Michael Frayn had a nice discussion of the links between narrative in dreaming and in writing in yesterday’s Guardian (excerpted from his forthcoming book The Human Touch):
“The story, like the dream, as any novelist or playwright will tell you, develops a logic of its own that begins to generate events of its own accord. The author finds himself in the same position as his characters, swept along by events he can no longer quite control.”
It struck me as I was reading that dream narratives are a little like confabulation. This is the process by which the brain generates assumptions to fill information gaps or gloss over unexpected contradictions. It can be seen in individuals who are unaware of their memory impairments: asked what they were doing yesterday, or how some current situation came about, they’ll immediately come up with a hypothesis that seems plausible to them, even if utterly false and indeed circumstantially impossible. But they’ll have great confidence in it, and may develop a string of new confabulations to support it, if pressed.
In other cases, patients with Anton’s syndrome deny their own blindness, producing explanations such as poor lighting, or not really paying attention, to account for their failure to see things. The same can happen in many other types of cognitive, perceptual or motor impairment.
Confabulation is sincere assumption, not deliberate invention – the invention is going on at a level beneath conscious control, and the outcome is truly not thought of as lying or make-believe. Facts or explanations are demanded, and so they are supplied.
But while it’s usually associated with brain pathologies (medial frontal lobe damage has been implicated), there are grounds for thinking that ordinary people confabulate a lot of the time. Social psychologists have shown that questions such as ‘Did you enjoy the party last night?’ are often answered not via an examination of one’s specific memories, but by drawing on common sense and background information about what such parties are like and how one usually finds them. (NB such confabulated responses – in effect, confident common-sense guesses – are often accurate, or at least close enough for it not to matter; thus they go unnoticed.) Also, situations can be devised in which people’s behaviour is demonstrably manipulated by the experimenters, but those manipulated produce honest justifications for their actions in terms of their own preferences – explanations that can persist even when the manipulation is made explicit.
What does this have to do with dreams?
Dream narratives (mine, at least) are often disjointed, switching from one scenario to another, although this disjointedness itself often displays some continuity. For example, I dream that I’m on a train, where I meet an old school friend. Then we get off the train and we’re at our old school. The thematic continuity smooths over the physical impossibility of the switch, and I don’t react with shock.
Two thoughts on this. First, the dream me is reacting not unlike a confabulator; presented with a situation that ought to be inexplicable, automatic justifications kick in to forestall any questions and maintain an air of normality. It’s perfectly reasonable that the school should be at the train station. (My old friend and I might not even have got off the train; we might just have suddenly appeared at the school I was thinking about, with the more intelligible explanation of the switch silently slotting into place.)
Second, the dream environment itself, not just the me character in it, seems to be constructed in the same off-the-cuff way that confabulation works. Sudden events develop into more complex flights of fancy that make sense as long as I don’t look too carefully – which I don’t, as my impossibility detector has been turned right down. Situations arise, shaping my reactions to them, which then shape the situations.
As in waking life, the dream-me feels quite distinct from the dream environment; but both are driven forward together in a narrative generated by the mechanisms that produce coherence (or rather, that disguise incoherence). Frayn ponders whether to think of a dreamer as the actor, director, writer, theatre proprietor, audience… I think that what I’d want to say here is that, when dreaming, a psychologically dissipated version of me is both the improvising actor and the unwittingly the stage.
He describes how dreamer and author get entangled in their own creations:
“Although the author began by telling the story, and the dreamer by dreaming the dream, the story has ended up by telling the teller, the dream by dreaming the dreamer.”
Another creation analogy occurs: are dreams what the world would be like if god had medial frontal lobe damage?