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What Color Is That Sugarplum?

UC Riverside Philosophy Professor Contends The Media Influences How We Recall Our Own Dreams

Do We Dream in Black and White or Technicolor?

(December 19, 2002)

Eric Schwitzgebel

Eric Schwitzgebel

Riverside, Calif. — (Dec. 20, 2002) In the 1950's, dream researchers commonly thought that people dreamt in black-and-white, although both earlier and later treatments of dreaming assert that dreams have color.

UC Riverside philosophy professor Eric Schwitzgebel contends that we know less than we think about the workings of our own mind. He said people reporting black and white dreams in the middle of the 20th Century may have been overly influenced by the black and white media images of the day in television and film.

“If our opinions about basic features of our dreams can change with changes in technology, it seems to follow that our knowledge of our own dreams is much less secure than we might at first have thought it to be,” he said.

Schwitzgebel bases his theory on reports of dreams through history and how people describe the look of their dreams. From the dream studies of Descartes and Freud to modern surveys on dreams through America Online, it appears that our perception has changed over time.

His latest paper, “Why Did We Think We Dreamed in Black and White?” appears in the December issue of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. It is available on the web at:

Assuming that dreams themselves have remained consistent, Schwitzgebel said it is people who now perceive their dreams differently.

“I am interested in our knowledge of our own conscious experience,” Schwitzgebel said. “ I advocate the view that we don't know our own experiences nearly as well as we think we do. I have advocated this position not only for dreams, but also for auditory experience and for visual imagery.”

He said images seen in peripheral vision are often inaccurate, because our best information comes from what is directly in our focus, a rather narrow band spot directly in front of our eyes. We are also picking up clues about our environment through hearing sound waves reflect off of objects, a bat-like “echolocation” which may be more common in humans than we usually acknowledge.

While describing our dreams incorrectly might seem to be harmless, describing what we have seen on the witness stand incorrectly, or describing our emotional state to our spouse incorrectly, might have harsher consequences.

Schwitzgebel, who earned his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley in 1997, believes that people must examine their own thoughts and feelings carefully, and be more skeptical about what they think they know.

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