The Unity of Dreams - Cecily Whiteley

The Unity of Dreams - Cecily Whiteley
Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

Speaker: Cecily Whiteley

When we are asleep, we are not uniformly unconscious — rather, our sleep is interspersed with bursts of conscious mental activity. This activity takes different forms throughout the night: some experiences are complex, bizarre, and emotionally vivid simulations which appear to have long durations. Others are brief and fleeting; a vague visual image of a face or memory, or lone thoughts. In rarer cases, the state of unconsciousness which accompanies sleep is interrupted by a state in which one comes to have an awareness or insight into the fact that one is not awake, or in rarer cases still, a state in which one is able to partially manipulate and control the content of one’s experience. When we compare these experiences while awake, we refer to these uniformly as ‘dreams’. But do all of the conscious experiences that I had last night whilst asleep belong to a common neurobiological kind, or to several different ones? These sorts of questions – concerning the unity and scientific classification of sleep experience – have largely been left unexamined despite renewed interest in dreaming within philosophy of mind and consciousness science. In this talk, I consider them and argue for their importance. I defend two claims. First, that the assumption that sleep experiences do form a natural kind, operates as a guiding methodological principle in dream science which often goes unnoticed, shaping key experimental design and orthodox interpretations of data. Second, that this is problematic: not only do the arguments appealed to in defense of this assumption fail to justify it, but examination of these arguments also suggests that dream science is currently unreceptive to the sorts of empirical evidence which would ground its rejection. I argue that this calls for a revision to the way in which sleep experience is studied in consciousness science and philosophy of mind.

Please note that these seminars are open to the public and in person only.

Date & time

Thu 30 Nov 2023, 2:00pm to 3:30pm


Al-Falasi Lecture Theatre, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies Building, 147 Ellery Cres


Cecily Whiteley


Sean Donahue


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