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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Threshold Worlds: An Interdisciplinary Project on Dreams, Narrative and Liminal Cognition

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Cognitive research on dreams has experienced a new wave of interest in recent years. The increasing amount of phenomenological and neuroscientific data about dreaming, however, is provoking a number of questions about the experiential qualities of dreams and the potential insights they might disclose for larger issues such as consciousness, the self, social cognition, and our relationship with reality. How does our enactive and cognitive experience of reality permeate into dreams and vice-versa? What makes dreams immersive and world-like experiences? How can dreams inform, and be informed by, models of imaginary or hallucinatory liminal states? What is the specific narrative texture (or lack of narrativity) in dreams?

Such questions call for an interdisciplinary investigation, whereby multiple methodologies are combined to chart more systematically the landscape of dream-worlds. This includes co-constructing exploratory models which will guide experimental designs and phenomenological enquiries, as well as the interpretation of existing data from dream reports. A key part of this endeavour is to understand the relationships between dreams and other imaginary ontologies, such as hallucinatory experiences and narrative story-worlds. We propose to bring together cognitive scientists, psychiatrists, narratologists, dream cartographers, and artists, to work towards a more comprehensive and interdisciplinary account of dreaming.

A bespoke website for this innovative and exciting project can be viewed here.

Term: Michaelmas 2020

Principal Investigator: Dr Marco Bernini, Assistant Professor in Cognitive Literary Studies, English Studies,
Principal Investigator: Dr Ben Alderson-Day, Assistant Professor – Research, Psychology

Project Description

Research on dreams is enjoying an empirical and theoretical renaissance. Advances in sleep research and its methods are allowing more data to be collected about the nature, experiential qualities, and cognitive functioning of dreams (1, 2). The increasing amount of phenomenological and neuroscientific data about dreaming is generating a number of new questions: both for the nature and structure of dreams, and for wider issues such as consciousness, the self, social cognition, and our relationship with reality (3). Such questions call for an interdisciplinary approach, whereby multiple methodologies are combined to systematically explore and chart the landscape of dream-worlds.

One way of approaching this topic is to look closely at what dreams are typically likened or compared to. Two key areas of such comparison are i) hallucinatory experiences and ii) fictional narratives. In a way that is similar to hallucinations, dreams often appear to spontaneously blend the possible and impossible. Like fictional narratives, dreams provide feelings of immersion, which may simulate or mimic waking experiences. Each of these phenomena question and exploit the everyday boundaries between reality and fantasy, making them “threshold worlds” through which we all travel. Despite these commonalities, however, many approaches to dreaming still only draw on surface-level analogies with hallucinations or narratives. Without going further, contemporary advances in these other fields – both conceptual and methodological – are not fully applied to the field of dream research. In this project, it is proposed to bring together an interdisciplinary team of cognitive scientists, psychiatrists, narratologists, dream cartographers, and artists to explore these threshold worlds. Key questions the investigators seek to answer are:

  • How do real-world experiences cross the threshold into dreams, and vice versa?
  • How are our everyday cognitive processes – such as our use of affordances or reliance on predictions – altered, challenged or frustrated by dreams?
  • What is the specific narrative texture (or lack of narrativity) in dreams?
  • What makes dreams immersive and world-like experiences?
  • How can dreams inform, and be informed by, other experiences of the imaginary, such as hallucinations and fictional worlds?
  • How can an interdisciplinary approach be used to shape experimental design when we study dreams and liminal states?

The project investigators propose that by working together on experiments, phenomenological interviews, and the interpretation of dream reports, an interdisciplinary team can co-construct “exploratory models” of dreaming (4). Such an approach, as in many other interdisciplinary projects, is experimental and ambitious in itself. In bringing together expertise on dreams, hallucinations, and narratives, the aim is to go beyond the surface to provide a deeper and richer understanding of the dream experience.

The project is organised into four clusters:

(Cluster 1) Permeability: Cognitive sciences are increasingly promoting a view of the mind as “porous” and extended into the world (5). Extended or enactive views of the mind, however, stress how this porosity works both ways, and how interactions in the physical worlds enter the mental realm too. Dreams are rarely mentioned as examples of this cognitive transit, and yet they seem to be a landmark example of how our active and enactive life in the outer world permeates into inner experience.

(Cluster 2) Narrativity: It is intuitive to talk of dreams as producing some kind of vivid story-world, and yet dreams seem to complicate, or even entirely resist, standard definitions of narrative in terms of a causal and linear arrangement of events (11). The peculiar narrativity of dreams, full of gaps and uncertainty regarding the structure of the dream-world as a whole, is largely under investigated, both within and outside narrative theory. New frameworks in narratology, such as “unnatural narratology” (which focuses on impossible story-worlds; 12; 13), provide a conceptual toolbox for a more systematic analysis of the relationship between dreams and narrative, opening up the opportunity for a more original and specific account of dream narrativity.

(Cluster 3) Immersivity: In spite of their troubled narrativity, dreams are generally experienced as vividly immersive worlds. The immersive quality of dreams has been traditionally compared either to imaginative experiences (such as immersion into story-worlds) or to the spontaneous blending of real and unreal elements in hallucinatory experiences. Dreams seem to combine immersive dynamics from both phenomena, but without being accountable by either the literary or the hallucinatory framework alone. By bridging narratological and cognitive models of immersion into this discussion, this cluster will attempt a more systematic description of the immersivity of dreams.

(Cluster 4) Reportability: One of the major obstacles to dream research has been subjects’ difficulty in reporting the content and experiential features of their dreams. Even when new protocols and techniques have allowed more data to be accessed, there seems still to be a resistance or resilience of oneiric experiences to be transformed into satisfying phenomenological description. This project will consider the possibility that, rather than ‘narrativity’, ‘experientiality’ (or the pre-narrative felt qualities of perception; 16), may be the dominant component of dream states.

Outputs and future development

During the three months (plus additional 6 months to finalise the outputs), the project investigators plan to lay the ground for four co-authored articles, one for each cluster (permeability, narrativity, immersivity, & reportability). At least two fellows for each article will be engaging with a topic by integrating the interdisciplinary methods, questions and models from the other disciplines involved. These outputs might constitute a special issue or separate
contributions to world-leading journals. In addition, a methodological essay is planned to be co-authored by all the fellows and PIs in which they will outline the need and benefits of an interdisciplinary co-modelling of dream experiments and phenomenological questionnaires. At the end of the project, a two-day workshop structured around the clusters will be organised.

This project will constitute the groundwork for a larger grant application for a Collaborative Award in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

IAS / Institute of Medical Humanities Fellows

Distinguished Visitors and Institute of Medical Humanities Fellows