Reading in dreams
September 21, 2005 5:41 AM   Subscribe

Can you read in your dreams?

This ask.mefi question reminded me of something that came up a while ago with me and my friends:

Years ago, I saw a Batman Animated Series episode where Batman deduces that he's stuck in a dream by the fact that he can't read. My friends thought this was perfectly plausible, but I know that I distinctly remember reading (real English words, mostly signs and large-print headlines etc) in my dreams.

Now, I'm left handed, so that might have something to do with it, but it seems like a rare ability.

Any experiences with reading in dreams?
posted by jozxyqk to Writing & Language (44 answers total)
I can never actually read in my dreams. I can look at a piece of paper and get some kind of internal feeling of what it says, but never actually read the words.
posted by elastic.scorn at 5:45 AM on September 21, 2005

I regularly read in dreams and did so just this morning.

However, one trick to deducing that you're reading in a dream is that often you'll go back and read something you've already read and it'll no longer be the same text. Apparently whatever bit of your brain is responsible for constructing your dream reality can't do a very good job of remembering details.
posted by edd at 5:46 AM on September 21, 2005

I can read in dreams, and have been able to copy out what I read after waking up.
posted by fire&wings at 5:47 AM on September 21, 2005

I tend to take notes in my dreams, bc some of the dreams are so good. Alas, the notes too are a dream, as I find on waking.
posted by Hobbacocka at 5:53 AM on September 21, 2005

I've never noticed that I can't read in dreams, but now you come to mention it, I can remember a number of instances where I tried to read something and the text was all blurry. Maybe people who wear glasses (including me) cannot read in dreams, whereas those who don't can?

Related: they say that you can't turns the lights on or off in dreams.
posted by pollystark at 6:07 AM on September 21, 2005

No, I'm unable to read in my dreams and I usually have a hard time focusing my (dream) eyes on really small things.
posted by bshort at 6:08 AM on September 21, 2005

I've regularly experienced a combo of what elastic.scorn and edd say, I get a sense of meaning rather than reading if I look at something which appears as printed material but then when I go for a second look to remember the details they're not to be had and this often forces me out of the dream.
posted by biffa at 6:09 AM on September 21, 2005

I saw that same episode. I have also noticed that it's not always true-- I have read messages in dreams (I'm right-handed).

My personal opinion is that dreams aren't like holographic videos. They're the best sense your brain can make out of the pseudo-random signals its various components are generating. If the part of your brain responsible for reading and language is active, then its messages will be incorporated into the storyline. If you open a book in a dream and the language center isn't reporting back anything useful, you'll find yourself unable to read.
posted by justkevin at 6:13 AM on September 21, 2005

I frequently read in my dreams, but the text doesn't have proper syntax or make linear sense. I feel like if I just keep reading (usually aloud, in the dream) it'll become like normal reading, but it never quite does. The content is still interesting or possibly meaningful, though, so the dream-reading is kinda cool.
posted by rainbaby at 6:18 AM on September 21, 2005

Saw the same episode (that series rocked). I'm left-handed, and I can and do read quite frequently in my dreams.
posted by Ryvar at 6:24 AM on September 21, 2005

I am, unquestionably, able to read in my dreams. However, specifically because of that episode of Batman, it instantly makes me aware I'm dreaming and drives me to lucidity.

Why unquestionably? Because an entire concept would have not been funny without it. I was in a supermarket, and I noticed I was able to read the brands of cereal I was looking at -- Froot Loops, Cheerios, etc. I'm immediately interested, and as I do regularly when lucid, I start testing the boundries of this imaginary universe.

So I look at the ingredients of the cereal...and start laughing. You see, this was the era before the new Nutrition Facts label, but my occipital lobe was still correctly rendering the old style, fairly complex layout -- replete with font.

And yet, in the INGREDIENTS section, it actually said:


It was pretty cool.
posted by effugas at 6:26 AM on September 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

One more data point: if I fall asleep reading, I often continue "reading" in my mind/dreamstate. It is hard to describe, but the sensation is like I am still reading new information. Sometimes I then realize, in the dream, that the thing I am reading has suddenly diverged into some obscure point or incoherent idea. I then know it is a dream.

Hard to say if I am actually reading in this state -- that is, seeing letters on a page and then interpreting them as words. It more feels like I just know without the physical act of reading what new information there is on the page.

