What kind of thinking do we do when we sleep? Is that what dreaming is? And how is it different from the thinking we do in waking life? In this episode of “What Is X?,” Justin E.H. Smith talks to Matthew Spellberg, a scholar working on a comparative history of dreaming, about one of the mysteries that has fascinated humankind from the ancients to Descartes and Freud and beyond: What are dreams, really? Why do we have them? Why do we share them? And what can they tell us?
Justin E.H. Smith [00:07]
Hello, and welcome to "What Is X?" for The Point magazine. I'm your regular host, Justin E.H. Smith. If you've listened to this podcast before you know how it works: for each episode I have on a guest, who discusses with me a question of the form "What is X?" in the manner somewhat of a Socratic dialogue. There are three possibilities for the outcome of this discussion: agreement, disagreement or aporia, which happens when we arrive at the end of the discussion and we still have no idea what the X in question is. Today we are going to be discussing dreams with my guest, Matthew Spellberg, who is a rare—I don't want to say expert but, rare attender to the complexities and the depth of dreams for both our individual psychological being, and also for culture, both the culture we live in, as well as for many other cultures around the world. Most recently, Matthew has been a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, working on a research project on cross-cultural history of dreaming, as well as indigenous languages and oral literatures. He's also taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and for six years taught in the New Jersey prison system. And soon he will be moving to Sitka, Alaska, where he'll be teaching at the Outer Coast College and working on his mastery of the Tlingit language. I think Matthew first came to my attention—well, not first, but Matthew barged into the center of my attention with an article in Cabinet magazine last year called "On Dream Sharing and Its Purpose." That will be perhaps the topic of some of our conversation today. So welcome, Matthew.
Matthew Spellberg [02:51]
Thanks, Justin, wonderful to be here with you.
Justin E.H. Smith [02:55]
So maybe I can just start this by putting the ball in your court and asking you for a first stab at a definition of today's X. What are dreams?
Matthew Spellberg [03:11]
[A definition that] A lot of people might put forward in answer to that question is: a dream is what you experience in your sleep. But that happens to be a definition that I'm not particularly satisfied with. I think dreaming, rather, is a particular cognitive state, a particular state of mentation that has distinctive features. And it happens to be the default mode of mentation when you're in sleep. But it's possible to experience it in waking too and something we might talk about is that it's possible to have, perhaps, a state of mentation in sleep that is not best described as dreaming, as a kind of flip side to that. This state of mentation—dreaming—has, for me, two essential characteristics. The first is that it's a mode in which thoughts are experienced as a reality. So in other words, what's going on in your head manifests as a world around you, and it's got a floor and it's got a ceiling, and it's got the sky and it's got a whole perceptual thick reality to it. And then the second thing about this mode of mentation is that it's a mode in which there is no self-awareness or reflective distance. So it's—neuroscientists would say there's no secondary consciousness. But the idea here is that when you're in that dream state, whatever it is you're experiencing, you're experiencing with a kind of unmitigated attention. You've bought the ticket, you're riding the ride, these perceptions come running at you as intensely as possible. There was a psychologist in the mid-century named Allan Rechtshaffen who said that dreaming is a profoundly unimaginative state of mind, and of course, he was being a little bit cheeky there. But his point was that when you're in a dream, you can't be experiencing the dream and at the same time being like, What did I do with my car keys? And where is my mother right now? Or if you do think that—"Where's my mother right now?"—then your mother's going to surge up and appear right in front of you and going to be the actual substance of your experience. So I would start by saying those two things: dreaming is thinking as world and dreaming is thinking without any distanced self-reflection or room for inattention.
Justin E.H. Smith [05:32]
And this is something that we can also experience in our waking lives as well, under special neurological circumstances, or maybe concomitantly with other waking experiences?
Matthew Spellberg [05:48]
Yes. I think for instance, let's say it's something that you can really experience under certain phenomenological circumstances, cultural circumstances or even natural, physical environmental circumstances. So one place where, for instance, I think this dream state is often manifest is when you're out alone in the forest by yourself at night, or in a big old house by yourself, something like that, and every sound has this tyrannical claim on your attention, because it might be a bear, it might be a wolf. Every single movement seems to portend aliveness, seems to be something that requires a kind of life-and-death focus on. And that experience, that mental state of extreme awareness, which is also described by many people in situations of conflict or danger in situations of ritual, intensity or ecstasy—that is, I think, a triggering of what you might call the dream state.
Justin E.H. Smith [06:53]
Okay, now, there is a pretty clear—I don't want to lapse into vulgar evolutionary psychology, but there's a pretty clear explanation of why we get freaked out by every little noise when we're walking through the forest at night. This is connected to what Daniel Dennett nicely calls the brain as hyperactive intentionality detecting device, right? We're good at detecting the possible presence of wolves stalking in the forest near us because if there are real wolves, we're going to want to know it. By contrast, actual dreams seem like an evolutionary puzzle. What they're for, what good they do, seems to be a real question mark.
