NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

From Princeton University Press

The links between dreams, consciousness and memory are absolutely fascinating. I had imagined that the insight that we could get into animal dreaming was limited to dogs running in their sleep and waking themselves up by banging, violently into a wall. However, there is so much more research on this topic than I was aware of. The signals that octopuses can provide to us as to their thoughts through their colouration, shape and texture is incredibly rich, and an entire narrative can seemingly be read off from these visual clues while they sleep. David clearly has some serious frustration with researchers who don’t want to make the leap to the conclusion that this is really dreaming in the way that we know it, but could simply be the animal running through stereotyped behaviour simulations, in an unconscious way. The problem of other minds is currently unsolvable, and so while there is no proof, there certainly seems to be good evidence that animals go through rich, affectively valanced states while asleep in very similar ways to how humans do. It is the lack of being able to narrate them after the fact that leads to this reluctance in the research community.

From the many examples of possible animal dreams, from Zebra finches, to various cephalopods, to chimpanzees to household pets, the book leads on to the question of what animal dreams mean to animal consciousness. This includes some very sad accounts of the troubled sleep of animals (elephants in particular) who have been through traumatic experiences and seem to relive them in their dreams. These affective states are, in the paraphrasing of Mark Solms, necessarily conscious. It doesn’t mean anything to have a feeling which isn’t conscious. It must ‘be like something’ to be in an affective state.

The next chapter deals with dreams as the space for imagination, and thus touches on something which has strong connections to Active Inference. We necessarily have a generative model of the world in our heads. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to navigate the world in any way. That we are able to move around this world in creative ways is the power of our imagination, and that certainly happens in our dream states. That animals seem to have these dream states leads on to many interesting thoughts about animal imagination. This chapter, as with several others has sections on animal experiments which are not for the faint-hearted, and clearly animals have suffered massively for some of this research, sometimes on purpose…

The last section deals with what animal consciousness means for the morality of how we treat animals. An animal with dreams, an imagination, and feelings should have some moral value, and I think that this is a fascinating measure. In the final pages, David leaves us with some questions associated with the “auto-creative” (in the words of Allan Hobson) aspect of dreams: They are mental works of art that the mind creates for itself. These questions are:

  • In the history of animal life, when did this auto-creativity first emerge and why?
  • By what long and winding paths did it find its way into so many branches of the evolutionary tree?
  • What spark or sparks does it produce inside the animal mind?
  • What types of subjective experience does it presuppose?
  • And what types of experience does it, in turn, enable?

These are clearly huge questions, but I think that to introspect on our own experience with these questions is a valuable start.

Overall this was a very thought-provoking foray into a field of research that I hadn’t come across before. It is a fluid, nicely-paced read, with a lovely mixture of anecdote, analysis and speculation, and while there is perhaps more speculation than one would see in a scientific paper, it doesn’t feel that this detracts from the narrative of what is overall a rather beautiful book.

How clear is this post?