But, turning to the the Batman problem, I would still feel like I was reading in a dream.

I'm also left-handed, but I'm not convinced that matters.
posted by Mid at 6:27 AM on September 21, 2005

I also have the continued reading in sleep phenomenon, as well as reading at random points where there is a sign or newspaper or whatever.
posted by lorrer at 6:33 AM on September 21, 2005

I have definitely noticed that I can't really read in my dreams. I can see the words, but they will change if I try to read them again. On occasion, however, I have been able to read and remember short snippets once awake, but they've never panned out as meaningful.

But seeing that some answers have mentioned being able to read and remember, I suspect that whether you can read in dreams is based on whether the words are remembered from waking life, or generated as a prop for the dream. Let me explain: Patterns in dreams, like tree bark, clouds, wooden tabletops, spots on dog or bugs, wallpaper, wind patterns in blowing grass, etc. -- where do these come from? Are these patterns you've seen when awake, and your mind stores and uses them, or does the brain generate these patterns on the fly during the dream? Either way, it's amazing. But I do have a point:

Considering the possibility the patterns are generated, and the possibility that words may also be generated like other patterns, that may explain why text changes for some people during dreams: the "text pattern" has simply been re-generated when you attempt to return to the page. I have thought out experiments on how to test for this, but I suspect the results would be questionable at best.
posted by Katravax at 6:34 AM on September 21, 2005

I can and did so last night. Just another thing that I can do that Batman can't.
posted by klangklangston at 6:40 AM on September 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

I went through a phase a few years ago when I would dream I was lying in bed, reading a book. The "dream" would be the story on the page.

This was when I was reading a lot, of course. Now I don't read, the reading dreams have faded.

Dreaming you're lying in bed can really get to you, in a butterfy-dreaming-he's-a-man kind of way. They were pretty imaginative stories, though - off-kilter fairy tales mostly.
posted by Leon at 6:41 AM on September 21, 2005

I rarely remember my dreams, but I once had a dream that took place entirely in text on a yellow background. It was a story about driving somewhere in a car, but I can't remember the details. Does that count as reading in a dream?
posted by willpie at 6:43 AM on September 21, 2005

I also can read in my dreams. Maybe we're all superheroes.
posted by chunking express at 6:45 AM on September 21, 2005

I'm like edd; I can read in dreams, but re-reading something is always different (and I know that it's different, even if I don't remember what it said the last time).
posted by Godbert at 6:53 AM on September 21, 2005

As I posted in the other thread, I can and do read in my dreams, often. I'll open letters, peruse books, read sayings on t-shirts and billboards, and even see cartoon word bubbles above someone's head. Normal text size, proper grammer, etc.

A recent example of this - I had, in awake life, met someone new, I'll call him Ted. In my dream I look over someone's shoulder to look at what they were reading and see the words "Ted smells like sour tea." Obviously I didn't have a good first impression of Ted.

I never drink tea and I'm right handed.
posted by LadyBonita at 6:58 AM on September 21, 2005

See also: Waking Life
Seriously, it's a good movie and it talks about this in some detail. Personally I can never remember having been able to read in a dream.
posted by Who_Am_I at 7:28 AM on September 21, 2005

I've sometimes dreamed that I couldn't read.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:37 AM on September 21, 2005

Sometimes I can, sometimes I can't. When I can't, the text is blurry and moves around before my eyes. When I can, it's often still difficult to read, I have to fight through it. But I certainly can, at times. read.
posted by sohcahtoa at 7:37 AM on September 21, 2005

I can rxad in my drxams, but rxmxmbxring said Batman xpisodx (I think about Batman at all timxs, xvxn in drxams), I'd try and rxrxad thx txxt to find it changxd. Rxpxatxd rxrxadings lxad to strangxr and strangxr mutations.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:38 AM on September 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

I read in dreams fairly regularly, although I almost never remember what I read once I wake up. The text is usually in English, but sometimes it will be a dream alphabet that I can still comprehend. I've also been known to compose entire songs while dreaming, and I do sometimes remember them, although they're rarely any good.

Right-handed, poor eyesight, evidently cooler than Batman.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:42 AM on September 21, 2005

That part of the episode always bugged me. I assumed it was true, since, why would you make something like that up? But I've absolutely read things in my dreams. And here I thought I could get all my education from cartoons.
posted by Sibrax at 7:48 AM on September 21, 2005

I have pretty much the same experience as robocop--the text makes sense the first time I read it, but then gets blurry or non-sensical the second time. It doesn't change to different text, though.

