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I am very curious as to if any research has been done in this area, or if such a question even can be researched given the current tools and methods available to cognitive scientists. When one dreams, one may experience interactions with other characters, be those characters based on people one knows in their waking life or characters new to the dreamer. I'm interested to understand more about how the interactions between the dreamer within the dream state and these characters inside the dream work.

Do the characters in one's dream actually have their own thoughts? That is, does the mind "sandbox" each character, keeping track of what each dream character is thinking? When characters in a dream speak or act, what determines what actions they will take? Are their words and actions simply based upon a sense of empathy, or does the mind somehow maintain separate "conscious states" for each dream character? (A better word for that is appreciated, if there is one)

Or, as I suspect, is this concept simply too abstract for us to research given our current level of technology and understanding about how dreams work at a fundamental level?

Edit: As an alternative way of asking this question, has any research been done looking for possible relationships between characters within a dream and other better-understood areas of personality, for example multiple personality disorder?

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The "sandbox" approach would allow, for example, a character in a dream to be trying to find something out from you, because they don't know the answer, I suspect this sort of thing is possible. – alan2here Feb 8 '12 at 18:16
The information hiding\separating\abstracting part of the sandbox analogy could also relate to discovery in dreams, for example of parts of the enviroment that come as a surpise. – alan2here Feb 8 '12 at 18:55
I think it's a great concept @alan2here but I don't know if the brain actually works that way. I borrowed the term "sandbox" from software development... – Josh Gitlin Feb 8 '12 at 19:01
Perhaps the 'sandbox' metaphor is a roughly analogy for the separation between conscious and unconscious? From my understanding a common idea is that one can 'talk' to their unconscious/subconscious through lucid dreaming... – BenCole Feb 8 '12 at 19:49
I've asked a similar question about recurring dream characters that are based on real people - such characters appear more "solid" than random people in dreams… – Alex Stone Feb 7 '13 at 3:42

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

EDIT: To address the changed question:

Similar to how mental visualization stimulates the same neurons/blood flow that actually seeing something does, I suspect that brain scans will show similar processing occuring during the dream interaction as occur during real interactions.

The difference is that the brain is creating the entire subjective experience.

The crazy thought is that there isn't a difference though: subjective experience is ALWAYS completely constructed by the brain, though it's constructed through nerve impulses from external inputs such as electromagnetic waves (sight) or physical waves (sound). During sleep, the body is paralyzed to prevent us from acting out our dreams (which WILL happen if the paralysis is lifted), which implies that sensory data is still coming in (or being generated) and we are simply mis-perceiving it and then trying to catch up.

This was my answer to @alan2here's original question. It mostly still applies, though is also a mixture of philosophy, psychology, and cognitive neurophilosophy (EDIT: i.e. uncited, lol) Take this as you will:

First off, this is definitely a philosophy question, but I'll try to stay within the bounds of Cog Sci. No promises though...

From my understanding, the mind does not create consciousness. While this is a very thorny issue, and one I'm not super familiar with, I believe a generally accepted view is that consciousness is a (by-)product of the sheer complexity of the human brain coupled with governing systems and feedback loops (and a hell of a lot more of course!).

Furthermore, the perceived barrier between the self and separate beings is just that: perception. Differences in physical properties aside, there are no real barriers between anything. Air is just as much a molecule as plastic, and behaves in a remarkably similar manner. The difference is semantics (not unimportant to subjective beings, but objectively the difference is inconsequential). We just can't see it, and we're conditioned to ignore it, so we see a vast gulf of nothingness where there is actually incredible hidden complexity. Also, the notion of self is a misguided one that we're given through culture. As many Eastern philosophies will tell you, the self is a lie! (just like cake).

To address the actualy question though (kinda), I think you unintentionally answered it yourself with this phrase: sentient seeming entities. The 'people' in your dreams are amalgamations of 'people'-like semantic attributes your brain has constructed from your experiences. These seem like real people and can act like real people, but that's because you've met and experienced real people. If you have never met real people, it's very doubtful that any people-like dream constructs will be created (unless generated from mirror reflections).

Lastly, I have to add this caveat: dreams and dream science is still an incredibly unexplored black box. We still don't have a clear idea about why dreams occur and until then, this question is literally unanswerable. In fact, everything I've said may turn out to be false, but we don't really know. That's why this falls under philosophy.

However, I'll leave you with this: assuming that the human mind is an individual entity (and cannot connect with other people through undiscovered mental (physical, likely subatomic and certain microscopic) means), then the people in your dreams do not exist anywhere else nor to anyone else. Therefore: does it matter? It's a completely subjective experience, so only you can decide how to perceive it.

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Thanks Ben. alan2here and I were discussing merging his other question in with mine which would have moved your answer here. Note that in my case I am not asking a philosophy question. I definitely want to know the scientific answer, even if that answer is "we have no way of knowing at this time" – Josh Gitlin Feb 8 '12 at 17:57
Agreed. I've added a bit at the beginning, though the answer still falls under the neurophilosophy tag. I don't have the knowledge to say either way whether or not it's possible to know, which is terrible but true. I suspect someone else can answer this better than I can... – BenCole Feb 8 '12 at 18:02
I'm not after philosophy either :¬P I'm glad I'm no longer being told that I am. – alan2here Feb 8 '12 at 18:08

I've done a few experiments during lucid dreams, and i have found 2 different kinds of dream characters.

1) (The Automata) These guys are basically programs. They are there only to further the plot of the dream. If you make any attempt to break them out of the plot they've been put into, they will stop giving sensical answers. They are not conscious. They only know how to answer a few questions and do a few things.

2) (The "People") These are, as far as i can tell, conscious. They act and behave like people, and can do things completely unrelated to the original plot of the dream. They exhibit creativity, since i have heard genuinely funny jokes from them that i never thought of before and that other people find funny. They exhibit a sense of agency, in the since that i am never able to truly "erase" them. Whatever's left after an attempt to erase them will quickly reestablish itself. They have memories independent to my own, ones that i confirm are real after reading older entries in my dream journal. They also exhibit free will, in the since that they are able to say things that are completely at odds to my expectations. I have only seen very few of them, but the ones that i do see will recur in my dreams.

So, in my opinion, based on the experiments i've done, there are definitely some dream characters that exhibit consciousness. How this happens, i believe that they are incredibly detailed replicas of the same processes that makes our consciousness. But then how are they separate? How do they have independent thoughts and memories? I think that their thoughts and memories form part of the subconscious, in the sense that they escape our conscious awareness. However, cognitive science is still in its infancy, and we are trying to explore the one most complicated piece of software known to man that's running on a piece of hardware that we still don't fully understand. In the end, time will tell what the right answer is.

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Welcome to CogSci David! Personal anecdotal evidence does not suffice as an answer on this site, thus will be removed after some time, unless you could link back your interpretation to existing research in an edit of your answer. – Steven Jeuris yesterday

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