In Your Dreams

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
First-time Visitors: Please visit Site Map and Disclaimer. Use"Back" to return here.

A lot of people believe the subconscious mind is a faithful recorder of information. Dreams arewidely supposed to be a good way of generating creative ideas by either getting around mentalblocks or by recovering information that the conscious mind has forgotten. I have recently had afew dream experiences that bear on some of the common claims paranormalists and others makeabout the subconscious. 

On June 25, 1997, I dreamed I was at a business-type lunch. Playing in the backgroundwas an Italian-sounding melody. We tried to place it but could not. We all agreed it probablywasn't Verdi, but could not identify the composer. When I awoke, the tune was still runningthrough my mind. I identified it easily as Tchaikovsky's Cappricio Italien (not a piece I listen tooften). According to a lot of popular literature, the subconscious mind is more creative than theconscious mind, has better access to memories, and is able to generate solutions to problems thatstump the rational mind. My subconscious: 

  1. Was not creative enough to guess that an non-Italian might have written a piece of Italian- sounding music, and 
  2. Failed to identify a piece that my conscious mind (even just waking up) instantly identified. 

A very similar experience involved dreaming in another language. Contrary to widespreadmisconception, you don't have to be very fluent to dream in other languages. I have dreamt inhalf a dozen languages, some of which I only know a few phrases of. This dream was inSerbo-Croatian, which I learned a bit of during a six-month military tour in Bosnia in 1996. I can handlesimple conversations but am decidedly not fluent. In my dream, I was fumbling for some phrases. After I awoke and recalled the dream, I realized that the phrases were simple courtesy phrases Iknew perfectly well. Here again, my dreaming subconscious failed to retrieve data that myconscious could access easily. 

On another occasion, I was dreaming in German, a language I speak reasonably well. Iwas fishing for an obscure word I would not normally know (as is the case with many dreams, theexact details are quickly forgotten). I came up with a compound word, and even a fairlyconvincing explanation for how the word was derived. When I awoke, I was intrigued. Did mysubconscious access a long-forgotten word, or integrate other words into an inspired solution to aproblem? Well, no. When I looked up the English word in a dictionary, I found the Germanword was completely different. The compound word my subconscious dredged up? Nonexistent. 

On February 5, 1997, I dreamed in a foreign language of a different sort. Someoneneeded a sorted list of computer files, and I started writing a program in BASIC to do the job. My plan was to list the files onto a floppy disk, then use a word-processor to do the sorting.When I was programming regularly in BASIC I used file access commands all the time, but in mydream I was unsure of the exact format. This was data that was at most mildly rusty, but Icouldn't recall it clearly. Upon awakening, I realized two things. First, I didn't need a programto sort files; both DOS and Windows offer a wide range of file sorting options. Second, if I didwant to write a file listing to a diskette, I wouldn't do it in BASIC; it can be done much moreeasily using DOS. Yet again my creative subconscious mind couldn't access information that myconscious mind was perfectly capable of retrieving. 

Paranormalists, hypnotists, spiritualists and others would have us believe the subconsciousis a perfect recorder of information, able to integrate information that the hobbled conscious mindcannot. I'm not going to deny that for some people dreams may provide access to forgotten orblocked information, but in my experience, my subconscious has repeatedly failed to retrieveinformation that my conscious mind has no trouble whatever recalling. My dreams seem to benothing more than random memory dumps. I suppose on occasion some random bit flushed outin a dream may inspire someone to think along new lines and thereby lead to a creative insight,but such an event is purely random. Flipping randomly through an encyclopedia is just as likely toinspire new ideas.

Return to Pseudoscience Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page

Created 29 April, 2002, Last Update 24 May, 2020

Not an official UW Green Bay site