Do we always dream in black and white?

Even if you claim to dream of a cerulean sky over azure seas, the purveyors of this factoid say you fill in the colours afterwards, because dreams are always in black and white. There are two ways to tackle this one. There’s the quick and dirty way that yields an answer but not necessarily the truth, and there’s the tortuous philosophical way that grapples with the truth but ultimately leaves you with more questions than answers. Given I only have 260 words left, guess which one you’re going to get.

Up until the beginning of the twentieth century people assumed that we dream in full colour. Around that time, though, and peaking around the 1940s, psychologists came to believe that we dream predominantly, even completely, in black and white.

This wasn’t some ivory tower delusion, but the belief of the majority of people, confirmed by several scientific surveys. But within twenty years most people believed that their dreams were full of colour. And that is where it stands.

If you’re following along at home you may have spotted that black and white dreams lasted roughly as long as black and white movies, television and photography. Somehow, it’s not clear why, this is the culprit. Looking around the world we find that reports of black and white dreaming correlate with exposure to black and white media.

But — and this is where the path starts getting rocky — does that mean that we dream in colour? We think people got it wrong in the forties but maybe we are the ones who are mistaken. Maybe dreams really are black and white and we misremember them as coloured. Maybe they are neither colour nor black and white. We may never know.

But I feel an existential crisis looming, so I think I’ll stick with the easy answer for now. Psychologists used to think dreams were only black and white, but now they mostly think they come in full colour. And as for the few brave souls who’ve really put some thought into it, they just don’t know what to think.

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