Addendum to Proceedings of Wellington Philosophical Society for 6th September, 1893.
The following is an abstract of Mr. R. Coupland Harding's paper “On Mental Operations in Sleep” (see p. 658).
The author said he did not intend to deal with the phenomena of dreams in general—a wide subject—but with those interesting and exceptional instances in which there was continuous rational effort, productive of a definite result, and in some cases, as those in which the dreamer imagines he reads from a book or engages in a discussion, when there was the appearance, at all events, of the operation of an independent intelligence. A theory very commonly accepted, that dreams were merely the imperfect reflection and confused repetition of thoughts that had occupied the mind during waking-hours, however it might apply in numerous cases, was entirely excluded in certain classes of phenomena which he had himself noted. He was inclined to disbelieve the common assertion that the action of the mind in sleep was inconceivably swift. The anecdotes in support of this view were, as a rule, ill authenticated, and, even if true, were exceptional. In natural and healthy repose all the vital operations were much slower than in waking-hours. The motion of the blood through the brain was slower and steadier, and the mental operations were correspondingly deliberate. Dreaming was a natural feature of healthy repose, and he doubted whether sleep was ever absolutely dreamless. Like any other natural function, it was perverted by disease; but it was only to the normal and healthy condition that his present remarks had reference. The difficulty of exactly recalling dream-impressions, however vivid at the time, was the cause of much embellishment, intentional and otherwise. At a former meeting an English scientific authority had been quoted as saying, “All dream images are vague and undefined.” This assertion was too sweeping. The generalisations of our waking-moments might be as vague as any dream-image, as when Proctor vainly tried to analyse the mental idea conveyed by the words “passer-by,” or “bystander.” His own dream-image of a ship, or of the skeleton of a beast, for example, would be necessarily a vague phantom,—as a memory sketch would be absurdly incorrect: but when he dreamed of a book the image was clear enough. It might be unlike any book he had ever seen; but it was always such as he could reproduce in every detail of form, size, style of type, and decoration. He would divide the more or less orderly mental operations of sleep into four classes, examples of all of which had come within his own experience: (1.) Active constructive work, such as the composition of essays, problems, verses, &c., bearing a general resemblance to ordinary work of the kind in waking-hours, though, as a rule, exceedingly poor in quality, showing that the critical faculty is in abeyance for the time being. (2.) The apparent passive reception of matter of the kind, as in the reading, or hearing read, narrative, essay, or verse. (3.) The debating or discussing such matters with a supposed second person. (4.) The working-out of a
concealed problem. Of these, the last two were the more complex, and in the fourth case the ordinary line of operation in waking-hours was entirely reversed. In the second class, the introduction of a second personality was so similar to the common illusions of sleep that classes 1 and 2 might fairly be taken as different forms of the same phenomenon. It was not so easy, however, to account for the illusion of debate, where the adversary often replies with a quite unexpected argument, which the sleeper finds it difficult to meet. As an example of the illusion of reading, he only lately imagined that he was reading a certain newspaper (of which, by the way, he had never seen but one copy). The dream paper corresponded perfectly with the real one; but contained two printers' errors so odd that he (as was his custom in such cases) made a note of them. He remembered both on waking. One was in an article on homœopathy, where the compositor, mistaking the word “dilution” for a collocation of numerals, had set it up “DI LV XIII.” Such an error, though possible, was in the last degree improbable. The other he had forgotten. By what strange process were these blunders at once invented and presented to the dreamer with a full sense of their grotesque incongruity? As for the solving of problems, he had repeatedly had “nuts to crack” in sleep, had succeeded, and had felt real pleasure when the answer flashed upon him. Did he at the same time unconsciously construct the problem? The most sustained effort of the kind that he could remember was a double acrostic in verse which he imagined he was reading in a magazine. This he studied, word by word, until he succeeded in working out the whole. He was unable to recall all the details on waking, and problem and solution may have been alike defective. Not having noted it at the time, he could only now remember that one of the keywords was “Oriole”—exactly such a word as is chosen by the constructor of this kind of riddle. Had he set himself that puzzle? He was aware that much had been written upon the main question; and he had no theory to propound. What he maintained was that the phenomenon of dreaming did not stand by itself, and could not be accounted for in the easy off-hand way in which many writers on popular science dealt with it. An inquiry of this kind was not a mere matter of idle curiosity; for, as the mental machinery was for the time outside of voluntary control, the phenomena of dreams might enable some idea to be formed of the operations of the mind in certain forms of insanity, whether induced by ordinary disease or by specific nerve-poisons such as alcohol, cannabis, or morphia. The paper thus concluded: “Any theory of mental operations, conscious or unconscious, must be, to borrow a term from the botanist, either endogenous or exogenous. I incline to the latter. There are phenomena seemingly suggestive of a transference of thought or perception which may be illustrated by what is known as induction in telegraphy, when the current jumps from wire to wire, and the message is recorded by the wrong instrument. Such a suggestion fails to meet the cases I have indicated. It is, I think, the more reasonable view that our most original thoughts and inventions, sleeping or waking, orderly or otherwise, reach us from an exterior sphere. Where the soil has, by thought and training, been duly prepared, the living germs fall, and in due time bring forth their fruit, good, bad, or indifferent, each after its kind. Who has not felt a thought flash on him from without, impressing itself like a lightning photograph? Has not the afflatus of the poet always been recognised as an inspiration? And even the broken and imperfect phenomena of dreams may throw light on the obscurer operations of the human mind.”