Just like Batman, this is how I figure out I'm dreaming, sometimes, especially during a scary dream. It works so well that I think my brain (dream-brain? subconscious?) now deliberately does it--you know, sends me a reassurance that, yes, I'm dreaming. It's a pretty neat trick to learn.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:00 AM on September 21, 2005

I went through a phase in which I dreamt of reading a lot -- just straight-ahead book reading -- but the exhilarating part of it was realizing as I was seeing the words on the page that another part of my brain was making up the words ever-so-slightly-faster than I was able to read them. Focusing on the word at hand left the words to come just blurry enough so they could form into whatever I was making up on the fly, rather than their being recognizably a given word even when blurry. (In other words, a blurry word ahead of my focus could materialize into a long or short word depending on what I made up as opposed to its being predetermined so strictly.) It was very pleasurable to experience that.

That's about as close to lucid dreaming as I've ever gotten (without really trying, I might add).

I've only heard that you can't die in your own dream... Which is pretty self-evident, but I suppose you could see your body dead in a dream, which I've not experienced, so maybe that's what is meant.
posted by rleamon at 8:08 AM on September 21, 2005

I've had dreams where I 'couldn't' read, the words were there, but I couldn't read them.

Recently I had a dream that involved me trying to write a cheque. I kept trying and writing the wrong thing in the 'to' field and the person was getting pissed at me. I could definetly read the words I was writing, though.
posted by delmoi at 8:13 AM on September 21, 2005

its-not-just-me-filter: I read all the darn time in my dreams. Usually work-related technical stuff. It always makes sense. Often I get new ideas after this occurrs. Perhaps its all related to things that I've read that have aged-out of my memory.

/me cues the twilight zone music
posted by neilkod at 8:27 AM on September 21, 2005

If I've been copyediting on paper all day, I will often have very depressing dreams in which I'm ... copyediting on paper. I can read the text, and I can correct the text, and I can read all the proofer's marks I'm putting in to correct the text.

Like many above, I've had dreams in which I pick up a book and can't read it, and dreams in which I'm able to read the text word by word. Those usually happen when I've been reading something interesting before going to bed, though the dream versions are usually more interesting.
posted by occhiblu at 8:30 AM on September 21, 2005

I've read French in dreams--mostly because I occasionally dream of my college French classes. (It's usually on tests, and I'm struggling to write the answers to the questions.)
posted by cass at 9:01 AM on September 21, 2005

This right-hander has read short one-word signs in dreams, never a long text.
posted by sonofsamiam at 9:59 AM on September 21, 2005

The first thing I thought of when I read the short version of your question was that episode of Batman:TAS. Great minds think alike.

Anyway, I read and write in my dreams, and from time to time, I remember what I've read or written enough to copy it out once I wake up. However, I have the feeling that the same process that allows me to read and write while I'm awake is not what allows me to read and write while asleep; my theory has always been that I'm just remembering what each specific word looks like on the page, and stringing them together into a sentence—the difference between writing a letter and compiling a ransom note out of cut-up magazines.
posted by Hildago at 10:03 AM on September 21, 2005

As a young boy, when I hadn't been reading long, I had a recurring dream in which I was reading a book, and then realized I was dreaming, and tried to rush to finish it before I woke up. I never made it.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:27 AM on September 21, 2005

I can never read in my dreams. The letters are surrounded by gray fog, under which they writhe around and fail to let my eye pin them down.

I can know what something I'm looking at says, but that's not the same thing.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:27 AM on September 21, 2005

I'm mostly right-handed, have lousy eye-sight, dream in colour and usually with a soundtrack. I can't remember having any problems reading whatever else crops up in my dreams. I always read before falling asleep an like others I have occasionally dreamt that I'm continuing to read whatever book I was reading before I fell asleep. Of course it doesn't always make sense, but sometimes the dream book has been more memorable than the real book.

Also, being a compulsive reader "not being able to read" is a nightmare!
posted by mummimamma at 12:33 PM on September 21, 2005

What edd said; I regularly find that a text doesn't read the same way twice in my dreams, and I've heard that one of the ways you can help train yourself to dream lucidly is to make a point of re-reading signs, headlines, etc., or to write something on your palm and check it occasionally throughout the day. I'm ambidextrous, if that has anything to do with it!

