Always Trying to Escape When I was a student at MIT I was interested only in science; I was no good at anything else. But at MIT there was a rule: You have to take some humanities courses to get more "culture." Besides the English classes required were two electives, so I looked through the list, and right away I found astronomy--as a humanities course! So that year I escaped with astronomy. Then next year I looked further down the list, past French literature and courses like that, and found philosophy. It was the closest thing to science I could find.
Before I tell you what happened in philosophy, let me tell you about the English class. We had to write a number of themes. For instance, Mill had written something on liberty, and we had to criticize it. But instead of addressing myself to political liberty, as Mill did, I wrote about liberty in social occasions--the problem of having to fake and lie in order to be polite, and does this perpetual game of faking in social situations lead to the "destruction of the moral fiber of society." An interesting question, but not the one we were supposed to discuss.
Another essay we had to criticize was by Huxley, "On a Piece of Chalk," in which he describes how an ordinary piece of chalk he is holding is the remains from animal bones, and the forces inside the earth lifted it up so that it became part of the White Cliffs, and then it was quarried and is now used to conve ideas through writing on the blackboard.
But again, instead of criticizing the essay assigned to us, I wrote a parody called, "On a Piece of Dust," about how dust makes the colors of the sunset and precipitates the rain, and so on. I was always a faker, always trying to escape.
But when we had to write a theme on Goethe's Faust, it was hopeless! The work was too long to make a parody of it or to invent something else. I was storming back and forth in the fraternity saying, "I can't do it. I'm just not gonna do it. I ain't gonna do it!"
One of my fraternity brothers said, "OK, Feynman, you're not gonna do it. But the professor will think you didn't do it because you don't want to do the work. You oughta write a theme on something--same number of words--and hand it in with a note saying that you just couldn't understand the Faust, you haven't got the heart for it, and that it's impossible for you to write a theme on it."
So I did that. I wrote a long theme, "On the Limitations of Reason." I had thought about scientific techniques for solving problems, and how there are certain limitations: moral values cannot be decided by scientific methods, yak, yak, yak, and so on.
Then another fraternity brother offered some more advice. "Feynman," he said, "it ain't gonna work, handing in a theme that's got nothing to do with Faust. What you oughta do is work that thing you wrote into the Faust."
"Ridiculous!" I said.
But the other fraternity guys think it's a good idea.
"All right, all right!" I say, protesting. "I'll try."
So I added half a page to what 1 had already written, and said that Mephistopheles represents reason, and Faust represents the spirit, and Goethe is trying to show the limitations of reason. I stirred it up, cranked it all in, and handed in my theme.
The professor had us each come in individually to discuss our theme. I went in expecting the worst.
He said, "The introductory material is fine, but the Faust material is a bit too brief. Otherwise, it's very good-- B + ." I escaped again!
Now to the philosophy class. The course was taught by an old bearded professor named Robinson, who always mumbled. I would go to the class, and he would mumble along, and I couldn't understand a thing. The other people in the class seemed to understand him better, but they didn't seem to pay any attention. I happened to have a small drill, about one-sixteenth-inch, and to pass the time in that class, I would twist it between my fingers and drill holes in the sole of my shoe, week after week.
Finally one day at the end of the class, Professor Robinson went "wugga mugga mugga wugga wugga . . . and everybody got excited! They were all talking to each other and discussing, so I figured he'd said something interesting, thank God! I wondered what it was?
I asked somebody, and they said, "We have to write a theme, and hand it in in four weeks."
"A theme on what?"
"On what he's been talking about all year."
I was stuck. The only thing that I had heard during that entire term that I could remember was a moment when there came this upwelling, "muggawuggastreamofconsciousnessmugga wugga," and phoom!--it sank back into chaos.
This "stream of consciousness" reminded me of a problem my father had given to me many years before. He said, "Suppose some Martians were to come down to earth, and Martians never slept, but instead were perpetually active. Suppose they didn't have this crazy phenomenon that we have, called sleep. So they ask you the question: 'How does it feel to go to sleep? What happens when you go to sleep? Do your thoughts suddenly stop, or do they move less aanndd lleeessss rraaaaapppppiidddddllllllllyyyyyyyyyyy yyy? How does the mind actually turn off?"
I got interested. Now I had to answer this question: How does the stream of consciousness end, when you go to sleep?
