Scientists have been speculating for a while now what function dreams may serve. I’ve recently started wondering if it isn’t dreams per se that matter, but dreaming.
Imagine a new species on the planet with a newly developed form of cognition, and the beginnings of language. If such a creature could continue to have experiences even while it sleeps, it would need a way to process these experiences upon awakening. Dreams are personal and private. To communicate the contents of a dream, a sophisticated narrative needs to be built.
Thus, it may be that dreaming is the origin of fiction.
Simple communication is about immediacy. It requires little more than such signals as “Here I am,” “I see food,” “I see threat,” and so on. Language, on the other hand, is largely concerned with abstraction. In addition to matters real and concrete, language must address memory, imagination, speculation, past, future, alternate presents — all manner of the hypothetical and subjunctive.
This examination of alternate reality is crucial for planning, organizing, and dealing with contingencies. Rehearsal of this skill would be a favorable adaptation, so storytelling might have arisen as a reinforcement of early language capacity. That storytelling can also contain important moral and practical information, that it can create and sustain group identity is without doubt, but these need not be essential for the activity to serve a purpose.
Sleep is supposed to be a period of rest, recovery, and recuperation, yet dreaming is costly in terms of energy. Unless there were a benefit to this expense, the dream experiment would have likely been maladaptive. I think the value of dreams is not necessarily in their content, but in the rehearsal of the language skill necessary to think about and communicate the abstract, the remote, the personal, and the private.
In some sense, all fiction is a lie. At the same time, our capacity to live in and experience many different fictional universes gives us an advantage in confronting reality. Moreover, fiction not only helps us face reality, but is the beginning of our ability to create it. Some dreams may seem momentous, while others seem random and meaningless. These mysterious fireworks of the mind can enlighten and inform and inspire, yet be incidental to their true function.
It would be a strange species indeed that gained advantage from a capacity to see what isn’t there. Yet by seeing all that could be, it becomes possible to choose those that which should be. With the right communication, motivation, and organization, what should be, will be.
In this way, not only are dreams the origin of fiction, but fiction is the origin of new reality.