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David M. Peña-Guzmán new book, When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness, is a very important work that closes the door on some questions about animal minds, but more importantly opens many others for further transdisciplinary discussions about the rich inner lives and moral significance of nonhumans.1 Peña-Guzmán clearly shows that the question at hand isn’t if animals dream, but rather why animal dreaming matters for theories of animal consciousness.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write When Animals Dream?

David Peña-Guzmán: Because it dawned on me that there wasn’t a single book out there about the dreams of nonhuman animals. There are plenty of amazing books on animal consciousness, but they never discuss dreaming; and there are plenty of equally amazing books about dreaming, but they are exclusively about humans. The deeper I dug into the subject, the more I felt that there was a lot to say about the dreams of other species from a philosophical standpoint. Dreaming is a fascinating phenomenon that raises all sorts of psychological, epistemic, phenomenological, and even moral questions, and I wanted to see how far I could take these questions when it comes to other animals.

Princeton University Press, with permission.

Source: Princeton University Press, with permission.

MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

DPG: As a philosopher, I have long been interested in phenomenology, philosophy of science, and animal cognition and behavior. In the last few years, I have also developed expertise in animal rights and animal ethics. All these fields make an appearance in this book. For instance, my discussion of contemporary research on animal sleep follows a long tradition of philosophers questioning how scientists interpret their own findings and hinting at alternative interpretations. Meanwhile, my analysis of animal consciousness is heavily influenced by my training in phenomenology and my previous research on figures such as Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Henri Bergson.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

DPG: This work was a great opportunity to make my interests accessible to a general audience. Animal dreaming is a surprisingly transversal topic that I think everybody can relate to, and that’s why I felt passionate about writing a book that could speak not only to experts, but also to educated laypeople who are curious about the minds of animals.

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?

DPG: The three main themes are dreaming, consciousness, and imagination. The book opens with a story about the rise and fall of scientific interest in the dreams of animals. In the 19th century, naturalists were quite open about their belief that other animals dream. For them, this was a perfectly reasonable hypothesis rooted in evolutionary thinking. With the rise of behaviorism in the early 20th century, however, things changed and interest in the minds (and therefore dreams) of animals fell squarely out of fashion. Yet, nowadays, we have plenty of scientific evidence to think that our 19th-century ancestors were on the right track about the nightly experiences of other species. Thus, the book’s first step is to lay out this evidence in order to show that many other animals also experience what I call “reality simulations” during sleep.

Once this scientific evidence is presented, the book switches gears from science to philosophy by pondering what these reality simulations teach us about the psyches of other creatures. What do they tell us about the kind of consciousness that other animals have? What do they tell us about their affective and emotional lives? What do they tell us, finally, about their cognitive and even meta-cognitive capabilities? These questions form the core of the project, which is an intervention into theories of nonhuman consciousness.

The third theme is imagination. Because of my training in phenomenology, I follow a philosophical school of thought that sees dreams as imaginative mental acts. For me, there is something inherently imaginal or phantasmagoric about even the simplest of dreams. Thus, in a chapter titled “A Zoology of the Imagination,” I invite readers to conceive of other animals as imaginative agents, which is to say, as creatures who can transcend the here-and-now through the power of imagination.

Overall, the book tries to show that we need to move beyond anthropocentric theories of dreaming (of which there are many). Even mammalocentric theories won’t do any longer. We need a truly cross-species theory of dreaming that pays close attention to the mental parallels we share with nonhumans while at the same time recognizing the many differences that set us apart. As I put it in the introduction, “It is in this tension between sameness and difference, between conjunction and disjunction, that the heart of this book lies.”

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

DPG: When academics talk about their work “filling a gap” in the literature, they often overstate their case, and not by a little. In this instance, however, I feel like this is a rather accurate description since this is the first book of its kind (at least in English and, to my knowledge, Spanish and French). It is the first manuscript to investigate the dreamworlds of other species. But this, to be clear, does not mean that this book does not have important predecessors. I owe a lot to plenty of authors who have made invaluable contributions to animal sleep research, the science of dreaming, and the philosophy of animal cognition.

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about the amazing dream lives of other animals they will treat them with more respect and dignity?

DPG: That is why I wrote this book. All my work is motivated by a desire to improve the lot of all the sentient life forms with whom we share, and co-create, the world. And I make this explicit in the book. In the last chapter, I tackle this ethical dimension by linking together in a single argument three crucial concepts: consciousness, dreaming, and moral status. My moral hopes for this book are articulated there.

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