It is a long-held notion of evolutionary theory that every aspect of behavior has an adaptive purpose, making the organism that exhibits it more fit for survival. That view hits a wall when it is brought to bear on dreaming, an act that seems to have no discernible adaptive advantage.
What good does it do us to dream? Cognitive scientist Owen Flanagan addresses this and related questions in Dreaming Souls, an endlessly interesting excursion into the philosophy of mind. He proposes, first, that dreaming is simply a by-product of the ordinary awareness that allows us to live as conscious beings, an unintended rejoinder to our waking states. Nature selected mammals to have rigid skeletons in a calcium-rich environment, Flanagan notes, but "cared not one bit about their color"; in the same way, he suggests, dreaming may simply be "an expectable side effect of selection for creatures designed to have and utilize experiences while they are awake, and which continue to have experiences after the lights go off." All this is not to say that dreams are unimportant, Flanagan adds, even though they may not be especially trustworthy; dreams may be a useful means of mind reading, something we constantly do while we are awake, interrogating ourselves constantly in order to gauge our thoughts and responses to the world around us. Dreams enable us, too, to mine below the narrative self of daily life, the person we present to others, a mask that may be quite different from who we really are. ("The self," Flanagan observes, "trades in fiction rather than fact.")
Flanagan proposes no definitive answers to the question of why we dream, but his ideas are stimulating and well-argued, and they open the door to further investigation. --Gregory McNamee
From Kirkus Reviews
An informative review of current research on sleep and dreams and a new theory about the nature and function of dreaming, presented with clarity, wit, and finesse. Flanagan (philosophy, experimental psychology, and neurobiology/Duke Univ.), editor of the Philosophy of Mind Series, to which the present work belongs, brings insights from philosophy, phenomenology, evolutionary biology, psychology and psychiatry, anthropology, sociology, and neuroscience to his theory of dreams. What's more, he does so in an unpedantic way that utterly engages the reader. Dreaming, he asserts, is not an evolutionary adaption but a side effect of an adaptation that human beings have learned to use in creative and helpful ways. While Flanagan's theory sees dreaming''a free rider on a system designed to think and to sleep''as serving no direct biological function, he finds that dreams do matter, for they sometimes possess meaningful structure, are sometimes self-expressive, and sometimes provide insights into one's own mind and one's relations with others. Unlike Freud, he finds that most dreams do not conceal their content or have deep meaning. He uses Freud's famous ``wolf man'' dream interpretation to illustrate the implausibility of the Freudian approach and argues that his own alternative is both plausible and testable. He also takes issue with the notion that dreams are wellsprings of creativity, effectively destroying the commonly accepted belief that the lengthy ``Kubla Khan'' came to the poet Coleridge in a dream and that Mary Shelley dreamed the entire plot of the novel Frankenstein before writing it down. What is important to remember, in Flanagan's view, is that while dreams, hatched in the chaotic activity of the brainstem, sometimes don't mean much of anything, the images and memories activated in our sleep are our own, and it is we ourselves who give them narrative shape. Diagrams, cartoons, quotations, and of course dreamsmostly but not always the author's ownilluminate and enliven the presentation. Science writing at its best. (16 line illus., 3 halftones) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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