Matthew Spellberg [07:58]
So, I think you are absolutely on the right path, bringing up this Daniel Dennett idea of this hyper intentionality detection device. Justin Barrett is another person associated with those theories. And he calls that concept the hypersensitive [he actually also uses 'hyperactive'] agent detection device, HADD. So absolutely, that's what's going on when you're walking through the forest. Much better to assume that it's a lion than to assume that it's the wind for the sake of your own survival. There is a longstanding hypothesis that dreaming evolved as a kind of rehearsal mechanism for exactly those situations. That hypothesis is particularly associated with a man named Jonathan Winston and then subsequently, with a really superb dream scientist named Allan Hobson, who elaborates it into a whole theory that dreaming is where you see the development of what he calls protoconsciousness. And I think there's some probably real power to that description. I think it's a very useful way of conceptualizing dreams, and I think it explains some interesting elements in the empirical record of dreams. So for instance, there were these wonderful studies done by the French sleep scientist Michel Jouvet on cats, where he removed the part of the brain stem that inhibited signals from the motor cortex to the body in sleep. So that now the motor cortex was transmitting signals all the time to the body and essentially, the cats started sleepwalking. And what he observed was that the cats were more or less stalking prey. They were rehearsing a hunting scenario. Now I think that can't be a be-all end-all description of what a dream is, that it's a rehearsal mechanism for hunting, because clearly, we experience all kinds of things in our dreams, not just being pursued or pursuing, although we do have— many people report, anyway, having—dreams like that. I think though that a key thing to take from that evolutionary theory is that something like that really intense, atavistic energy associated with the fight for survival is lifted into every experience of reality—every element of experience, every part of reality within the dream. And that's another way of talking about this unmitigated attention, that even if your dream is about something that you would find very banal in your waking life, when you're in the dream, it's charged with this incredible intensity—I would even say a kind of life-and-death intensity.
Justin E.H. Smith [10:39]
For about four hundred years or so, in the culture that we are both a part of, broadly speaking, people have been wary of dreams. Rene Descartes famously tries to do everything he can to assure us that we are not dreaming in our waking lives, and therefore, the things we are experiencing are true. By contrast, at the same time Descartes was writing, there were French missionaries in New France in North America, encountering Hurons, who would attest that when they slept, the things they experienced were not just illusory—not just not illusory, excuse me. But on the contrary, were the guide to what one must do in so-called waking life, and in some sense, the authority that extends over waking life. So there are some countercurrents in the past four hundred years of Western history, like psychoanalysis, notably, but for the most part, we do everything we can to just bracket those eight hours we spend out of every 24 hours dreaming and to move on with things and pretend it never happened. Is that a mistake? Is that a step backwards? Is this something your own work is trying to correct?
Matthew Spellberg [12:34]
That problem, let's call it, that you just described is really at the heart of my research and what I'm interested in and bothered by and what keeps me up at night, as it were. I had a colleague of mine at Harvard once ask me if I could explain my research in a question that would be understandable to a six-year-old. And the way I explained it was to say my research is trying to answer the question: Why do some people think their dreams are important, and other people don't? And one of the big divides there, as you pointed out, is between the way dreams are talked about in the kind of mainstream current of Western intellectual thought, with the caveat that there are many heretics and countercurrents as you describe them where actually people think differently about dreams. But this tendency in Western thought to see dreams as the source of everything that is doubtful, boring, uncertain, unreliable and overly subjective, in experience is a kind of limit case for all those things. And then a lot of the other world's traditions where you see almost the exact opposite, that dreams are places where the most direct and pure path towards some sense of the truth is available. And one way to talk about this would be to say that if you really step back very far, and you make kind of big generalizations about the underlying assumptions of these different traditions and how they think about dreams, you might put it this way, in this sort of mainstream Western tradition. (You might call it a modern tradition though my hunch is that it extends back a little bit farther than even the so-called modern period, early modern period, that it actually goes back to the Middle Ages.) But the dream is conceptualized according to two principles: the first, that dreaming is a mode of thought that is radically private, that no one else has any access to your dream, and there's no way to get in there. And this is one of the things that's so dangerous about dreaming and so doubtful and so scary about dreaming. And then the second thing is that insofar as dreams are accessible, they're accessible only if we conceive of them as a representation. For a long time—more specifically if we conceive of them as a text, basically, as a message that someone has sent you, whether that someone is God or whether that someone is your ancestors, or whether that someone is the subconscious or your childhood self, whatever it is, it's a message. And it's often a coded message that then you have to decipher. So there's this idea that the text—and I should say also that more recently, in scientific literature especially, the emphasis, the metaphor has shifted a little bit from text to something like a movie, or a performance. So you hear a lot now about dreams as being places where we rehearse things. Or dreams as being a kind of cinematic experience. So the borrowing of technologies of representation in order to talk about the dream as a kind of representation. So again, those two things, dreams as radically private, dreams as a kind of representation. On the other hand, Justin, as you mentioned before, I'm a student of Indigenous languages and cultures of North America. And in those cultures, as well as in many others around the world—at least as best as I understand them—you see two almost diametrically opposite assumptions at play. One, that the dream is a world that you live in, it's a reality that you move through and that you have experiences in. And those experiences carry on into the waking reality. Let's just say it's a world just like the waking world, and you make decisions in it, and you do things that then have consequences that are by and large irreversible. And sometimes, as you pointed out with the example of the Huron, that sometimes those those consequences are even more significant than the consequences of events happening in waking life. So for instance, there are Dene, peoples in the interior of Alaska and northern British Columbia, who have traditionally understood hunting to take place in dreams, and hunting in these societies was and is all-important. It's the way you get sustenance and the way you connect to animals in the natural world. The way the hunt works is an animal comes to you in your dreams and gives itself to you. And then what happens in waking life is just a kind of shadow or echo of this thing that happened in the dream. So the dream is a world, it's a reality. And then the second element in this other model of dreams is that the dream is eminently shareable. The dream actually can very easily be—or maybe not very easily, maybe it's hard—but the dream can, even must, be communicated with other people so as to gain a kind of meaning and context and structure. And so what you see is, again, this idea that like, we live in a reality in our dreams, and we take that reality, and we share it with other people in order to create something with them. And I think one place to start in talking about those differences is that you've got these deep, deep underlying epistemological assumptions that are at variance with one another.
