People Used to Dream in Black and White

On an episode of Julia Galef’s podcast, the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel said the following: 

“For [dreams], there was actually a literature that’s very interesting where people in the ’50 in the United States and the ’40s thought that dreams just generally were black and white. I don’t think that they thought it was just dreams in the United States, as influenced by media. I think they just thought dreams are a black and white kind of thing. Most people thought that in the 1950s. It’s related to the presence of media in the culture, so if you look pre-20th century, very few people will say that dreams are black and white. If you look 21st century, very few people will say that dreams are black and white. You look at the arc of it and it relates to the dominance of black and white film media in the culture. 

And we got some cross-cultural evidence for this. This guy emailed me and said, “We should try this in China,” because this was about the year 2000. He said, “Well, in rural China, most people are exposed to black and white media, their TVs are black and white, whereas in urban China, most people — especially the wealthier people — are exposed to mostly colour media.” So we asked about their dreams and we found rural people in China in the early 2000s tended to say that their dreams were black and white, and urban people tended to say their dreams were coloured.”

That became the paper Schwitzgebel, Huang and Zhou 2006. If true, this is one of the most bonkers things I have ever learned. 

The thing is, it’s extremely unlikely that black and white TV actually changed the contents of people’s dreams. There’s no plausible way that the small proportion of time people spent watching visual media could radically change dreams about things we see in colour every day. Rather, people don’t know whether they dream in colour. Dreams may not even have associated colours one way or the other! Indeed, when I asked a few friends and family whether they dreamed in colour, a surprising number of them answered “I don’t know”. When the dominant culture has a reference of visual media in black and white, you think you dream in black and white. And when your culture has a reference of visual media in colour, you think you dream in colour. 

This relates to a generally underappreciated aspect of consciousness: vagueness. Your conscious experience of the world is vague. You don’t typically know what you’re feeling, or dreaming, and look to cultural cues to figure it out. This explains the stylised fact that anxiety and excitement are almost neurologically indistinguishable; the difference is in the surrounding interpretation. More speculatively, it also may explain the cross-cultural differences in mental illnesses. The associated brain states of mental illnesses may well be the same everywhere, caused by a few failure modes. But different cultures prime people to think of mental illnesses in different ways.

You may be sceptical if you are aware of how the psychological research on priming has not replicated well. But my colloquial usage of the term ‘prime’ is different from its technical meaning in psychology. It is not quite the placebo effect either: since all experiences are influenced by beliefs and expectations, that would commit us to say that everything is a placebo, which doesn’t seem right. It’s more similar to the Popperian case against empiricism that I outlined in my review of The Beginning of Infinity

I was thinking out loud with a friend recently about how the purpose of meditation may be to eliminate this mental vagueness. To better understand sensation, unmediated by concepts. I heard Sam Harris say that experienced meditators even practice mindfulness in their sleep. It would be interesting to gather together people who claim to be enlightened and see if they dream in colour. Then again, monks probably don’t watch a lot of TV. 

2 thoughts on “People Used to Dream in Black and White”

  1. Yes. Another relevant slatestarcodex post is Jaynes on the origin of consciousness: https://slatestarcodex.com/2020/06/01/book-review-origin-of-consciousness-in-the-breakdown-of-the-bicameral-mind/

    I think your take is correct. It’s not that consciousness itself is different across time, but rather, people’s interpretation of their conscious experience and the language surrounding it is highly flexible depending on the cultural setting they grew up in.

    On the theme of color: there’s a book by linguist Guy Deutscher called Through the Language Glass. It’s about how languages differ in the number of color words. While English speakers are used to a general taxonomy of colors mapping roughly to ROYGBIV (with of course, there being subcolors within each of the main colors) different languages have *completely different ways of slicing up the light spectrum*.

    Here’s a relevant link talking about blue-green distinction in language: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue%E2%80%93green_distinction_in_language. In many language, “blue” and “green” aren’t different colors, but differing shades of the same color–in the same way that “sky blue” and “dark blue” are different shades of blue.

    So what does all this mean? Surprisingly little maybe? Even though cultures differ in how they categorize colors, it would be mistake to infer that the *physical perception* of color is different. Every people around the world has the same basic visual system build around rods and cones–no exception. It’s similar to how *language* is culturally determined, but “verbal intellegence”–the construct underlying a person’s ability to master the nuances of language and related skills–is *not* culturally determined.

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  2. The model of dreaming that makes sense to me is the sleeping brain fires at random while it’s reorganizing/resetting and sometimes the “consciousness” module kicks in and creates a story from the random input. My hypothesis would be when people are used to watching black and white stories, the dream stories they create are also black and white. These days, I would expect more dreams to be Youtube videos and Tiktoks.

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