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Observations placeholder

Aristotle - On Sleep and Wakefulness - Dreams



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience


Aristotle gives an account of his explanation of sleep in On Sleep and Wakefulness. Sleep takes place as a result of overuse of the senses or of digestion, so it is vital to the body, including the senses, so it can be revitalized.

While a person is asleep, the critical activities, which include thinking, sensing, recalling and remembering, do not function as they do during wakefulness.  Since a person cannot sense during sleep they can also not have a desire, which is the result of a sensation. However, the senses are able to work during sleep, albeit differently than when a person is awake because during sleep a person can still have sensory experiences. Also, all of the senses are not inactive during sleep, only the ones that are weary.

Dreams do not involve actually sensing a stimulus because, as discussed, the senses do not work as they normally do during sleep.

When the body is awake and the senses are functioning properly, a person constantly encounters new stimuli to sense and so the impressions left from previously perceived stimuli become irrelevant. However, during sleep the perceptions made throughout the day become noticed because there are not new sensory experiences to distract from these impressions that were made. So, dreams result from these lasting impressions – past perceptions.

[Here it is interesting to note that apparently Aristotle recognised the role of perceptions in dream making, but not the role of ‘external ‘ images and functions]

During sleep, a person is in an altered state of mind. Aristotle compares a sleeping person to a person who is overtaken by strong feelings toward a stimulus. For example, a person who has a strong infatuation with someone may begin to think they see that person everywhere because they are so overtaken by their feelings. When a person is asleep, their senses are not acting as they do when they are awake and this results is them thinking like a person who is influenced by strong feelings.

When asleep, a person is unable to make judgments as they do when they are awake  Due to the reasoning function not functioning normally during sleep, they are unable to help a person judge what is happening in their dream. This in turn leads the person to believe the dream is real. Dreams may be absurd in nature but the senses are not able to discern whether they are real or not.   So, the dreamer is left to accept the dream because they lack the will to judge it.

Aristotle also includes in his theory of dreams what constitutes a dream and what does not. He claimed that a dream is first established by the fact that the person is asleep when they experience it. If a person had an image appear for a moment after waking up or if they see something in the dark it is not considered a dream because they were awake when it occurred. Secondly, any sensory experience that actually occurs while a person is asleep and is perceived by the person while asleep does not qualify as part of a dream. For example, if, while a person is sleeping, a door shuts and in their dream they hear a door is shut, Aristotle argues that this sensory experience is not part of the dream. The actual sensory experience is perceived by the senses, the fact that it occurred while the person was asleep does not make it part of the dream. Lastly, the images of dreams must be a result of lasting impressions of sensory experiences had when awake.

The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Dreaming and lucid dreaming


Lucid dreaming