Justin E.H. Smith [17:58]
A good number of people would say, however, that the Indigenous hunter is simply wrong. What would you say to them?
Matthew Spellberg [18:07]
I'm not even sure how to answer that question. What do you think those people would say? How would they say it was wrong?
Justin E.H. Smith [18:16]
Well, I suppose they would probably unconsciously be invoking demoticized Cartesian arguments about how we know that our shared empirical waking reality is, in fact, reality. But there's a lot of presupposition there.
Matthew Spellberg [18:38]
Yeah, yeah. So I think this has to do with... this is an instance where, as you point out, philosophical structures developed four hundred years ago, seep into the subconscious and come to really, really structure people's sense of what it means to have a commonsense understanding of the world. And in this case, what's going on is, absolutely there's this Cartesian tradition that says dreams are the the most dangerous locus of skepticism, or the place where you really have to be super careful about whether it's real or not, and you have to draw a really bright line, because otherwise you'll never get out of the problem of "Am I dreaming? Or am I not?" And that is predicated on this idea, again, that the dream is radically private, that there's an absolute separation between the dream and the outside world, the perceptual world. And I guess I would say that what you see in a lot of these Indigenous traditions is not some naive confusion of those two things, our inability to distinguish those two things, but rather a kind of very conscious flouting of the idea, a rejection of the idea that there's somehow an objective perceptual reality and a subjective internal reality that have nothing to do with one another. Instead, for instance, you see in a lot of Indigenous dream-sharing practices ways in which people actively negotiate the narrative of a person's dream within the community. And my sense of that, just to add on to that you could imagine Descartes coming in being like: "But how do they know?They're making up the narrative as they go along!" Or, "they're changing it, it's so unreliable," and so forth. And I think the Indigenous response is, "Well, of course, that's what we're doing. Of course the narrative structures the dream and shapes it." And I think the other thing that's really important to say in that respect is that often, the process of talking about dreams, and narrating them and contextualizing them within mythical frameworks or ritual frameworks, has to do not only with structuring and giving meaning to the dream that has happened in the past, but also helping to write scripts for dreams that will take place in the future. So that there's actually a kind of continuous loop between people experiencing dreams, talking about dreams in a way that modify their memories of the dreams and that transform their sense of what the dream actually was. And then people having dreams that are then influenced by those scripts that people in waking life put together.
Justin E.H. Smith [21:15]
If I recall correctly, in your piece in Cabinet magazine, you describe a particular case of dream-sharing, in, I believe, in Adivasi culture in southern India, and how this disrupted when they were moved to kind of state-run barracks to work in agriculture. Do you want to tell a little bit about this example?
