Jacob Empson

Faber and Faber, London, 1990.

Long ago, I was tutored by Empson, so I was pleased to see that he had published a book, and even more pleased that it is such a worthwhile read. The difference between this and Hobson's book is that the latter contains more physiological material, whereas Empson's is a round-up of recent research.

Dreams are of course of great popular interest, as shown by the plague of books on how to interpret them. Empson refers to an interesting experiment by David Foulkes on the matter of influencing the content of one's own dreams, as suggested by dream diary enthusiasts like Anne Faraday and Paul Garfield. When four judges tried to match the dream reports of 29 subjects with their lists of intended dream topics, the results were little better than could have been attained by chance. This suggests that "control over one's own dreams is very much more difficult than Garfield and Faraday have suggested".

Perhaps this conclusion will be resisted: surely people can judge for themselves whether they have been able to control their own dreams? But look what happens with the more straightforward experience of insomnia:

"Most people over-estimate the time it takes to get to sleep. Insomniacs tend to have longer latencies to sleep onset and do achieve less overall sleep than normal controls, but their complaints of lack of sleep or of failure to get to sleep may often seem out of proportion to the psychophysiological evidence, and some insomniacs will even report wakefulness when roused from Stage 4 sleep".

Stage 4 sleep is "slow-wave" or deep sleep, not dreaming REM sleep, and Empson mentions that "following many arousals from stage 4, subjects often seem to be actively confabulating", such that they "describe mental experience that we knew would later be judged a dream report... [although] the subject's EEG was still in stage 4".

Empson also discusses the failed attempts to demonstrate precognition or telepathy during dreams, mentioning in passing James Randi's celebrated 3-year hoaxing of Washington University parapsychologists by two of his assistants, which exposed the inadequate methods in their laboratory, and in fact led to its closure.

Strange things do happen in sleep, of course. One of Empson's students revealed to him that "the whole of her family had once woken up in the early hours of the morning seated around the kitchen table, where they had all congregated in their sleep".



Paul Taylor 2001