You may not have written down the symptoms, but anyone who has lived with a dog will have seen the consequences. Twenty minutes after an average-sized dog falls asleep, his breathing becomes shallow and irregular. Your muscles relax, your heart rate slows. His eyes are closed, but behind the eyelids, his pupils begin to move from one side to the other. Then enter the REM phase, the realm of dreams. Muscle spasms give him away: he moves his tail, perhaps even his legs, simulating a race that only happens in his head. Sometimes he whines or starts barking.
The clues seem clear, but until recently there was no scientific evidence to prove it: dogs dream. “At a structural level, their brain is similar to that of humans,” explains neuropsychologist Stanley Coren in his book The fabulous intelligence of dogs. “In addition, during sleep, their brain wave patterns are similar to ours. They go through the same stages of electrical activity seen in humans. All this agrees with the idea that dogs dream”. Verifying this, far from calming the curiosity of the scientific community (and dog owners) has generated many more doubts. The most repeated question would be: what do dogs dream about? And the most likely answer is: with you. It sounds egotistical, but when someone sees their dog running in their dreams, they will most likely run to him, to his owner.
Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett, former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, argues that dogs relive their everyday experiences, just like humans. “Since they tend to be very attached to their owners, your dog is likely to dream about your face, your smell, liking you or bothering you,” she says in her recent essay. Pandemic Dreams, (Pandemic dreams). Various studies support this idea. Unlike humans, dogs are not that imaginative. Not even while they sleep. Therefore, it is unlikely that they are projecting themselves into new or unreal situations and it is more plausible that they are reliving this morning’s walk in the park, a pleasant tickling in the gut, or the terrifying visit from the delivery man. They don’t have fancy nightmares or build surreal worlds. Or maybe yes. In the end, the dream world of animals is abstract and unknown enough for there to be conflicting theories.
A 2016 study from University College London claimed that rats have the ability to dream of mazes they’ve never been in. “This is fascinating, as it means that these rodents have the ability to imagine concrete and highly structured scenarios that are brought to life through mental acts,” explains US-based Mexican philosopher David Peña-Guzmán by email. “It is one thing to say that dreams are memories, but another is to verify that they can be new experiences that are built by pure mental inventiveness. Historically, this type of imagination has been limited to Homo sapiens”.
This 35-year-old philosopher and professor at San Francisco State University read all these studies and became obsessed. He began to dream dreams of rats, in a crazy mix between Origin and Hamelin’s futist. “The image of a bunch of rats sleeping in a laboratory made me wonder: what happens to these little furry creatures after they fall asleep? Do they turn their mind off completely or do they also get to dream of imaginary worlds?” she explains. “I soon became obsessed with this question, began to investigate the subject and knew that there was a book waiting to be written.”
Do octopuses dream of underwater sheep?
The book is called When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness (When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness) and, in it, Peña-Guzmán starts from scientific studies to ask himself moral questions. “Once all the behavioral and neuroscientific evidence for animal sleep is examined, the question is no longer: Do animals really dream? The question is: What are the consequences of animal sleep?
The author tries to shell them out in 272 pages halfway between philosophy and science. “I think when it comes to animal minds, these two disciplines have to enter into a dialectical relationship, feeding each other,” he notes. “You need to know basic facts about animal behavior and cognition in order to appreciate how they perceive, experience, and inhabit the world.”
From a philosophical point of view, that animals dream can mean several things. “First of all, that they have a sense egological of being. That is, they experience the world from the point of view of an ego or I”, states the author. When we dream, we experience ourselves as the epicenter of the dream world. Dreaming implies being aware of oneself and putting oneself in the center of the dream universe. Being selfish, deep down, is human. And maybe also animal.
The dream implies, according to the professor, that animals experience affections, emotions and feelings. “Dreams are a way of metabolizing our emotions and processing the experiences that mark us, either positively or negatively,” says Peña-Guzmán. “Playing with Freudian language, dreams are the royal road to emotions.”
If science establishes that an animal dreams, philosophy questions whether that means that it has imagination and feelings, and therefore whether it is worthy of moral status. And this is not just about dogs and mice. There are birds that sleep in microsessions of about two minutes, of which only a few seconds are dedicated to REM sleep. Some scientists believe that they do not dream because they do not have enough time to create a dream scenario. Others believe that they do because time, in the world of dreams, is relative. “As we learned from Dalí’s surrealism, dreams bend time. We may have a dream that seems to last for hours, when in reality it only lasted 30 or 40 minutes. So it could be that these animals stretch out time while they sleep, just like us,” says Peña-Guzmán. “But we just don’t know.”
Entering the world of beast dreams is difficult, as there are animals with surprisingly strange sleep patterns. “Some marine mammals sleep while they swim and some birds do it while they fly”, enumerates the philosopher. “Arabian oryxes (a type of antelope) change their sleep cycles from summer to winter, while some seals change theirs depending on whether they are on land or in the sea. African elephants sleep for two hours a day, almost always standing up. Dolphins never fully sleep. They only relax one brain hemisphere while keeping the other active.”
The cover of Peña-Guzmán’s book is a drawing of an octopus. Because yes, octopuses also dream. “Talking about vegetarianism can be difficult because people who are not vegetarian often feel judged and attacked,” explains the philosopher. “But this is an obvious implication of my research. Establishing that an animal dreams is equivalent to showing that it can feel, perceive and imagine. And these capabilities matter enormously from a moral perspective.”
If we accept that animals have a moral status, we must ask what that status implies. What rights should they have? What human activities should be reformed or abolished? That animals are living beings with the capacity to feel, endowed with sensitivity, with interests and rights that must be taken into account, was already recognized in European Community law and even in the Spanish Penal Code since 2003. But in the Civil Code This idea was not embodied in this country until December 2021, when the new law on the legal regime for animals came into force. Only then did the animals stop being things for Spanish legislation.
What happens in the world of dreams can have consequences even in legislation. “In my opinion, dreaming is not a rational or linguistic experience. It is a heartfelt and affective experience. The type of experience that confers a moral position”, assures Peña-Guzmán. “And if we accept that animals have a moral status, we should consider what that status means.” It is what has to combine science and philosophy. One begins by wondering why his dog barks while he sleeps and ends by considering the philosophical consequences of eating Galician octopus.