Matthew Spellberg [21:42]
Yeah, and this is an example that I know from the work of an anthropologist named Vishvajit Pandya. And it concerns actually the Ongee people of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. And as you describe, there was and to some extent is, as I understand, in this culture a really sophisticated dream-sharing procedure that involved people—before they went to bed, actually—singing in a kind of chant-like way narratives of the dreams they'd had the night before. And everyone is gathered in a kind of circular formation around the fire, they're sleeping in these sleeping platforms that are arranged around the fire. So there's a kind of dream or sleep architecture that enables this. And there's this incredibly beautiful metaphysical account of what's going on, which has to do with, as people recount their dreams and merge their dreams into into a single dream narrative, the community weaves a kind of spiderweb over itself, that then allows it to hold its being kind of in place. And in the meantime, the sleeping souls travel out during dream time, from the camp in order to collect the bits of being that people have lost during the day and bring them back within the spiderweb. This amazing set of metaphors about people building the dream world together in order to create a kind of wholeness and cohesion of the community. And this very interesting stuff happens, where, as I was alluding to before, people would negotiate the content of their dreams. People would say, "I dreamt this thing," and someone else would say, for instance, "I dreamt that I was on the west side of the beach gathering nuts." And someone else might say, "Well, I dreamt that we were on the north side of the beach fishing," and the first person might say, "Well, maybe we were both on the west side, but we were gathering nuts." And the other person might say, "Okay, yes, I agree. That was my dream." And all this was done right before people went to bed. So you can imagine that it's not just about making the dreams of the past night align with one another, but also about helping to set the stage for the kinds of dreams that people have in the coming night. And, again, as you describe, when Pandya returned after a number of years to visit the Ongees, again, they had been moved to a state-run palm plantation, where they had to wake up in the mornings at a set hour rather than being allowed to sleep all the way in until they woke up naturally, which had been the custom in the culture. And they explained to him that they had stopped being able to go into the forest in order to hunt because they had stopped being able to dream of the hunting and the gathering. In fact, in their account, it was not all the other much more visible signs of encroaching modernity or encroaching industrialization, let's say, that prevented them from hunting in the forest—because there had been deforestation and conversion of much of the island to agriculture and so forth—but rather this specific thing, that without dreams of the forest, without the ability to have these debates and discussions about dreams, they could not function in the forest and they could not go out and do these tasks. I guess I would just take a step back and talk about this on a slightly more abstract level. What I think you see, in examples like this, of which there are many, in just an incredible richness and diversity in different small-scale societies all over the world, is dreams being used as a method for interrogating, looking at and tweaking a community's sensual world-picture. I want to use that word sensual world-picture in distinction to something like a community's ideology. Because I think what's important here is that it's not about a community's abstract values, like, what is good and what is right and what is strong and so forth. It's rather about a shared vocabulary of images, smells, experiences, touches, and so forth, that subtend the more abstract considerations of, you know, say, what is the good or what does it mean to live the right kind of life.
Justin E.H. Smith [26:00]
So interesting. I was thinking when I read your piece of a bit of Amazonian ethnography from Eduardo Kohn's, How Forests Think, when he describes the sleeping conditions that he had to adapt to in the Amazon with the group of people he was studying, and it was several, maybe ten, twenty people to a hut, and many different species of animal as well. And you're generally skin to skin with other people. This made me think that we might actually be very peculiar in this idea that if you are sleeping with anyone in the regular course of life, it's either because of some kind of total institutional arrangement, that you're in a prison or a boarding school, or it's an intimate attachment that we associate with sexuality and with pairing off. Though we still have the idea that once you fall asleep, you're on your own, buddy—even if you're married, you're on your own, right. Even if you slept in the same bed for forty years, you're on your own. And this is very different, probably, in the majority of other human cultures. Now, Kohn is not talking about dreaming, but it does say something to the effect that when you drift in and out of sleep, in such circumstances, it's pretty difficult to maintain a sense of your own individuality, as a single being who is alone with their experience and inner thoughts. So that's just a kind of a supplement to the ethnographic example from India.
Matthew Spellberg [27:58]
You know, that brings two things to mind. One, in another chapter of that same wonderful book by Eduardo Kohn, he talks about how, in Runa culture, there is a lot of energy devoted to thinking about the dreams of dogs, and in particular how you can't kill a dog, unless the dog has dreamt of its death and therefore reconciled itself to death. So when a dog is getting old, and someone's going to shoot the dog, kill the dog, people have to watch out at night for the dog, to be making certain signs that it's dreaming, and so forth, so that they can know the dog has, in its dream life, come to understand this thing that's going to happen to it and therefore accept it. All of which is to say against something really interesting about the nexus of people being people and other animals to being up close with each other when they're sleeping and learning to see these bodily experiences as not being as impermeable as they would be in a Cartesian account—that in fact somehow the body can transmit something about dreaming in a way that, again, the Cartesian model would say is not possible. And then the other thing that comes to mind is that just more generally, I do think that we have not spent enough time thinking about the historically constructed and contingent nature of the architecture of sleep and the forms of sleep. And this is something that my eyes have really been opened to by my collaborator at the University of Toronto, Richard Sommer, who organized an amazing exhibition up there a couple years ago called New Circadia, which was all about structures of sleep and history of sleep. And its centerpiece was this huge, cavernous underground installation that I actually ran a whole kind of dream event in, but more or less based on ancient Greek dream incubation temples, with some admixture of famous experiments in circadian rhythm, science that had been conducted in caverns and so forth, with this big underground space in which people could come in, and be in this kind of soft, felt, fantasy cave temple world, and could just sleep there and idle there and be together in this particularly vulnerable way that normally people are not in public or with each other unless, as you say, they're lovers. And it was just amazing to watch how people interacted with this space and ended up sort of sidling up to each other, how friends would come in, or how people would come in on their work break and just be on the other side of like a pillow from a complete stranger and be sort of tucked in next to one another. And you could just watch this amazing choreography of napping and idling. And that's something that has just incredibly rich, rich, rich history all over the world, including in the West, and I'm thinking here of specifically the ancient Greek avaton tradition where these healing temples were built throughout the Hellenic world, devoted to the god Asclepios, where people would come and would sleep together in order to receive a dream of the god, who would then heal them in the dream or prescribe a regimen for healing them in the dream. People have various kind of cognitive-psychological or social-psychological explanations for how this works. And these are convincing to a certain degree, but I think, in some ways, it's worth just taking it at face value. That something about people coming together within a religious framework or spiritual and intellectual framework to dream has a really, really powerful effect on the psyche. And there's no reason why then that wouldn't play out in waking life in all kinds of ways.
