Sleeper Agents: The Sense of Agency Over the Dream Body

Human Studies 44 (4):693-719 (2021)
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Although the sense of agency is often reduced if not absent in dreams, our agentive dream experiences can at times be similar to or enhanced compared to waking. The sense of agency displayed in dreams is perplexing as we are mostly shut off from real stimulus whilst asleep. Theories of waking sense of agency, in particular, comparator and holistic models, are analysed in order to argue that despite the isolation from the real environment, these models can help account for dream experience. The dreamer might feel an increased sense of control of their dream bodies and a sense that they can directly control elements of the dream world. Such experiences may at times be caused by superstitious or delusional thinking due to altered cognition and changes to the sleeping brain. Here it is argued that some such experiences are akin to specific waking delusions, such as delusions of grandeur, with similar cognitive features. However, other instances of increased sense of agency in dreaming appear to be sui generis and nothing like what we experience when awake. Lucid control dreams, in which the dreamer realises that they are dreaming and that they can control the dream environment, are examples of such an experience although further nuance is required to account for their specific cognitive attributes. Future empirical research should focus on controlled dream reporting conditions in order to clarify the types of experience that occur and determine the relevant cognitive mechanisms that relate to each type.



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Melanie G. Rosen
Trent University

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