Dreams and Emotion
It is widely agreed that dreams are a mystery, or rather dreaming is. Why do we and other animals dream—what purpose does it serve? And why do we dream about some things and not others? Dreams seem pointless, even disruptive: why did nature install the ability to have them? One thing is clear: dreams are closely connected to emotions. The precise nature of the connection is not well understood, but that there is such a connection would not be disputed. So maybe we should begin by asking what the purpose of emotion is: why do we have emotions, and why some emotions and not others? It is tempting to reply that emotions are easy to understand: natural selection installed them to serve specific biological ends such as the avoidance of danger or mate acquisition. But this answer is superficial; emotions are mysterious too. Why did emotions evolve to fulfill these functions and not some non-affective trait or mechanism in the style of Mr. Spock? Plants manage without them, as do bacteria and primitive organisms: emotions are not the sine qua non of biological survival. And why must they be so extreme? Surely we could do without all the emotional drama and proceed in a more calm and calculating manner. Emotions are unruly, chaotic, disruptive, often irrational, uncontrollable, and linked to depression, anxiety, neurosis, and insanity. We could do without them a lot of the time—they are a burden, a trial, and a cause of strife (Mr. Spock’s considered opinion). It’s also hard to know what they are exactly, which lends them further potency. Fear, in particular, is volatile, labile, and dominating, easily sliding into phobia; and we all know about the ill effects of anger, envy, and jealousy. Emotions are the bane of our existence, what with one thing and another. Wouldn’t it be nice to have Spock’s serenity? So it’s not clear why we have emotions, biologically speaking, and their activities leave a lot to be desired—rather like the dreams they are linked to. Still we do, so it would be good to have a theory of them. Perhaps if we did we would be closer to understanding dreams and dreaming.
There seems to be a clear connection between emotion and imagination. Fear will lead to images of injury and death; sexual emotion will lead to sexual imagery; anger will produce images of revenge and downfall. We often see in our mind’s eye what the emotion concerns; the two are made for each other. Why this should be is not so clear, but it appears to be a fact. If we regard dreams as exercises of the imagination, we can see a natural affinity between emotion and dreams: dream images are the shape emotions take while we are sleeping. The emotional faculty recruits and infiltrates the imaginative faculty; the imaginative faculty is readily available to the emotional faculty. Thus the imaginary landscape of dreams is an emotional landscape. Accordingly, the excesses and pathologies of emotion will be manifest in dreams; we might even say that dreams are the imaginative identity of emotions—what they look like when they join forces with the imagination. The two things fuse in dreaming. If the imagery of dreams is primarily visual, then emotions get transformed into visual images in dreams. Thus the mystery of dreams and the mystery of emotion become entangled: why do dreaming imagination and the emotions combine in this way? Our explanandum becomes the dreaming-emotional complex—an emergent psychological unit. What theory might we give of this psychological formation? How might it have arisen and for what purpose?
Let’s take fear as our paradigm: why does fear exist? My conjecture is that it arose in the context of predation: animals are naturally afraid of what preys on them (as well as other things no doubt). In our case we used to be deathly afraid of big cats: a gene for feeling intense fear in the presence of such predators would be favored by natural selection. This is a useful adaptation when encounters with such dangerous animals happen frequently, but it has a tendency to spill over into other areas of human life. We easily become a fearful and timid species obsessed with death from a tiger’s jaws. It’s a bit like deer evolving big antlers in order to joust with reproductive rivals: the antlers do the job nicely, but you have to carry them around all the time. We suffer from emotional overload arising from a useful but localized adaptation—a downside to the upside. The emotion needs to be extreme to do its job effectively, but then you are saddled with something intense and uncontrollable, something that can easily lead to phobia and neurosis. The prey animal is in an arms race with the predator animal, and it evolves the emotion of fear as part of its armory; but like all arms races the weapon becomes a liability—prone to malfunction, indiscriminate, and expensive to maintain. The weapon needs to be regulated, contained. This is where dreams come into the picture: they serve to process and manage emotions that exist because of specific biological imperatives. Something about the transformation into dream materials calms and controls the underlying anarchic emotions, rendering them less toxic and disruptive. Dreams are a kind of counter-adaptation regulating and mitigating the emotions that have evolved to perform a specific vital function. They are a kind of self-therapy combating the ill effects of excessive emotion. The original adaptation was crude but effective, by no means the perfect solution to a survival problem (nothing ever is); the imagination in the form of dreams stepped in to keep the emotions in some sort of order. Compare pain: it’s a good way to motivate the animal to avoid injurious stimuli, but it is prone to undesirable side effects such as chronic pointless pain. The body normally has ways of terminating pain when the job of avoidance has been done, but it is by no means perfect; then we have to resort to massage or herbs or surgery. Presumably apex predators have little to no fear of becoming prey themselves, so they possess no fear response to the presence of other animals (or not much); such animals would not need a dream life to mitigate the side effects of this kind of fear. Their dream life might be thin to non-existent, according to the theory under consideration. Let’s call this theory the “fear-of-predator management theory of dreaming”: simply put, dreams exist in order to manage our fear of predators. That’s how the psychological formation originally evolved (it can take other forms as time passes): predators—fear—fear management—dreams.