So every afternoon for the next four weeks I would work on my theme, I would pull down the shades in my room, turn off the lights, and go to sleep. And I'd watch what happened, when I went to sleep.
Then at night, I'd go to sleep again, so I had two times each day when I could make observations--it was very good!
At first I noticed a lot of subsidiary things that had little to do with falling asleep. I noticed, for instance, that I did a lot of thinking by speaking to myself internally. I could also imagine things visually.
Then, when I was getting tired, I noticed that I could think of two things at once. I discovered this when I was talking internally to myself about something, and while I was doing this, I was idly imagining two ropes connected to the end of my bed, going through some pulleys, and winding around a turning cylinder, slowly lifting the bed. I wasn't aware that I was imagining these ropes until I began to worry that one rope would catch on the other rope, and they wouldn't wind up smoothly. But I said, internally, "Oh, the tension will take care of that," and this interrupted the first thought I was having, and made me aware that I was thinking of two things at once.
I also noticed that as you go to sleep the ideas continue, but they become less and less logically interconnected. You don't notice that they're not logically connected until you ask yourself, "What made me think of that?" and you try to work your way back, and often you can't remember what the hell did make you think of that!
So you get every illusion of logical connection, but the actual fact is that the thoughts become more and more cockeyed until they're completely disjointed, and beyond that, you fall asleep.
After four weeks of sleeping all the time, I wrote my theme, and explained the observations I had made. At the end of the theme I pointed out that all of these observations were made while I was watching myself fall asleep, and I don't really know what it's like to fall asleep when I'm not watching myself. I concluded the theme with a little verse I made up, which pointed out this problem of introspection:
I wonder why. I wonder why.
I wonder why I wonder.
I wonder why I wonder why
I wonder why I wonder!
We hand in our themes, and the next time our class meets, the professor reads one of them: "Mum bum wugga mum bum . . ." I can't tell what the guy wrote.
He reads another theme: "Mugga wugga mum bum wugga wugga. . ." I don't know what that guy wrote either, but at the end of it, he goes:
Uh wugga wuh. Uh wugga wuh
Uh wugga wugga wugga.
I wugga wuh uh wugga wuh
Uh wugga wugga wugga.
"Aha!" I say. "That's my theme!" I honestly didn't recognize it until the end.
After I had written the theme I continued to be curious, and I kept practicing this watching myself as I went to sleep. One night, while I was having a dream, I realized I was observing myself in the dream. I had gotten all the way down into the sleep itself!
In the first part of the dream I'm on top of a train and we're approaching a tunnel. I get scared, pull myself down, and we go into the tunnel--whoosh! I say to myself, "So you can get the feeling of fear, and you can hear the sound change when you go into the tunnel."
I also noticed that I could see colors. Some people had said that you dream in black and white, but no, I was dreaming in color.
By this time I was inside one of the train cars, and I can feel the train lurching about. I say to myself, "So you can get kinesthetic feelings in a dream." I walk with some difficulty down to the end of the car, and I see a big window, like a store window. Behind it there are-not mannequins, but three live girls in bathing suits, and they look pretty good!
I continue walking into the next car, hanging onto the straps overhead as I go, when I say to myself, "Hey! It would be interesting to get excited--sexually--so I think I'll go back into the other car." I discovered that I could turn around, and walk back through the train--I could control the direction of my dream. I get back to the car with the special window, and I see three old guys playing violins--but they turned back into girls! So I could modify the direction of my dream, but not perfectly.
Well, I began to get excited, intellectually as well as sexually, saying things like, "Wow! It's working!" and I woke up.
I made some other observations while dreaming. Apart from always asking myself, "Am I really dreaming in color?" I wondered, "How accurately do you see something?"
The next time I had a dream, there was a girl lying in tall grass, and she had red hair. I tried to see if I could see each hair. You know how there's a little area of color just where the sun is reflecting--the diffraction effect, I could see that! I could see each hair as sharp as you want: perfect vision!
Another time I had a dream in which a thumbtack was stuck in a doorframe. I see the tack, run my fingers down the doorframe, and I feel the tack. So the "seeing department" and the "feeling department" of the brain seem to be connected. Then I say to myself, Could it be that they don't have to be connected? I look at the doorframe again, and there's no thumbtack. I run my finger down the doorframe, and I feel the tack!
