Nietzsche on Dreams as an Evolutionary Time Machine for the Human Brain
“Dreams carry us back to the earlier stages of human culture and afford us a means of understanding it more clearly.”
By Maria Popova
We spend a third of our lives in a parallel nocturnal universe and the half-imagined, half-remembered experiences we have there are in constant dynamic interaction with our waking selves. Our nightly dreams are both fragmentary reflections of our conscious lives, rearranged into barely recognizable mosaics by our unconscious, and potent agents of psychic transmutation — a powerful dream can cast an unshakable mood over the wakeful hours, or even days, that follow it. Science is only just beginning to shed light on the role of dreams in memory consolidation and mood, but their nature and purpose remain largely a mystery. “We feel dreamed by someone else, a sleeping counterpart,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his beautiful ode to dreams.
Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) saw this sleeping counterpart as our link to primitive humanity — an atavistic remnant of the pre-rational human mind. Nearly two decades before Freud’s seminal treatise on dreams, Nietzsche explored the mystique of the nocturnal unconscious in a portion of Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (public library | free ebook) — his altogether terrific 1879 inquiry into how we become who we are.
In a section on dreams and civilization, he writes:
In the dream … we have the source of all metaphysic. Without the dream, men would never have been incited to an analysis of the world. Even the distinction between soul and body is wholly due to the primitive conception of the dream, as also the hypothesis of the embodied soul, whence the development of all superstition, and also, probably, the belief in god. “The dead still live: for they appear to the living in dreams.” So reasoned mankind at one time, and through many thousands of years.
Therein lies Nietzsche’s most intriguing point: Sleep, he suggests, is a kind of evolutionary time machine — a portal to the primitive past of our sensemaking instincts. He paints the sleeping brain as a blunt Occam’s Razor — in seeking out the simplest explanations for our daily confusions, it ends up succumbing to the simplistic. This, Nietzsche argues, is how superstitions and religious mythologies may have originated:
The function of the brain which is most encroached upon in slumber is the memory; not that it is wholly suspended, but it is reduced to a state of imperfection as, in primitive ages of mankind, was probably the case with everyone, whether waking or sleeping. Uncontrolled and entangled as it is, it perpetually confuses things as a result of the most trifling similarities, yet in the same mental confusion and lack of control the nations invented their mythologies, while nowadays travelers habitually observe how prone the savage is to forgetfulness, how his mind, after the least exertion of memory, begins to wander and lose itself until finally he utters falsehood and nonsense from sheer exhaustion. Yet, in dreams, we all resemble this savage. Inadequacy of distinction and error of comparison are the basis of the preposterous things we do and say in dreams, so that when we clearly recall a dream we are startled that so much idiocy lurks within us. The absolute distinctness of all dream-images, due to implicit faith in their substantial reality, recalls the conditions in which earlier mankind were placed, for whom hallucinations had extraordinary vividness, entire communities and even entire nations laboring simultaneously under them. Therefore: in sleep and in dream we make the pilgrimage of early mankind over again.
Just like the dreaming self contains vestiges of every self we’ve inhabited since childhood, to be resurrected in sleep, Nietzsche argues that the dreaming brain contains vestiges of the primitive stages of the human brain, when our cognitive capacity for problem-solving was far more limited and unmoored from critical thinking. Nearly a century before modern scientists came to study what actually happens to the brain and body while we sleep, he writes:
Everyone knows from experience how a dreamer will transform one piercing sound, for example, that of a bell, into another of quite a different nature, say, the report of cannon. In his dream he becomes aware first of the effects, which he explains by a subsequent hypothesis and becomes persuaded of the purely conjectural nature of the sound. But how comes it that the mind of the dreamer goes so far astray when the same mind, awake, is habitually cautious, careful, and so conservative in its dealings with hypotheses? Why does the first plausible hypothesis of the cause of a sensation gain credit in the dreaming state? (For in a dream we look upon that dream as reality, that is, we accept our hypotheses as fully established). I have no doubt that as men argue in their dreams to-day, mankind argued, even in their waking moments, for thousands of years: the first causa, that occurred to the mind with reference to anything that stood in need of explanation, was accepted as the true explanation and served as such… In the dream this atavistic relic of humanity manifests its existence within us, for it is the foundation upon which the higher rational faculty developed itself and still develops itself in every individual. Dreams carry us back to the earlier stages of human culture and afford us a means of understanding it more clearly.
Nietzsche considers the cognitive machinery of this dreamsome deduction:
If we close our eyes the brain immediately conjures up a medley of impressions of light and color, apparently a sort of imitation and echo of the impressions forced in upon the brain during its waking moments. And now the mind, in co-operation with the imagination, transforms this formless play of light and color into definite figures, moving groups, landscapes. What really takes place is a sort of reasoning from effect back to cause.
The imagination is continually interposing its images inasmuch as it participates in the production of the impressions made through the senses day by day: and the dream-fancy does exactly the same thing — that is, the presumed cause is determined from the effect and after the effect: all this, too, with extraordinary rapidity, so that in this matter, as in a matter of jugglery or sleight-of-hand, a confusion of the mind is produced and an after effect is made to appear a simultaneous action, an inverted succession of events, even. — From these considerations we can see how late strict, logical thought, the true notion of cause and effect must have been in developing, since our intellectual and rational faculties to this very day revert to these primitive processes of deduction, while practically half our lifetime is spent in the super-inducing conditions.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s wonderful notion that the poet is “the spiritual heir of primitive humanity,” Nietzsche adds:
Even the poet, the artist, ascribes to his sentimental and emotional states causes which are not the true ones. To that extent he is a reminder of early mankind and can aid us in its comprehension.
Human, All Too Human is a spectacular read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with the science of how REM sleep regulates our negative moods and the psychology of dreams and why we have nightmares, then revisit Nietzsche on the power of music, how to find yourself, why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, and his ten rules for writers.
Published April 21, 2016