An immediate objection is that it is not clear how dreams could have this therapeutic effect: in virtue of what do dreams “manage” emotions? How does imagination work to bring emotion under control? We know that it does because it is well attested that dream deprivation leads to emotional troubles, sometimes serious. When dreaming is reduced the emotions start to cause problems. We can speculate that if dreams were entirely eliminated the person would become an emotional wreck; dreaming keeps those raging emotions in check. Emotions are dangerous things when left to their own devices, and dreaming helps to keep them healthy. That’s the theory anyway. Why this is we don’t know—it’s just a psychological fact. To this extent the theory harbors a mystery: it doesn’t say how the transformation of emotions into the visual (and other) imagery of dreams serves to keep the emotions healthy; it simply asserts that this is the case. In this respect dreams are like the action of a drug that we know eases a particular pathological condition but don’t know the mechanism. Dream activity has a therapeutic effect on emotional wellbeing, but we don’t know how the causal structure operates: all we know is that fusing emotion with imagination in dreams keeps emotions in reasonable health. But if the theory is true it explains why dreams evolved and what their function is: dreams operate to reduce the ill effects of emotions that would otherwise overwhelm the organism. The dreaming imagination tames the emotions; it keeps them relatively placid and well behaved. Without dreams our emotions would consume us; we need that counter-adaptation. Imagine if emotions were the result of parasites that invade the brain, causing much psychological ill health (Spock might become the victim of such a parasite). Then a neuroscientist figures out an antidote—install a dream module in the brain to counter the emotional effects of the parasite (this would make a good Star Trek episode). It might simply suppress the disruptive emotions, making them more manageable; or perhaps it works by converting the emotion into a pale simulacrum existing in another part of the brain (the part devoted to vision, say). In any case, the emotion ceases to have its demonic power, its disruptive overreach.
I have focused on fear but much the same treatment can be applied to other emotions. Sexual emotions can be expressed in sexual dreams, and we can suggest that such dreams work to keep the emotion within tolerable limits. We need not think of this on a hydraulic model with the dream allowing a release of energy (or some such); instead we can think of the dream actively changing the charge of the emotion in some way that we don’t understand (drugs don’t work by releasing what they are designed to modify). Jealousy is a biologically useful emotion as a way of securing a mate, but it is notorious for its poisonous effects (see Othello); and dreams might work to dampen or transform this difficult emotion. Similarly for envy: it can motivate achievement in a social species, but it can also poison a person’s life—dreams might work as an antidote to this poison. And let’s not forget the boiling cauldron of childhood emotion: it’s hard to see this as healthy and adaptive in every respect, even if it has a biological function. Childhood dreams (especially nightmares) might well serve to keep the cauldron at a tolerable temperature. Adult emotions are not discontinuous with childhood emotions, as developmental psychologists remind us, so the ability to dream does not become redundant as we grow up. Dreaming is still necessary in order to keep emotions from spilling over. This has nothing to do with repression in the manner of Freud; it is more a matter of containing a crude but urgent psychological adaptation. I see it more as reshaping than as holding down: it gives emotions a mode of existence that allows them to do their job while not causing too much psychological havoc. As I indicated, there is an element of mystery to this process, but perhaps that is just as well, since the mystery of dreams is not going to be solved by anything obvious and completely devoid of mystery. What I have done is identify the location of the mystery while sketching a plausible evolutionary story.