Another time I'm dreaming and I hear "knock-knock; knock-knock." Something was happening in the dream that made this knocking fit, but not perfectly--it seemed sort of foreign. I thought: "Absolutely guaranteed that this knocking is coming from outside my dream, and I've invented this part of the dream to fit with it. I've got to wake up and find out what the hell it is."
The knocking is still going, I wake up, and . . . Dead silence. There was nothing. So it wasn't connected to the outside.
Other people have told me that they have incorporated external noises into their dreams, but when I had this experience, carefully "watching from below," and sure the noise was coming from outside the dream, it wasn't.
During the time of making observations in my dreams, the process of waking up was a rather fearful one. As you're beginning to wake up there's a moment when you feel rigid and tied down, or underneath many layers of cotton batting. It's hard to explain, but there's a moment when you get the feeling you can't get out; you're not sure you can wake up. So I would have to tell myself--after I was awake--that that's ridiculous. There's no disease I know of where a person falls asleep naturally and can't wake up. You can always wake up. And after talking to myself many times like that, I became less and less afraid, and in fact I found the process of waking up rather thrilling--something like a roller coaster: After a while you're not so scared, and you begin to enjoy it a little bit.
You might like to know how this process of observing my dreams stopped (which it has for the most part; it's happened just a few times since). I'm dreaming one night as usual, making observations, and I see on the wall in front of me a pennant. I answer for the twenty-fifth time, "Yes, I'm dreaming in color," and then I realize that I've been sleeping with the back of my head against a brass rod. I put my hand behind my head and I feel that the back of my head is soft. I think, "Aha! That's why I've been able to make all these observations in my dreams: the brass rod has disturbed my visual cortex. All I have to do is sleep with a brass rod under my head, and I can make these observations any time I want. So I think I'll stop making observations on this one, and go into deeper sleep."
When I woke up later, there was no brass rod, nor was the back of my head soft. Somehow I had become tired of making these observations, and my brain had invented some false reasons as to why I shouldn't do it any more.
As a result of these observations I began to get a little theory. One of the reasons that I liked to look at dreams was that I was curious as to how you can see an image, of a person, for example, when your eyes are closed, and nothing's coming in. You say it might be random, irregular nerve discharges, but you can't get the nerves to discharge in exactly the same delicate patterns when you are sleeping as when you are awake, looking at something. Well then, how could I "see" in color, and in better detail, when I was asleep?
I decided there must be an "interpretation department." When you are actually looking at something--a man, a lamp, or a wall--you don't just see blotches of color. Something tells you what it is; it has to be interpreted. When you're dreaming, this interpretation department is still operating, but it's all slopped up. It's telling you that you're seeing a human hair in the greatest detail, when it isn't true. It's interpreting the random junk entering the brain as a clear image.
One other thing about dreams. I had a friend named Deutsch, whose wife was from a family of psychoanalysts in Vienna. One evening, during a long discussion about dreams, he told me that dreams have significance: there are symbols in dreams that can be interpreted psychoanalytically. I didn't believe most of this stuff, but that night I had an interesting dream: We're playing a game on a billiard table with three balls--a white ball, a green ball, and a gray ball--and the name of the game is "titsies." There was something about trying to get the balls into the pocket: the white ball and the green ball are easy to sink into the pocket, but the gray one, I can't get to it.
I wake up, and the dream is very easy to interpret: the name of the game gives it away, of course-them's girls! The white ball was easy to figure out, because I was going out, sneakily, with a married woman who worked at the time as a cashier in a cafeteria and wore a white uniform. The green one was also easy, because I had gone out about two nights before to a drive-in movie with a girl in a green dress. But the gray one-what the hell was the gray one? I knew it had to be somebody; I felt it. It's like when you're trying to remember a name, and it's on the tip of your tongue, hut you can't get it.
It took me half a day before I remembered that I had said goodbye to a girl I liked very much, who had gone to Italy about two or three months before. She was a very nice girl, and I had decided that when she came back I was going to see her again. I don't know if she wore a gray suit, but it was perfectly clear, as soon as I thought of her, that she was the gray one.
I went back to my friend Deutsch, and I told him he must be right--there is something to analyzing dreams. But when he heard about my interesting dream, he said, "No, that one was too perfect--too cut and dried. Usually you have to do a bit more analysis."