The final part of a lecture given at the Institut général psychologique by this French man of letters. You can read the original here.
So what then is the difference between perceiving and dreaming? What then is sleeping? I am not, of course, asking about the physiological conditions of sleep; that is a question for physiologists to debate, and it is far from being resolved. I am asking how we should represent the state of a sleeping man's soul. For the mind continues to function during sleep; it exerts itself − as we have just seen − upon sensations and memories. And whether we are asleep or awake, it combines the sensation with the memory the sensation evokes. The mechanism of this operation seems to be the same in both cases. Nevertheless, we have, on the one hand, normal perception, and, on the other hand, we have dreams. The mechanism therefore does not work in the same way. Where is the difference? And what is the psychological character of sleep?
Let us not trust too much in theories. We have said that sleeping consisted of isolating oneself from the outside world. Yet we have shown that sleep does not close off our senses from external impressions, but rather that these impressions lend most dreams their subject matter. We have also seen that sleep may provide rest devoted to the higher functions of thought, a suspension of reasoning. I do not think this can be more precise. In dreams we often become indifferent to logic, but not incapable of logic. At the risk of bordering on paradox, I would almost say that the fault of the dreamer is to reason too much. He would avoid the absurd if he remained a mere spectator to the procession of his visions. But when he wants to provide an explanation at any cost, his logic, destined to connect these incoherent images, cannot but parody reason and approach absurdity. What is more, I recognize that the higher functions of intelligence are relaxed during sleep, and that even if the faculty of reason is not encouraged by the incoherent game of images, it occasionally amuses itself by defying normal reason. Yet we could say the same thing about all other faculties. Thus we cannot characterize the state of dreaming as an abolition of reason or an occlusion of the senses. Let us put these theories aside and get in touch with the facts.
We have to conduct a decisive experiment upon ourselves. As we leave the dream state − since we can scarcely analyze ourselves in the course of the dream itself − we will espy the passage from sleep to waking and tighten the beginning and end of that passage as closely together as we can. Attentive to what is essentially inattentiveness, we will come upon, from a waking state's point of view, the state of the soul still present in the sleeping man. This is difficult, but not impossible for those who have exerted themselves patiently. Now permit this panelist to tell you one of his dreams and what he thought he verified upon waking.
The dreamer thinks he is at a tribune haranguing a crowd. A confused murmur arises from the back of the auditorium. It gets stronger and stronger; it grows into rumbling, yelling, a horrific din. Finally, cries can be heard from every part, chanted to a regular rhythm: "Show him the door! Show him the door!" At this moment he suddenly wakes up. A dog was barking in the neighboring garden, and every "woof, woof" of the dog was confused with one of the "Show him the door!" cries. This is the moment to grasp. The waking "I" which has just appeared will return to the dreaming "I," who is still there, and say to him: "I have caught you in the act! You show me a crowd screaming but there is nothing more than a dog barking. Do not try to flee; I have you: I will learn your secret; you will allow me to see what you did." To which the dreaming "I" responds: "Take a look: I didn't do anything, and it's precisely in this regard that we differ, you and I, from one another. Do you think you have to do nothing at all to hear a dog bark and understand that this is a dog barking? A very serious mistake! Without thinking about it, you make a considerable effort. You have to take your entire memory and all your accumulated experience, then lead it, in a sudden constriction, to find only one sound amidst your memories of sound which most closely resembles the sensation of the sound you heard, or which best explains that sound. This sensation is therefore recovered by memory. Moreover, you have to obtain a perfect adherence so that there is not even the slightest gap between them (if not, you would be sitting squarely in that dream); the only way you can ensure that this adjustment occurs is by paying attention, or rather by a simulated tension of the sensation and the memory. This is what a tailor does when he is about to have you try on a piece of clothing for 'basting': he uses pins and fits the material as tightly as he can to your body, which is offered for the task. Your waking life is therefore a life of work, even when you think you're not doing anything, since at any given moment you must choose, and at any given moment you must exclude. You choose from among your sensations since you reject a thousand 'subjective' sensations from your consciousness which reappear immediately after you fall asleep. You choose with extreme precision and delicacy from among your memories since you shove aside all memories which do not fit your present state. This choice, which you incessantly effectuate, this continually renewed adaptation, is the essential condition of what we call common sense. But adaptation and choice keep you in a state of uninterrupted tension. You do not realize it at the time, no more than you sense atmospheric pressure. But at length you grow weary. Having common sense is very tiring.
"For, as I just told you, I differ from you precisely in that I do not do anything. I wholly and simply refrain from making the ceaseless effort which you make. You are attached to life; I am detached from it. I become indifferent to everything. I am uninterested in everything. To sleep is to be uninterested in life. We sleep in the exact measure that we are uninterested. A mother who sleeps next to her child may not hear cracks of thunder whereas a sigh from her child might wake her up. Was she really sleeping in favor of her child? We do not sleep in favor of that which continues to interest us.
