Dreaming in Technicolor

The first surviving photograph is dated from approximately 1826, and daguerreotypes were publicly available beginning in 1839. These are facts, incontrovertible. Those early processes used silver salts and sometimes metal plates, and the results were printed in tones of either sepia and ivory or grey and black and white.

How, then, prior to that, could people have dreamed in black and white when almost no one had ever seen the world that way? (Achromatopsia, a form of color blindness in which the sufferer sees the world only in shades of black and white, is the rarest form of the disorder, and my logical self bets that those in primitive societies who suffered this vision disorder did not long survive.)

Considering these facts, I’ve always wondered how the myth behind the question, “Do you dream in black and white?” evolved, unless it was a direct response to the invention of photography.  For about the last 200 years, I suppose, people who had seen a photograph might afterwards have translated the images of their dreams into monotones.  But why?  Why, when they had always seen the world in color?  Prior to photography, the only black and white landscape was seen by strong moonlight or firelight — candles and lanterns – and even in those pale lights, some very faint, washed-out color is discernable.  Few people living in the middle ages had ever seen a drawing done in pen and ink.  Why on earth then, I’ve always wondered, would people dream in black and white?  Why would anyone even ask that question?

I’ve always had a predilection for thinking through fables and urban legends this way. Just ask all the upset mothers who descended on my Mom when I, at the age of seven, announced to all my little playmates that there was no Santa Claus.  How, I asked them reasonably, could he get to all those houses in just one night? It wasn’t possible.  It wasn’t logical.  Ergo, Santa Claus was a myth.  (I was persona non grata at school for many weeks after this small fiasco.)

Then there is the currently popular “ you must sleep in a completely darkened room” fable.

Now look here, my logical left brain pronounces, it may have been years since I slept out under the stars, but I seem to recall that there were a couple of times when the full moon was pretty darned bright. Moreover, in those long ago camping trips, we had a campfire burning all night, even getting up in the wee hours to feed the fire until it burned very brightly.  I remember the dance of the flames against my closed eyelids.  And during those camping trips, we were keeping the fire up just for comfort and warmth–we weren’t using it as protection from marauding sabre tooth tigers or the odd prowling cave bear.

Our primitive ancestors would not have survived to be our ancestors had they been foolish enough to sleep in pitch-black darkness. Even deep within a cave, there was always a chance that some predator would arrive to claim the cave as its new den and make a meal out of handy little human snack packs.  A campfire was not a luxury, but a necessity.  And if our distant ancestors slept outside, then the waxing and waning of the moon added another layer of light to sleep cycles.

We humans are, I’ve concluded, programmed to sleep beneath varying cycles of soft, diffused and low, dancing light.

True, the lights we try to sleep under these days are different. I pull down room darkening shades against the ambient light from the nearby interstate highway  that filters into my second-floor bedroom.  I switch my Kindle to the blue-filtering setting when reading before bedtime.  But needing complete darkness to sleep is as big a fable as Santa Claus.

So the next time you hear that stupid question, “Do you dream in color or black and white?”, or lie awake with insomnia, wondering if  the light from your clock radio is to blame…think about it. Just think about all of it.

I bet you’ll fall asleep and dream in glorious, vivid color.

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