Justin E.H. Smith [31:58]
While we're on the ancient Greeks, I recall in Aristotle's treatise on dreams that he holds open the possibility that dreams are prophetic of the future, that oneiromancy is a legitimate endeavor, but kind of just shrugs his shoulders and says, I don't know. He also seems to think that dreams are somewhat like the prodrome of an illness, where you start to feel a fever, but you don't yet know you're feverish, that there's some kind of analogy to the bubbling up of something that will be later much clearer. We experience that as prophecy. And it has some kind of physiological substrate, though the experience itself can be called legitimately prophetic, and it seems that what Aristotle is trying to get at there is an idea of subconscious thought. Right? So maybe that's a good pivot to talking about the question, well, both of prophecy, fortune telling from dreams, but also to the question of the subconscious, and whether the contributions over the past hundred and some odd years by Freud and his followers have been helpful, or by contrast perhaps a mere detour in our effort to understand what dreams are and how they can be profitably or usefully incorporated into our waking lives.
Matthew Spellberg [33:57]
So let me tackle the prophecy question first, and then we'll move on to Freud. So I have to confess that the prophetic nature of dreams is something that kind of stumps me. It's truly ubiquitous. It's something that you see in cultures all over the world, this idea that dreams are associated with the future in various forms, and I can't—I have really struggled to provide a description and a vocabulary that makes sense to me of what's going on there. But one possibility for Aristotle and maybe in general is that there is, when we talk about dreams, a meeting point—an unclear meeting point or a point of confusion—between two models of time, a linear model of time and a cyclical model of time. And that particularly in the case of Aristotle, who's inheriting these very, very old Greek dream-sharing traditions and trying to think about them in this quite new way, that Aristotle may be dealing with a mythical structure of time in which things recur cyclically—and dreams play a really important role in allowing human beings to enter into the divine world of cyclical recurrence—and a future-directed or linear world in which things only happen once. There are causes that trigger other causes, and so on and so forth. So when Aristotle starts to say, well, they seem to predict the future, maybe what he's trying to do is shift one model of time, which is to say that things loop back and forth between waking and sleeping, between the myth time and human time, into this new, let's say, quote-unquote, rationalist system in which time always goes forward. And so when something that happens in a dream happens again, it must be the future rather than somehow this cycle. And I think that a lot of the world's dream-sharing traditions—again, there's something like this, that the dream portends something that's going to come in the future. But it's not clear to me that "future" is exactly the right word for that relationship. You know what I mean?
Justin E.H. Smith [36:16]
If I can just jump in, the example of the Dene hunter, when you described the relationship between the dream-kill and the "real-world" kill, that's not a prophecy, that's rather something more like a pairing of the real event in the dream with its empirical afterecho or something like that. So in a sense, now that I'm thinking about it, would you agree that if you don't have this linear model of time that Aristotle is beginning to articulate, then the idea of dream as prophecy doesn't really make sense?
Matthew Spellberg [37:02]
Well, or it no longer poses a kind of conceptual problem about how you can know the future. It comes to be about: dreams give you some insight into the nature of the world. And therefore, when you're in the world, the insight from the dreams helps you navigate that, which is a way of interpreting this phenomenon that would be understandable to even a really hard-hearted rationalist. I was just reading over the weekend the stories of an incredible Koyukon Athabaskan storyteller named Catherine Attla, who died in 2012, who told stories in the Koyukon language. And her work was recorded by the Alaska Native Language Center, and by a Koyukon linguist named Eliza Jones. And she tells these amazing cycles about people, about figures who seek medicine power and the way they seek medicine power. The signal that a character is going to seek medicine power at the beginning of the story cycle is that he sleeps a lot—it's almost always a he—he sleeps a lot and the characters will say, "Why is he sleeping so much?" And this is a kind of sign to Koyukon listeners: this is going to be a medicine story. Because if you're sleeping a lot, it's because you're having lots of dreams. And in having lots of dreams, your medicine journey is being traced out for you. And then the story proceeds to elaborate this medicine journey. And the whole story is just framed as the medicine journey. But in some way also, the whole story is a description of a dream. But it's not framed that way—or it is framed that way, but it's not continuously described as "Oh, then he dreamt..." It's rather, "He did this, he did that, he did this, he did that," because this is the whole journey that he's traveling along. But the entire journey has been plotted out already in his dreams. And that's only alluded to for a second at the beginning of the story, when you hear he sleeps a lot. And then you have to understand that somehow this whole life that you're charting is also somehow the account of a whole dream that is exactly coincident with it.
