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. 

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I’m not very compelled by the argument (which Schwitzgebel also makes) that “it’s extremely unlikely that black and white TV actually changed the contents of people’s dreams.” I agree that reporting bias is a strong contender, and perhaps twice as plausible a hypothesis as the naïve one, but not much more.

Here’s an ad-hoc explanation of the mechanism by which black-and-white film/TV/newspapers/photos could actually change the process of dreaming. (Epistemic status of the following sentences: pure speculation, but seeming not-implausible.) Dreaming is a top-down reversed-perception process, like the way generative deep networks can hallucinate a plausible image that would be captioned with a certain sentence. Only, in dreaming, instead of generating sensory experiences to match “captions,” our brains generate them to match stories, with “story” being a relatively primitive type in the brain’s type system. In premodern times, most human experience with storytelling involved direct sensory experience of a storyteller speaking and gesturing, and imagined sensory experience of what the action might have looked like (based on memories of first-hand experiences, and perhaps paintings, stained-glass windows, etc). But in the US in the 1950s, most experiences of storytelling were mediated by mass media with grayscale visuals. A viewer might add imaginary touch, or perhaps even imaginary taste and smell, but thanks to our brains’ ability to process nighttime scenes (without color vision), it isn’t really necessary as a passive viewer to imagine a colorized version of a story’s visuals. So, when the brain was in REM and generating sensory experiences to match a story, it was quite biased towards generating the visual ones in grayscale.

Epistemic status: anecdote.

Most of the dreams I've ever had (and remembered in the morning) were not about any kind of received story (media, told to me, etc). They were all modified versions of my own experiences, like school, army, or work, sometimes fantastically distorted, but recognizably about my experiences. A minority of dreams has been about stories (eg a book I read), usually from a first person point of view (eg. a self insert into the book).

So for me, dreams are stories about myself. And I wonder: if these people had their dreams influenced by the form of media, were they influenced by the content as well? Or did they dream about their own lives in black and white? The latter would be quite odd.

I've definitely dreamed about being in a Minecraft world doing Minecraft things (actually in the world myself - not sitting at a computer), and likewise for other video games I've played extensively.

A friend once had a dream where he alt-tabbed between two dreams.

Be aware whether you are making an assumtion that dreaming is repetition or recreation of sensory input. Apparently I am pretty aphantastic and some weird things I noted about dreams is that they don't neccearily have any concrete shape. That is in a dream there can be a car but the car doesn't have any shape. Trying to understand dreams as kind of hallucinated images is going to have very hard time with that. But one can try to understand this as the brain making a scene, rendering it to image and then using image recognition to "read in the scene". For same kind of experience it can make sense to skip the rendering and image recognition steps and just go directly from scene construction to scene experience. Thus you can have a "car" "there" without a shape (or even pinned down location) as it was never assigned one. Thus the existence of "unrasterised" experiences might be easily missable for people who think throught very concrete and vivid terms.

Thus I claim we don't know whether people see dreams.

The distinction can also enter into the waking world. I had some earworm songs stuck in my head but at some point when the stuckness was really deep I started to actually hear them. And when I actually heard them I realised that before I only referenced them in detail rather than hearing them. I could imagine that individual persons are likely to be very constant in their aphantastic-fantastic characteristic and production of that contrast of differently coding/experiencing data would be rare.

Less sure about this one as I don't have direct experience but apprently if there is particularly evocative pictures that describe events that are strongly associated with sounds being generated some people will synesthetically hear the sounds. In this case as it can be physically asserted that no external audio data is available that part of the experience is pretty surely edited in by the brain. I wouldn't be surprised if the upper parts of the brain would have a hard time figuring out which part of the lower parts data is based on external data and which part is guesswork. If a tree falls and you hear it but there was no athmosphere did it make a sound? 

Thus I claim we don't know whether people see dreams.

That's a pretty bold claim just a few sentences after claiming to have aphantasia.

Some of my dreams have no visuals at all, just a vague awareness of the setting and plot points. Others are as vivid and detailed as waking experience (or even more, honestly), at least as far as vision is concerned. Dreams can fall anywhere on a spectrum between these extremes, and sometimes they can even be a mixture (e.g. a visual experience of the place and an awareness of characters in that place that don't appear visually).

Yes, people do see dreams. I'm fairly certain I can tell the difference.

I guess there is a difference between whether all people see dreams or whether any person sees dreams. I don't mean to claim that dreams do not happen but whether sight is involved for all people. I guess a person that has had a non-visual dream can be certain it is not the case that every dream has been seen.

I am imagining a questionare that has options like "A) I see my dreams in color B) I see my dreams in black and white" to have different results if a option like "C) I don't see in my dreams" was present. The possible misdirection would be to not include C based on a guess that nobody reports it based preconception of what dreams are.

I know for a fact that I see colors in dreams. When I have a Lucid dream I can experiment with my experiences, and I could confirm that I saw colors. I could also feel taste, cold, touch, hear sounds and sometimes experience pain (I once was stabbed in a dream and it hurt like hell, even for several minutes after I woke up). In fact, I found the amount of details objects had to be surprising - when I looked at a stone wall, it looked like a texture of a real wall. When I touched the wall, it felt like a stone wall. Other senses did not get the details as well - when I tired tasting snow, it was kinda cold-ish and kinda tasted like snow, but not really. When I tasted food, it tasted really weird and not really like I expected.

Did you know in the dream that the taste was wrong, or only after waking?

Yes, I realized it in the dream. Since it was a Lucid dream, I was fully aware that I am in a dream and remembered how the taste is supposed to be in reality, so I could compare on the fly.

