Michael Frayn & Dreams in The Human Touch

  • Last night I dreamed I was a butterfly, and now I do not know if I am a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man. Lao Tsu

    "In so far as you can say anything about it at all, a dream, like a story, is something complete unto itself, not verified or justified or given meaning by any causal relationship with the world. Whatever goes in as input, something happens to it that transforms it and makes it what it is. Something or someone takes over.

    The question is: who or what takes over?

    The answer's obvious: I take over. The dream, after all, is being performed inside a theatre owned and managed by myself, and I surely have a considerable say in the way things are done here.

    At once, though, a difficulty arises. I am also an actor in this theatre. I am in among the action, just as I am in life. I am one of the characters, limited to a particular point of view, and while I'm down there on the stage I can't easily take an overview of the script, or keep an eye on the box-office returns. I often seem to know no more about what's going on in my own theatre than the rest of the cast do. In fact, I often seem to know a lot less than I do in the waking world. Things that I know perfectly well in daylight I don't know at all when I'm dreaming. I also entirely fail to notice the existence or significance of a lot of things that seem obvious as soon as I think back on them in the morning. . . . Perhaps dreaming has no function. If it really does have no bearing on whether we live or die, or whether we mate or fail to, perhaps it's not subject to the pressures of selection. Its functioning seems to be largely random. Perhaps its origins were, too - a random series of mutations in the brains of individuals whose genes were dominant for quite other reasons. . . .

    It's difficult not to see elements of the random and the indeterminate in all our experience, most striking in dreams but also present, as we have seen, in waking perception. There is a parallel here with the indeterminacy of particles. (And the indeterminacy of experience prevents it shaping our knowledge and behaviour no more than the indeterminacy of particles prevents them determining physical structure and chemical behaviour.)

    Then again, maybe there is an element of pure randomness in the apparently unlocatable deciding force at the heart of dreaming (and of all our thinking). Maybe this generative principle, which is both I and not-I, stems from the quantum behaviour of individual particles in the system, deflecting and shaping the throughput of information from external sources as fundamentally and massively as the random release of the beta-particle affects the state of Schrödinger's cat.

    One way or another, we have lost the deterministic thread of the universe right here, inside ourselves." Extract from The Human Touch, by Michael Frayn

    A Review in The Guardian. Here are excerpts of the book online.
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