Justin E.H. Smith [39:19]
We were going to talk a bit about Freud.
Matthew Spellberg [39:21]
Yeah. So now on to Freud. So I think the really amazing, amazing thing about Sigmund Freud is that in 1900, in Vienna, in this bourgeois secular Jewish milieu, he suddenly had this insight that there was no dream-sharing technique available to the people around him, and this was somehow a problem. And he needed to figure out a solution to that problem. And he really did endeavor to develop a dream-sharing technique, and many people in the academy come to psychoanalysis from the theoretical side, reading these elaborate schemata of the mind that Freud ultimately developed. But for me, what's most important, what's most brilliant about psychoanalysis is the praxis, is this technique that he developed for dream-sharing in which two people—in this case, you know, we're so far from a whole community being able to share their dreams, like only two people working together for ten years can get to a point where the dreams make sense between one another—but, but he set up this particular structure where he thought: this is a way in which people starting with their dreams and moving towards all the other forms and fantasies and dreamlike modes of mentation, within their minds, could arrive at a kind of framework and mythology, if you will, that two people would be able to share and use in order to enter into that structure of feelings and experiences and so forth, and modify it, look at it, talk about it, invent it in such a way that makes them better at living their lives. And I think that insight was incredibly profound. It doesn't diminish from Freud's achievement, that what he discovered was that within the context of, whatever you want to call it, bourgeois modernity, it was very, very, very hard. It turned out to be very, very expensive to make something like this possible, and even then, even after five years, and however many thousands of shillings, you still might not quite reach that structure of perfect dream-sharing.
Justin E.H. Smith [41:37]
That's fascinating. You know, I would have thought prima facie that the confidentiality rules and the fact that it's always just the analyst and the patient means that in effect, Freud is trying to prevent proper sharing, let's say community-based sharing, from actually taking off, rather than that he's trying to reintroduce it and starting at the smallest possible level of sharing, which is between two people.
Matthew Spellberg [42:16]
Yeah, I opt for the latter. And I think Freud had a sense that society was not ready for even three people to be involved in dream-sharing, four people to be involved in dream-sharing—and, you know, a whole nation-state to be involved in dream-sharing, I think Freud was one of the first to notice, was, in the modern industrialized world, going to turn into fascism. He saw that quite explicitly and with quite a great deal of melancholy at the end of his life. You know, it seems so funny to say that Freud was modest about anything, but in a certain sense, Freud's modesty was, I think, a real sign of his brilliance. And he had many limitations as a thinker, but in this case, I think he was really profound. And I think many people who tried to create these more inclusive dream-sharing structures after him within psychoanalysis, Carl Jung and Wilhelm Reich, and people like that, I think they ended up succumbing to a kind of cheesy, kitschy appropriation of these indigenous societies. Freud understood that that was not going to work. That was not how you could do it in modernity.
Justin E.H. Smith [43:40]
We have to move towards a conclusion soon enough. But I had one other observation that might help me to understand your account of dreams that comes from my own experience of dreaming. And I won't give you too many details. But I will say that I'm often troubled when I see other people's accounts of their own dreams, because they don't articulate their, so to speak, subject position. They don't articulate their relationship to the scenes witnessed. Whereas I've noticed, in my dreams, that there are many different possibilities. Among them, sometimes I'm looking at the scenes, and I am disregarding them, because I take them to be unreal. Sometimes I'm watching them with other people. Sometimes I'm watching them as in a movie theater, whereas sometimes they are entirely mine. And indeed, this is another kind of branch of this observation I'm making. Very often they are dreams that are shaped to a great extent by the technological reality I live in. That is to say they have graphics that are very clearly borrowed from my computer screen, from video games, and especially, in my case, from early to mid-twentieth century animation, Looney Tunes-style animation. I don't know why but that often comes in. And when, for example, I'm witnessing a Looney Tunes scene, sometimes in my dreams, I think, oh, one of these again, right. So there is a real kind of range of subject positions and of degrees of proximity and distance that I might take to what I'm seeing, that might complicate the account that you started out with when we first began speaking today. Or is there just something wrong with my brain?
Matthew Spellberg [46:15]
That latter question, I will plead the fifth, but when it comes to the position of the subject in relation to the dream, I think that's a huge and really important phenomenological question. And I think it's really important to link it somehow to technologies of representation, like you did also. There's a magnificent moment at the very beginning of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, where he describes falling asleep while he's reading a book. And he says that "As I fell asleep, I became the thing that I was reading." And then there's like a colon, and he says, For instance, a string, a cathedral, a string quartet, or the rivalry between Francois I and Charles V. And I've always thought that was such an amazing list of things that you might turn into in your dream—you could turn into a cathedral, okay. You're like a building, you could turn into a string quartet. Does that mean you're four people? Does that mean you're the piece of music? And then finally, a really weird one, you turn into not Francois I or Charles V but the rivalry between them. And what does that mean, that your body becomes this rivalry thing. And I certainly have had dreams like that also, where, for instance, I had a dream once where I was a commercial. And it's very hard for me to describe to you exactly what that was like. But I was not a character in a commercial, I was a TV commercial, I was like the light emanating from a television. And it felt, in a very sensual way, like some form of existence as a energy-based life form that I had never had in waking life.
