I, like many people of my age, am gravely concerned about getting infected by the coronavirus and coming down with a devastating-to-deadly case of COVID-19. Since early March, my wife, Darnell, and I have meticulously social distanced, ordered groceries online, washed our hands to the tune of the happy birthday verse (twice), and so on. Still, we realize how dependent our well-being depends on others doing the same. One result of this combination of personal meticulousness and concerns about the practices of others has been any number of vivid bad dreams that wake me in the early hours of the morning—including this morning—in a cold sweat. These dreams leave me unable to go back to sleep for a while. Tonight’s episode was yet another variant of a recurring theme. I am usually in a crowd—tonight’s episode involved a pre-corona favorite restaurant—and people are all around me, oblivious to the dangers they are creating for themselves, and for me. In this particular one, I had a rather heated exchange of words with the restaurant’s manager over his not wearing a mask and getting far too close to me. The upshot was that Darnell and I were banned for life from the restaurant. I don’t know if it was the danger of a COVID-19 infection or being permanently blacklisted at my favorite restaurant that woke me up. In any case, as I was lying there after my latest misadventure in the public contamination zone, I got to thinking about how behavior analysts conceptualize dreaming. So, here I sit at 3:49 a.m. jotting down a few fleeting thoughts about these nocturnal short stories that we all experience.
A Freudian I am not . . . thank goodness. Although I must say, much can be learned from considering other points of view like Freud’s. Nor am I a neuroscientist, although, again, much can be learned by listening to those who are. Both have profound insights into aspects of dreaming. Freud had much to say about dream content and neuroscientists have much to say about the neural activity of dreaming, but less about the dream’s content.
My particular take on behavior has to do with antecedents and consequences— environmental contexts in which we operate. The context in which my bad dreams (they don’t quite rise to the level of nightmares) occur is a world of information overload about this virus that affects us all and infects increasing numbers of us. Whatever dreams are, they have to be a reflection of our experiences and environmental contexts. I suggest that dream contents are largely antecedently controlled events. As such, it isn’t difficult for me to understand in a general sense their provenance in a coronavirus-concerned world. Each dream’s specific story probably is more complicated because it involves the melding of many different contemporary and historical events, but the general idea is the same: antecedent events come together to weave the tale.
I can’t see much of a role for consequences in the generation of dreams. The dreamer is unconscious and thus not part of the external environment during dreaming episodes. Once generated, however, at least dreams like I have been having get reported. Reports are instances of verbal behavior. As such, they are susceptible to social reinforcement by the listener to these reports. Verbal reports are at the same time suspect and rich sources of behavior to be reinforced. Consequences in the form of attention can both focus the reporter’s recollections of the dream and shape those “recollections” into something different from the original experience. Remember too, the dreamer as listener. The experience of a dream is its verbal report, first to ourselves and then to others. Like other instances of speaker as listener, we also often shape our own behavior, verbal and otherwise, independently of the actions of external listeners.
It’s now 4:23 a.m. and I am far enough away from the dream that woke me that I am ready to go back for more (sleep, not coronavirus). Goodnight, again.