams lack both the elements which go to make up the phenomenon to which I wish to call attention, namely, the elements of personality and surprise. The doings of the actors in these incoherent dreams seem to us, even in the dreams, to proceed from phantoms whose individuality, if they have any, wavers from form to form, — sometimes disappearing entirely, and sometimes blending inextricably with our own; and their wildest and least expected doings cause us no surprise. They are mere projections of our own fancy, and nothing in them is different from what our waking imaginations might portray, if once we gave them free rein. The second class of dreams, which I call coherent dreams, present clear and orderly tableaux and dialogues, very much like those of real life. It is in this latter class of dreams that an actor sometimes appears who startles me by his distinct personality.

Perhaps half a dozen times during the last year I have noticed this phenomenon, and from consultation of books and discussions with friends I am convinced that it is sufficiently curious to merit notice. I do not mean merely that we meet antagonists in dreams, or that people in dreams do not do things disagreeable to us. It is a very common experience to engage in argument in a dream, or to play games of chance or skill against a shadowy opponent. But in none of these cases is there that clash of distinct individualities that we constantly find in the waking world. I have played hundreds of games of chess in my sleep, and have discovered various new and charming moves ; but I have never yet lost a game, although my waking experience has been far less happy. Did any man ever dream of being worsted in argument; and if so, was he able, upon waking, to recall the argument that floored him ? In all such cases as I have spoken of, we regard other people in the dream only in their relation to ourselves, and their personality is never for a moment brought to our notice.

I now wish to give some illustrations of the phenomenon that has aroused my interest. Two cases must suffice : one of them a dream that I had several years ago, the other of quite recent date. In the earlier instance I dreamed that I was on the seashore, where, the ocean floor being nearly level, the tide receded a great way, and left a mile or more of uncovered sand. The tide was out, and I stood with a crowd, looking out over the wet sands and shallow pools, trying to catch the sound of a distant fog-bell, when an old sailor remarked, “You’ll hear it plainer when the tide is in.” This sailor was a distinct individuality, and spoke from an experience wholly unknown to me, causing in me a feeling of surprise. So wholly unprepared was I for his remark that it was a minute before I understood what he meant. Then it occurred to me that sound travels better in the water than in the air. Whether it is a fact that a fog-bell in such a place could be heard more clearly when the tide was high, I do not know. It makes no difference whether the old sailor was right or wrong in his observation ; the point is that he spoke of a thing that was not in my mind at all, and that no past experience of mine touched upon in any way. In the second case I dreamed that I was buying a ticket to the theatre, and in change for a bill the ticket-seller gave me an old English crown-piece of George IV. I do not think that I ever saw the coin before. It was about the size of a silver dollar, for which he intended that I should take it. I pushed it back through the ticket-window, with the remark, “ I cannot accept that.” The ticket-seller, instead of giving me a silver dollar, as I fully expected him to do, put a tencent piece on top of the crown, and returned it to me. Here, as in the first case, the surprise was complete. It was a thing that I was not at all expecting, and a thing that it would never have occurred to me to do. As in the first case, also, it took an appreciable moment of time for me to see what was meant. I saw the coin pushed back, with the ten-cent piece on top of it, but I stood gazing at it in wonder, and did not at first realize that the ticket-seller meant me to take the extra ten cents to recompense me for the loss incident to discounting the old coin. Now I can hardly persuade myself that the thought in the mind of the ticket-seller proceeded from me, since I had to reason backward from his actions in order to ascertain what that thought was. He acted from an experience wholly unfamiliar to me. He had taken the coin through inadvertence, and of course he could not use it in making up his accounts. It contained as much silver as a dollar, and his thought was that ten cents would probably be a sufficient inducement to me to step into some money-changer’s office and exchange the money. I never had any one give me change in this fashion before. I never read of it, nor heard it spoken of. I can think of nothing in any experience of mine which could have put the idea into my head. A writer of fiction once assured me that when he has conceived a character it acts of its own accord, leaving him but the simple task of chronicling its doings ; and I have read that one or two authors of repute have made similar statements. This seems to me the most palpable kind of conceited humbuggery.

But my relations with the old sailor and the ticket-seller have roused in me a curiosity to know whether the sleeping brain can create distinct personalities, and set them afloat on their own responsibilities. I am familiar with the current theories about dreams ; but no “ unconscious cerebration ” can account for my experiences, unless one half of my brain can invent new theories and new circumstances, and surprise the other half by unexpected references to them. I know that if I had been writing a story about a group of people listening to a fog-bell, I should never have put the sailor’s remark into the mouth of any of them, because, after the remark was made, I failed for a moment to catch its import.