Justin E.H. Smith [47:54]
I once dreamt that I was Manhattan, and the person I was sleeping with was Brooklyn. And I was aware of their presence. But that's not as impressive as dreaming yourself a rivalry, or the example you described. Because these are pretty solid geographical entities.
Matthew Spellberg [48:16]
I'm picturing you two in bed being like, "What are we going to do about congestion pricing?" But let me go back to the question, which as you suggest, complicates my idea that in dreaming, there's no looking away, or there's no distance. So there is a phenomenon that people often call lucid dreaming, where you do really have this self-reflective metacognition in your dreaming, and it's often associated with an awareness that you are dreaming. And I would submit that that's an instance where something like a non-dream state intrudes into sleeping life. That is to say that, that's one of those situations where, according to my definition, the dream state is this mode of being that mostly happens in sleep, but can happen in waking life, and whatever the opposite of it is, the wake state or the self-conscious state, mostly happens in waking life, but can intrude into the dream life. If you're interested in the neuroscience of it, there are very interesting studies that show that when lucid dreamers become lucid, the prefrontal cortex, that sort of preeminent seat of rationality and distance thinking, lights up suddenly in a way that it hadn't been lit up before. So there are some analogs in our neuroanatomy that suggest that there's some real difference here, between those two states. That said, I do think that with dreams, you once again have this situation where thoughts are as thick and as complex and—for lack of a better word—real as reality itself. And part of what you're describing with being in all these different positions is that your thoughts are spatialized and temporalized in a way that with linguistic consciousness they are normally not. And so you're feeling your own thinking suddenly taking the shape of: "I'm farther from this thought, I'm closer to this thought, this thought is right inside of me, this thought is so far away from me." And that experience is a part of this intensely, intensely sensual form of thinking that characterizes dreams. And the person, I think, who is the best at describing all of that is in fact Marcel Proust. If you go back and look through that novel with an eye for dreaming, these kinds of descriptions, highly precise descriptions of every single possible way that you could relate to a dream, are just littered throughout the novel. And so, you know, sometimes he describes how a dream comes surging out of his thigh. Other times he'll describe how a dream sends the whole room spinning around him. Another time, he'll describe how suddenly he feels like he's a gardener who can carefully breed dreams like roses, and in his sleep, he's picking one after the other. So just all these different levels of relation to them that I would say—always, always the sense that the dream is so thickly, fully a real world. It's—I don't know how to put it—it's charged with this intense power, with a kind of godlike power. I guess the tricky thing is that sometimes that godlike power belongs to the dreamer. And sometimes it seems to belong to something other than the dreamer. And that back-and-forth, you know, I don't have a good explanation for that, other than to say that if you really push hard on the question of what it means to have will and power and waking life, you also find that sometimes you're at the center of the universe, and sometimes you feel very far away. We don't have a great vocabulary for thinking about that either.
Justin E.H. Smith [52:01]
Yeah. I worry now, as we're talking, I mean, maybe I'm just particularly inclined to lucid dreaming. I've always hesitated to call it that. And in fact, I take those dreams to be kind of paradigmatically dreams—the ones where I'm aware of my subject position in them. Maybe I'll have to rethink that.
Matthew Spellberg [52:25]
Right. Right. Well, that's interesting—we could have a whole nother conversation about the role of memory in how we come to think about dreams. But clearly there's some very close connection between the nonreflective aspect of the dream state, as I'm calling it, or of these nonlucid dreams, and the fact that it's so hard to remember them. And on the flip side, dreams where you do suddenly have this distanced reflection—clearly you're able to memory process better. I would say that when I first became interested in dreaming, it was lucid dreaming that I was sort of most concerned with. I also thought, maybe this is the paradigmatic case, or this is the thing that's where the really interesting stuff is happening. And I have sort of come to believe the opposite. I have come to believe that actually, the really interesting thing is the non-lucid state where you're so deeply imbricated in this situation, and you so have to kind of accept the givenness of this reality you're living in. And I think that when you're looking historically, culturally, at the function of dreams, it's the power of that givenness. And the way that, as I've said already a number of times, the way that narratives in waking life can then come to structure an experience that is so powerful and so given and so unavoidable that it then cements itself in your experience. It's almost like when you're talking about this full cycle between dream-sharing and dreaming, it's like in dream-sharing, and waking, then dream-sharing, people are building some kind of incredible rollercoaster or other apparatus. And then in sleep, they get on the rollercoaster, and there's no stopping once you turn it on. And it's such an exhilarating, intense experience that it stays with you forever, and whatever message it imparts to you, or whatever set of values or set of ideas or set of experiences or stances toward the world that it imparts to you, come to be really powerfully stamped inside of you.
