Threshold Worlds: A New Interdisciplinary Project on Dreams

This post by Marco Bernini and Ben Alderson-Day is the first in a one-week takeover (Nov 30 – Dec 5 2020) of The Polyphony by Threshold Worlds, an interdisciplinary project exploring the nexus between dreams, narrative and liminal cognition. The project is supported by the Institute of Advanced Studies and the Institute of Medical Humanities at Durham University. Before the project ends its first phase on December 9-10 with a conclusive workshop, team members were invited to write a short text exploring work-in-progress ideas generated within the past three months of interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and multimedia exchanges.

A boulder hovers above a ladder in a dreamscape
“Light Sleeper” by Lucie Treacher, 2020

Dreams represent one of the last and most mysterious frontiers of psychology and neuroscience. Although neuroscientific research on dreaming has animated sleep labs since the 1950s (see 1,2), the topic of dreams has often been shied away from in the empirical sciences. A prominent casualty of the cognitive revolution, dreams were largely left to the psychoanalysts, or filed into a category or being “too difficult” to systematically study: too messy, too impressionistic, too introspective – too odd.

Recent advances in the science and philosophy of sleep and dreaming have changed this view. Work with lucid dreamers (3), the study of sleep disorders (4), and the use of electrophysiological and neuroimaging techniques have all permitted a “new look” at dreams (5), and allowed for their exploration in unprecedented ways. Similarly, major theoretical work is being done on dreams and their relationship with topics such as consciousness (6), the self (7), and predictive processing (8).

This new dawn for dreams brings many new opportunities, but also new conceptual and empirical problems. For example, the fundamental unreality of dreams often leads to a direct comparison with states of imagination and hallucination, even in the most contemporary of dream theories. But dreams, hallucinations, and the imagination are all unruly characters that tend to ebb and flow across thresholds of reality versus fantasy, sleep versus waking, and veridical versus illusory perception. To compare these states requires an integrative approach to all three, paying careful attention to their phenomenology, their variation, their structure, and their correlates.

Our prior work at Durham has involved many interdisciplinary discussions on hallucination and imagination (e.g. 9). We believe that a similarly interdisciplinary approach is appropriate – if not demanded – by the topic of dreams. Much of the new wave of dream research includes psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and philosophers – but arguably few fully interdisciplinary teams. For a truly integrated approach to dream research, we need the arts, humanities, and social sciences: to refresh our concepts, question our assumptions, understand the benefits and findings of each discipline, and towards a more comprehensive and exploratory account of dream states and phenomena. Methodological advances may have made them more tractable, but dreams are still among the most mysterious and elusive kinds of experience known to humankind.

And understanding dreams – including their relation to imagination and hallucination – is not just of a conceptual or philosophical interest – far from it. As COVID struck the world, millions were plunged into unusual dreams which affected and reflected their new moods and anxieties (10). Sleep problems, intrusive dreams, and nightmares make a major difference to mental health, particularly those with diagnosed disorders (11). And the boundaries of sleep are well-known for prompting a range of unusual and sometimes unpleasant experiences, such as sleep paralysis, hypnagogic hallucinations, exploding head syndrome, and “intruder” or presence phenomena (12). Each of these phenomena are common in adults, yet typically not talked about – leaving sufferers to struggle on their own. The encroachment of dreams, across the thresholds of our mind, has real-world consequences for many.

Funded by the Institute of Medical Humanities and the Institute of Advanced Study, Threshold Worlds is a new project takes a radically interdisciplinary stance to the topic of dreams. This Michelmas term, we have been hearing from a range of scholars all working on dreams in different ways. Our core team (13) includes literary and narrative theorists, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, an artist, and a religious studies scholar, each of whom have been making contributions to in the form of seminars, lectures, songs, and blogposts. Together we have been exploring four research clusters: i) narrativity, or the extent to which dreams should be considered narratives in some way; ii) permeability, the cross-talk of dream content and waking life; iii) immersivity, or the enveloping nature of the dreamworld and its relation to insight and lucidity, and iv) reportability – the factors affecting our ability to communicate to others about the contents of our dreams. Our external seminar series has covered the truth and falsity of dreamworlds (14), the “nothing” from which dreams arise (15), how to do things with dreams (16) and the new frontier of dream engineering research (17).

This week we will be profiling the work of our team and some of our visiting fellows via the Polyphony. We are also running two workshop days, open to all, on the 9th and 10th of December, which includes a programme of talks from psychologists, anthropologists, narrative theorists, religious studies scholars, historians and neuroscientists (18). At the end of term we will launch our new dream survey, developed by the team as a whole, to explore these threshold worlds even more in 2021.

Marco Bernini and Ben Alderson-Day

Marco Bernini specialises in narrative theory, modernism and cognitive approaches to literature. He has a forthcoming monograph on Samuel Beckett and cognition (Beckett and the Cognitive Method: Minds, Models, and Exploratory Narratives, Oxford University Press) and has published on extended and enactive elements in cognition that are involved, explored or modelled by literary narratives.  Ben Alderson-Day is an Associate Professor in Psychology at Durham University and a Co-PI on Threshold Worlds. He is also Associate Director of Hearing the Voice, and a member of the Institute of Medical Humanities at Durham.

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