Henri Bergson’s (1859–1941) study of dreams is generally considered one of the most creative approaches to the topic. The French philosopher of evolution was born in Paris, where he was professor of philosophy at the College de France from 1900 until he retired because of ill health in 1921. He dedicated his life to teaching, lecturing, and writing, and in 1927 received the Nobel Prize in literature.
Bergson, whose thought owed much to the French philosophical tradition, was convinced that doctrines such as materialism and mechanism could not be considered philosophically tenable, and that no universal system was valid. Nevertheless, in his works he posited a general philosophy of duration and movement that, rather than defining everything in terms of being, permanence, and substance, as most earlier philosophers had done, started from the opposite viewpoint, namely, the assumption that the ultimate reality is time itself.
His major works include Time and Free Will (1888), Matter and Memory (1896), in which memory is regarded as the means through which human existence is made continuous, and Creative Evolution (1907). Among Bergson’s minor works is his study on dreams, which was first given as a lecture before the Institut Psychologique on March 26, 1901, and later published in the Revue Scientifique of June 8, 1901.
Like other philosophers before him, Bergson accepted the somatic stimuli, or “optical,” theory of dreams, according to which some of the visual patterns characterizing a dream may be the result of stimulation of the optic nerve. However, Bergson realized that somatic stimuli are only a product of the biology of dreaming, and he argued, like Freud, that further analysis of dreams was necessary and that the mechanism of memory should also be considered.
Bergson’s previous studies of duration and movement had provided him with a considerable basis for his theory of dreams, according to which dreams are the direct link between sensation and memory. Bergson maintained that human beings forget nothing, and all past experiences, perceptions, thoughts, and emotions are collected in the memory from earliest childhood. Following the older association theory of perception, he asserted that memory images that rise to the surface correspond to immediate visual or tactile sensations, and to the mood of the dreamer. Thus, the thread of dreams is formed by memories, although the individual often does not recognize them because the memories are very old and are forgotten during the day, they are memories of objects that have been perceived absently during the day, or they are fragments of broken recollections that the memory brings together in an unrecognizable picture.
In the sleep state the mind is “disinterested” and is not forced to concentrate on a particular object or feeling. Also, the same faculties are active as during the day, although they are in a state of relaxation. While dreaming, the individual still perceives, remembers, and reasons, but lacks the effort required by the precision of the adjustment. Thus, for instance, because a sleeping person is unable to exert the effort required for concentration, the sound of a dog barking may be linked to the memory of a noisy meeting. In contrast, a positive effort would be required for this sound to be perceived as the barking of a dog. According to Bergson, the absence of this effort represents the only difference between the dreamer and the individual who is awake.