Dream researchers in the 1950s concluded that people typically dreamed in black and white whereas modern dream research reports most people dream in colour. Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel discusses this curious finding in a 2002 article, arguing that it is unlikely dreaming has changed so radically and that this is likely evidence of how bad we are at introspection into our dream lives.
Schwitzgebel discusses a whole range of theories and ideas, but begins by summarising the evidence from a time when it was largely assumed that people dream in monochrome:
In 1951, Calvin S. Hall announced in Scientific American that 29% of dreams are either entirely colored or have some little bit of color in them (Hall, 1951). He called such dreams ‚Äòtechnicolored‚Äô, thereby explicitly comparing them to the colored movies that were becoming increasingly prevalent in the 1940s and ‚Äô50s, and implicitly contrasting them with lower-tech black and white movies and dreams.
Some of Hall‚Äôs contemporaries might have thought him too generous in his estimation of the proportion of colored to black and white dreams. Tapia, Werboff and Winokur (1958) found that only about 9% of a sample of people reporting to the hospital at Washington University in St. Louis for non-psychiatric medical problems reported having colored dreams, compared with 12% of neurotic men and 21% of neurotic women. Middleton (1942) found that 40% of his college sophomores claimed never to see colors in their dreams, 31% claimed rarely to do so, and only 10% claimed to do so frequently or very frequently.
The first objection you might think of is that perhaps these results are accurate, owing to the fact people watched lots of black and white TV and films.
But in an age when people still spent a relatively small proportion of their time in the cinema or in front of the TV (which only had restricted broadcasts) it is unlikely to account for the virtual ‘absence’ of coloured dreaming, especially considering that ‘real life’ is experienced in colour.
One of the most interesting hypothesis tackled by the article is that dreams are like narratives, and do not necessarily have colour, but black and white media might just have led people to interpret their dreams in this way.
Consider, as an analogy, a novel. While novels surely are not in black and white, it also seems a little strange to say that they are ‚Äòin color‚Äô. Certainly novels make fictional attributions of color (‚Äòshe strode into the room in a dazzling red dress‚Äô) and refer to objects that normally have a particular color (‚Äòshe promptly chopped a carrot‚Äô). Maybe it makes sense to describe such fictional claims as ‚Äòin color‚Äô or partly in color. However, most elements of most scenes in novels do not have determinate colors in that way…
If you find yourself disinclined to think that novels, or the images evoked by novels, are properly described as being either in black and white or in full color, then you might likewise find yourself hesitant to apply the terms ‚Äòblack and white‚Äô or ‚Äòcolored‚Äô to dreams. Perhaps dream-objects and dream-events are similar to fictional objects and events, or to the images evoked by fiction, in having, typically, a certain indeterminacy of color, neither cerise nor taupe nor burnt umber, nor gray either.
The article goes on to suggest that this reconstructive aspect is a core feature of consciousness and that is further evidence that we are just not very good at introspecting our own minds because as soon as we do, we alter the contents of what we’re attempting to experience.
pdf of ‘Why did we think we dreamed in black and white?’