Justin E.H. Smith [54:28]
That's amazing. Do you want to really quickly state—restate—your initial stab at a definition?
Matthew Spellberg [54:36]
Sure, yeah, absolutely. My initial stab at a definition was that rather than dreams being just what you experience in sleep, dreams are a particular mode of thinking or of mentation, let's call it, which is most often associated with sleep—very often appears in sleep—but can appear in waking life. And that mode is characterized above all by two things. One, thoughts are experienced as a reality. And two, that thoughts are not experienced with a kind of distanced self-awareness or secondary consciousness or ability for the mind to wander away from the thing that it's experiencing right then and there.
Justin E.H. Smith [55:25]
Amazing, I think I'm hearing some church bells. Everything you just said was very compelling. And I see no reason to dissent from your account of dreams. Except maybe I mean, I was up in the air for a second there on this question of lucid dreaming. But I think everything you've said gives us a compelling reason to separate those off and to treat them independently. So we've got some agreement here today.
Matthew Spellberg [56:00]
Yeah, the Brooklyn Bridge has been crossed.
Justin E.H. Smith [56:06]
And we've talked longer than usual, but I wanted to maybe ask you, before we go, about the work you're doing in Alaska. Are you going to be studying Tlingit dreaming? Or do you have a different project?
Matthew Spellberg [56:23]
So in addition to my work on dreaming, I have spent quite a bit of time studying the incredible corpus of Tlingit oral literature as it's been recorded over the course of the twentieth century. And there are some amazing episodes having to do with dreaming and visionary states in particular, and an amazing, very very important story about a man who kills the spirit of sleep accidentally, and it destroys the entire village. So really powerful stuff about the importance of sleep for maintaining societies. However, when I'm up in Alaska, my most central concern is learning the Tlingit language, and studying alongside Tlingit language learners. And I have had the enormous, enormous privilege of working with a group of Tlingit language learners called the Tlingit Nerds, who meet on Zoom. Before the pandemic, some of them met in person in Juneau, which is how I first met them, but they are maybe the most extraordinary group of intellectuals I've ever met. It's a group of people, including some linguists, some teachers of Tlingit in elementary schools and high schools throughout southeast Alaska, there are indigenous people and non-indigenous people. Also people from the Yukon. And we come together twice a week, and we work together on the just incredible sublime complexity of the Tlingit language—that's a quote from the linguist Jeff Leer—and on stories, on songs, on the language of everyday life. We work in our modest way towards keeping the language flourishing and alive. Tlingit, like many Native American languages, is sadly highly endangered. And there are very very few birth speakers left alive. This is largely due to deliberate policies on the part of the U.S. government to try to destroy these languages. And it's a huge shame. Each of these indigenous languages of North America is an incredible repository of the human encounter with the barest deepest facts of life, and then ways of formulating those encounters for a whole society and for descendants and kin to be able to process that and experience that. So I mostly just spend my time there as a student working on and studying this language and working with just amazing Tlingit people who lead the effort to keep the language alive. I've also been editing a book of Tlingit stories with a colleague of mine up there, Ishmael Hope, a wonderful Tlingit poet. I don't know much else to say about that, except maybe to say I say often that if I had to describe my personal version of the School of Athens, it would be the Zoom window in my Tlingit Zoom group. It's an amazing kind of intellectual engagement—that is not dream-sharing, but it's another form of just incredibly powerful transmitting of inner experience through the vessel of language and the rigor of language study.
Justin E.H. Smith [59:46]
Amazing. Yeah, linguistic death really is a form of extinction, isn't it?
Matthew Spellberg [59:51]
Yeah. It's what Jonathan Schell once called the death of death, which is to say, you know, not just when people die, which is horrible. But when all the structures that give life meaning within a community are taken away, that's another form of atrocity that is just, you know, devastating. But let me just say, on the flip side, it's really important to emphasize that there's an incredible amount of energy in spite of this just horrible, horrible history of colonialism that we are very belatedly and very inadequately reckoning with right now. In contrast to that, or in defiance of that, there is just an incredible amount of energy in indigenous communities around trying to bring the languages back and ensure the flourishing of the languages, and one of the most amazing things about the pandemic has been a huge proliferation of Zoom-based indigenous language-learning programs, where members of indigenous communities from all across North America, who happen not to live, say, on their home reservations, or in places where there are many other people in their community, can log in from a city and study with an elder and work on the language. Having worked with a lot of people in the Indigenous Studies Program at Harvard, I saw many of these programs come alive during the pandemic, and it was just a beautiful, beautiful thing to witness.
Justin E.H. Smith [1:01:26]
Yeah, yeah, that's amazing. This and this whole conversation has been just mind-blowing and good. But we do have to come to a close of this episode. So I'll just thank you once again. Again, I'm Justin E.H. Smith, and you've been listening to "What Is X?" Today, I've been speaking with Matthew Spellberg, and we've been talking about dreams and what they are. So thank you for being on the show. Thank you so much. Until next time, bye bye.