For whatever it's worth, I have memories of dreams having distinct colors of things. That is, not just a vague sense that I "dream in color" but actual memories of "I dreamed about this large blue balloon floating in a field of green grass under a grey sky" or something like that. I'm not sure how common that level of specificity is when people claim they dream in color or black and white.

When you say that consciousness is vague and people look to cues from others for how to interpret it, I think you're onto something very important.

Some parenting books treat that as trivially true for kids. It's a bit the basis of CBT. And yet I have an intuitive sense that its implications are critically under-explored. It feels like a nagging intensity in my perceived environment that i reflexively try to focus my eyes on and rising unease when i can't.

Is that the same or different to your reasoning? When that criticality is communicated, what happens next?

Suppose that TV experience does influence dreams - or the memories or self-reporting of dreams. Why would it affect specifically and only color?

Should we expect people who watch old TV to dream in low resolution and non-surround sound? Do people have poor reception and visual static in their black and white dreams? Would people who grew up with mostly over the border transmissions dream in foreign languages, or have their dreams subtitled or overdubbed? Would people who grew up with VCRs have pause and rewind controls in their dreams?

Some of these effects are plausible. Anecdotally, I watched a lot of anime, and I had some dreams in pseudo-Japanese (I don't speak Japanese). I don't remember ever dreaming subtitles though.

Does either the explanation of the black and white effect make predictions about which other effects should be present, and why?

My pet theory would answer as follows.

  1. Color vision is an aspect of sensory experience that we can do without for most upstream perception, largely because our eyes actually have a grayscale mode for low-light conditions.
  2. People are surprisingly insensitive to sound quality or even mono vs stereo under ordinary conditions. This theory predicts that the population in question would in fact dream in mono sound, but might have a hard time noticing or reporting that fact.
  3. Visual static or noise tends to be filtered out by perception, except when it overwhelms the signal. This theory would predict that people who live in areas with decent reception would not have static or noise in their dreams, while people who live in areas with unacceptable reception also wouldn’t (because their brains wouldn’t even be able to entrain to the story), but in a critical band where TV signal strength is highly variable dependent on atmospheric conditions, people might sometimes experience bursts of visual static in their dreams.
  4. Visual artifacts of film/video/TV that are plausible to the brain as actual optical phenomena, such as softly glowing halos around bright edges, might sometimes be incorporated into the experience of dreaming.
  5. People whose experiences of storytelling predominantly involves a foreign language would tend to dream in that language.
  6. When consuming media with subtitles, the visual stimulus of the subtitles is removed (and potentially even inpainted, as with the eyes’ blind spots), with the subtitle information rerouted to a language-processing area, which uses it to fill in the missing meanings from the audio stream. So, in reversed-perception dreaming, people whose experience with storytelling was heavily subtitled would experience dreams where the visuals lack subtitles, speech sounds like the foreign language, and yet speech also somehow has a meaning that feels more like the subtitle language.
  7. Rewinding and pausing are “out of band” elements that are understood during consumption not to be part of the story, like if you ask a human storyteller to go back to an earlier part and tell it again, or to take a short break while you get a drink of water. So this theory says they typically wouldn’t show up in reversed-perception dreaming. People who have a lot of experience with rewind and pause controls are more likely to fantasize about those mechanics (“I wish I could just rewind and do that differently”), so they might show up in the content of dreams that way, but people wouldn’t report the presence of such controls as “just the way that dreams are.”

In my childhood we had only black and white TV. My dreams were with colors.

Same for me. I remember one dream from when I was little, before we even had a TV, let alone a color TV. It was in color.

Did you have a lot of experiences with storytelling that didn’t involve TV at all?

Yes, my parents read me books and I created imaginary worlds. 

I had a similar experience where I didn't know whether there was sound in my dreams. At some point I had the distinct experience of simultaneously noticing that I was dreaming, remembering that I had previously wondered about this question, and then checking that, yes, I was hearing sounds.

Even after decades of watching color TV, my Abuela still says that she dreams in black-and-white. Maybe her dream-generator was more impressionable in her younger years.

You're probably right that a big component of this phenomenon is the vagueness of consciousness latching onto cultural cues to fill in the missing details. But there could also be something else going on.

Our conscious minds are constantly constructing narratives of our personal experiences, trying to make sense out of a complex and confusing world using relatively simple stories. These narratives are encoded by the hippocampus and regenerated for the rest of the brain during sleep as a form of offline learning and regularization.

Stories are what our hippocampus craves. The accumulation of new stories is probably what fuels our curiosity drive, and building shared narratives is central to building community identity.

When we experience life, it's up to us to construct our own stories. When we watch movies, we're getting a multimodal story superstimulus delivered to our hippocampus on a silver platter. The saliency is probably off the charts compared to real life.

Based on that theory, it would seem more surprising if dreams didn't look like movies.

Disclaimer: The preceding was just a simplified story, constructed to make sense out of the complex and confusing reality underlying the qualitative content of dreams. Please take it with a grain of salt.

I typically dream in color, but have occasionally dreamed in black and white. I have also occasionally dreamed in cartoon-ish environments, or 90s/2000s computer graphics-like animation. These were very distinct experiences when they happened, there was never any doubt in my mind on waking that the dream I'd just had was different than usual for me.


I'm curious for anyone who has lucid dreams: is this a change you can make mid-dream?

[P]eople 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”.

I don't know much about the science of dreams, but I suspect that the answer may be that many dreams activate rods but not cones (or, at least, activate the parts of the brain that receive signals from rods). When it's dark, and my cones are not receiving enough light to function, I wouldn't describe the world I see as "black and white"—it seems different than that—but I also can't see color. Perhaps many people's dreams work the same way. (I find that, in many of my dreams, the dream world is dark enough that I can't see color.)

I have a suspicion that a similar thing is true of the whole "some people say they imagine in full color and others say they don't" thing.