"You ask me what I do when I dream? I am going to tell you what you do when you are awake. You take me − the dreaming "I," the totality of your past − and you lead me, from narrowing to narrowing, and enclose me in a very small circle which you trace around your current action. This is being awake, this is living a normal psychological life, this is struggling, this is wanting. As for dreams, do you need me to explain them to you? Dreams are the state in which you naturally find yourself as soon as you abandon yourself, as soon as you neglect concentrating on a single point, as soon as you stop wanting. If you insist, if you demand to have something explained to you, ask then how your will goes about the matter at every waking moment, in order to obtain instantaneously and almost unconsciously the concentration of everything you have within you regarding what interests you. But direct your query to the psychology of awakedness. Its principal purpose is to respond to you because being awake and wanting are one and the same thing."
This is what my dreaming "I" would say. And it would tell us many other things if we let it do so. But it is time to finish up. What is the essential difference between dreaming and being awake? We would be repeating ourselves by saying that the same faculties are exerted, whether in waking or in dreaming, but that they are tense in the first case and relaxed in the second. Dreaming is our entire mental life minus the effort of concentration. We still perceive, we still remember, we still reason: perceptions, memories, and reasonings might abound in the dreamer since abundance, in the domain of the mind, does not mean effort. What requires effort is the precision of the adjustment. We have to do nothing for a dog's bark to untether, in passing, the memory of a crowd's rumbling. But for this memory to come back as a preference to all other memories, the memory of a dog barking, and to be understood henceforth, that is to say effectively perceived, as a bark, this requires a positive effort. The dreamer no longer has the power to make that effort. In that regard, and only in that regard, does he differ from a man who is awake.
This is the difference. It is expressed in many forms. I will not get into any detail; I will limit myself by drawing your attention to two or three points: the instability of dreams, the speed with which they can unfurl themselves, and the preference they bestow upon insignificant memories.
The instability of dreams can be easily explained. Since dreams in essence involve not adjusting a sensation precisely to a memory, but instead allowing the sensation to frolic, a number of very diverse memories may be posed against a single sensation. Take, for example, a green spot sprinkled with white dots in the field of vision. This may summon a memory of a meadow full of flowers, a pool table and its balls − as well as many, many other things. All these memories wish to be revived in this sensation; all of them run after it in pursuit. Sometimes they reach their goal one after the other: the meadow becomes a pool table and we witness some extraordinary transformations. Sometimes they come together: the meadow is a pool table − an absurdity the dreamer will perhaps attempt to alleviate by reason, which will aggravate it further.
The speed at which certain dreams develop seems to be another effect from the same cause. In but a few seconds, our dream may present us with a series of events which would have taken several whole days if we were awake. You know Alfred Maury's observation: it has remained a classic, and whatever might have been said about it recently, I deem it plausible because I have found analogous accounts in the literature on dreams. Yet this precipitation of images has nothing mysterious about it. Note that the images of dreams are mostly visual; conversations which the dreamer thinks he has had are, in the majority of cases, reconstructed, completed, and amplified when he wakes up. Perhaps even, in certain cases, it may even have been only the thought of the conversation, its overall meaning, that accompanied those images. For, as large a multitude of visual images as we may desire can occur all of a sudden, in panorama; more likely it will be a succession of a small number of moments. It is therefore not surprising that dreams amass in a few seconds what would have taken many waking days: dreams see them in short; they proceed, when all is said and done, like memory proceeds. In a waking state, the visual memory which serves to interpret the visual sensation is obliged to place itself precisely upon it; from here follows the unfurling; it takes up the same time; in short, the recognized perception of outside events lasts just as long they do. But in dreams, the interpretative memory of the visual sensation regains its liberty: the fluidity of the visual sensation forces the memory not to stick; the rhythm of the interpretative memory therefore does not need to adopt the rhythm of reality; and the images may henceforth occur, if they so choose, with vertiginous speed, as would happen with a film reel if we did not regulate its unfurling. Precipitation, no more than abundance, is no sign of power in the domain of the mind: it is order, it is always the precision of adjustment that requires effort. The interpretative memory could become strained, it could pay attention to life, it could finally exit a dream: whatever the case, external events will chant its pace and slow down its speed. As, in a clock, the pendulum in its slices delays for the period of several days the spring which would be practically instantaneous if it were free.
So what would be left is to find out why dreams prefer this or that memory to others just as capable of placing themselves upon actual sensations. The fantasies of our dreams are scarcely more explicable that those of our waking hours; at the very least, we may note their strongest tendency. During normal sleep our dreams gather those thoughts which passed like flashes or those objects which we perceived without fixing our attention upon them. If we dream of the events of the day, insignificant occurrences, not more important things, have a greater chance of reappearing during the night. On this point I agree completely with the views of many other researchers. I am in the street; I am waiting for the tram; it would not be able to touch me because I do not budge from the sidewalk. What do I then say when, at the moment it grazes me, the idea of a possible danger crosses my mind? If my body shrinks back instinctively without my being conscious of being afraid, the next night I may dream that the tram will run me over. During the day I take care of a sick person whose condition is hopeless. If a ray of hope flares within me for just an instant − a momentary, almost imperceptible flash − my dreams that night may show me the sick person cured; in any case, I would be more likely to dream of a cure than of death or illness. In short, what is preferably recalled is what is least noticed. There is nothing surprising about that. The dreaming "I" is a distracted "I" who is relaxed. The memories that harmonize best with it are the memories of distraction, those, as it were, which do not bear the mark of effort.