In 1980, I had a dream where I met Paul McCartney and he gave me some lyrics to his next album; they were written in fine red felt-tip marker on a napkin. I woke up remembering some of them but of course didn't write them down. Dammit.
posted by kimota at 12:35 PM on September 21, 2005

I can't recall ever coming across something to read whilst dreaming.
posted by deborah at 12:55 PM on September 21, 2005

After hearing this same thing some time ago, I took note that I could read in a semi-lucent dream, and since have had no problem doing so. I'll often find pamphlets or books in my dreams, with the text pertinent to the thrust of the dream. If I spend too much time concentrating on the text, though, I will wake up (like focusing too much on anything in a dream).
posted by eschatfische at 12:58 PM on September 21, 2005

justkevin: "If the part of your brain responsible for reading and language is active, then its messages will be incorporated into the storyline. If you open a book in a dream and the language center isn't reporting back anything useful, you'll find yourself unable to read."

This is possible. But note that when you say "I can read in my dreams," what you're really saying is, "I can dream that I'm reading." (When you say "I can fly in dreams," you're hopefully not saying that you can actually fly; you're saying that you can dream about flying).

So, I don't know if it's necessary for the language center to activate when you dream that you're reading. Maybe your brain can convince you that you're reading without actually processing anything linguistic. Your imagination just gives you the broad idea "I'm reading about sandwiches!", which produces the same phenomenal experience as you would have when actually employing the language centers of the brain.
posted by painquale at 1:37 PM on September 21, 2005

I'm somewhat ambidextrous and I can read in dreams sometimes. It changes from dream to dream.
posted by divabat at 2:59 PM on September 21, 2005

(Hell, I'm answering this post while I dream. I'm a far better poster in that reality than this one.)

The Batman business is a bastardization of a commonly held belief that noting shifting texts in dreams is a good reality check for lucid dreaming (scroll way, way down the linked page to get to "The Reading Check'). However, I've read text in dreams that cohered perfectly. In fact, I went through an extended spate in my teens where all the dreams I could recall began with my reading (often at some length) a story in a book, then entering the story as a character. Sometimes this would entail being aware that I was disturbing an existing narrative, and things would get extremely meta meta. I rarely felt physical sensations or emotions in dreams, either -- there was usually a sense that I occupied my dreams, as a character would, and that my actions were predetermined by some scripted narrative. In fact, I would often spend long stretches of dream time rerunning dreams and until the movement of the narrative
worked to my satisfaction.

I think this was more a function of the amount of reading I did as a young child/adult than handedness (I am a lefty, for the record). I'm a speed reader, though an accidental one, because books made the world cohere for me as nothing else did and so I read as many of them as I could. I could and often did read hundreds and hundreds of pages in a single sitting. Reading also simultaneously energized and relaxed me mentally as nothing else did. In other words, it put me into something akin to a meditative state. I fell asleep almost every night with the light on and a book on my chest. So, it makes perfect sense to me that my dream world was closely allied to textual narrative, because that was both my organizing principle for the world and my greatest passion.

Now, I read much less voraciously and obsessively than I once did, and the incidence of reading in dreams has correspondingly declined. I am also feeling emotions and sensations in dreams far more frequently. I tasted food for the first time in a dream a few nights ago. It wasn't anything I'd want to taste again, but I was amazed that it happened.

(Also, I may well be an N of 1 on this. But I strongly suspect that people who read, and read lots, and read for the reasons I cited, read more frequently and coherently in dreams as a result. It would make for an interesting research project; a brief bit of research didn't reveal any previous literature on this specific subject.)
posted by melissa may at 3:39 PM on September 21, 2005

I find the "reading test" too unreliable and sometimes too obvious to those around me for a lucid dreaming test. The method I use is the "double thumb" test. That is, you just look at your hand, and attempt to grow another thumb. Obviously it won't work if you're not dreaming, but if you are, voila. It has the advantage of being low-key enough that you don't look goofy to those around you if it doesn't work, and you can do it while pretending to check the time or something. You can do it often enough to get in the habit (which is what makes it a good L.D. test).

I've taught it to a number of other people that were interested in lucid dreaming, and most of them report success. The only drawback seems to be that sometimes the shock of it working knocks you out of the dream and wakes you up, but this is a risk with any method.
posted by Katravax at 3:02 AM on September 22, 2005

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