Tag: Dunbar’s Number

Why do experiences we’ve never had feel so real in dreams?

I had this weird thought last week after I dreamt that I was licked by a cow in Venice.


This is what I posted up on the old Facebook that morning (because of course everyone in my immediate circle, my Dunbar’s number and beyond, my mum, my son, someone I crossed paths with in 2014 for a week and the people I went to school with needed to know).

My dream

When I woke up, the memory of the sensation of being licked in the face by a cow in Venice was very real. I woke up feeling slightly disgusted. I could still ‘feel’ the sensation of the warm, solid yet a bit fatty tongue moving slowly across my cheek. The tongue (and the cow’s breath) smelt of digesting grass. I could still smell it in the back of my nostrils as I opened my eyes that morning. I could vividly recall the wetness on my cheek after I was licked. It was as if I really had been licked by a cow. The Venice part isn’t so important perhaps. I haven’t been to Venice for over 20 years, whether that is of interest or not I don’t know.

My weird thought is as follows: since I haven’t actually ever been licked by a cow in the face (in Venice or in any other town, city, village, metropolis, or countyside location), how is it that I can recreate it in my dream so well and now describe it as if it really happened? What is it about my imagination that can form such an experience in my head, as if it actually happened? How are we able to ‘remember’ how something feels if we haven’t ever actually felt it in real life?

This also applies to those sorts of dreams we don’t like to talk about in polite company. What I mean by this is dreams where we get a little too familiar than we’d like to in real life with people we have never met perhaps, and certainly, even if we have, never entertained the notion of, familiarity. In my case, I have a list of such ‘lucky’ people: Billy from EastEnders, Jeremy Kyle, a smattering of people I know in the real world who in waking life I wouldn’t ever entertain the notion of a lingering hug never mind anything else, and, lastly, Gordon Brown, the ex-leader of the Labour Party.  So how is it that I can imagine what special hugs with Gordon Brown would feel like if I’ve never met the guy or even partook in special hugs or any other type of hugs with him? How does my brain create sensations which to me are quite sophisticated and detailed, to the extent that in my logical head (the tiny part of the my head that is logical) they need to be experienced to be recreated in the imagination? The mind is a fascinating beast if it has this talent. If we take it as given that the mind really can create (note, not recreate) an event such as being licked by a cow or Gordon Brown in great detail then we really are clever. And therefore can we trust our minds? Is there not the risk of a dream being mistaken for a memory at some point in the future? Will I lie on my death bed and tell my great, great, great grandchildren about the time I met the leader of the Labour Party? I hope not.


What do the scientists have to say about this? I couldn’t find anything on the World Wide Web to help me here. However, I found one website that claimed that vivid dreams are a sign of mental illness.

I do suspect there is something deeply troubling going on inside my head. But I’m not going to go there, right now. Ignorance is bliss and anyway, I’m tired now.

What is the optimum number of friends one can have? Think of a number!

Last Sunday, I was driving from Shrewsbury to Newport at 11.30pm. When I drive home late at night, there is only one radio station for me: Radio 4. In fact, truth be told, most of the time there is only one radio station for me, that is unless I’m in the need to sing really loudly, in which case I listen to a CD (how quaint).

Anyway, to get back to Sunday evening, I was driving back home late at night after a particularly fun night singing karaoke at The Crown in Shrewsbury, and they were talking about ‘the future’ on Radio 4. Part of this discussion on ‘the future’ was focused on social media. In their discussion of social media the people on the radio mentioned something called ‘Dunbar’s Number’.

Me (far right) at The Crown on Sunday

My interest perked up at this point. I had heard of this before, but I couldn’t remember where. I have a bit of a soft spot for theories or postulates named after a real person (I also like diseases or conditions that are named after a person – I have a bit of a secret wish to invent Collins Theorem, Collinsitus, or Collins Postulate, or even Collins’s Number).

Again, back to Sunday evening, ‘Dunbar’s Number’, Radio 4 told me, refers to the optimum number of casual friends a human being can maintain whether they be living in the jungle or in Newport, Shropshire. Dunbar’s Number was named after a real person called Robin Dunbar who lives in Oxford. Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist and he came up with the idea a few years ago (before social media became the beast it is now) that we cannot maintain more than a finite number of, what he terms ‘casual’ friends / acquaintances in real or virtual life.

The magic number is apparently 150. This magic number, although coined a few years ago, is relevant today, Robin Dunbar claims. The irony is that Robin Dunbar, as he stated on the radio last Sunday evening, hates social media and prefers to sit in a pub with a pint and the odd friend than spending his time liking and commenting on Facebook. However, as I drove through Telford and across the most horrible roundabout in the world (Trench Lock) listening to this programme, I considered my Facebook friendship circle. I have about 390 friends on Facebook. That is 240 more than Dumbar’s Number. Does that mean that 240 of those people are not ‘casual’ friends (or close friends) and are just people I have met? If so, what are they to me? After all, what does the social media phobic Robin Dubar consider to be ‘casual’? He said that a casual friend would be a  friend you would call on for help, or someone that you’d go out of your way to talk to in real life. Well what do I have to say to Robin? I’d talk to any one of my 390-odd friends friends for help or to chat to about their mornings. So there!

Robin Dunbar and cat

I guess this disagreement with a scientist stems in part of my desire to refute those clever types who reside in places such as Oxford, Cambridge or Wolverhampton and say ‘aha, you might be wrong!’ I’m a firm believer in the teeny tiny possibility theory, as I have professed on here on many occasions, and I think that this is one occasion when I should play the ‘teeny tiny possibility theory’ card. Robin Dunbar, I have more than 150 casual friends! I agree that the category of ‘close’ friends is probably quite small. However, some of my ‘casual’ friends were close friends at some point in my life and circumstances have since meant that our paths stopped crossing so often. For example friends I went to school with or met at university, friends from my year in Amsterdam, or my two years in Japan, friends I met in Oxford or friends from when I lived in Charlbury for seven years. I had some very close friends at university and they are there on Facebook but we wouldn’t regard ourselves as close now perhaps. But it feels wrong to classify them as casual. They weren’t casual, yet we don’t see each other often now. However, should disaster befall me and I was in their area, I’d call on them in a heartbeat.

So in conclusion, my message to Robin Dunbar is, your theory is interesting but I think things are a little more grey than you presume. I have more than 150 friends I’d consider casual. There are Venn diagrammes of friendships that you haven’t really considered. So there! Poor old Robin Dunbar isn’t the only friend theorist I want to blow raspberry’s at, there is also Seneca, who had a lot to say on the matter too. What you say is interesting, dear Seneca, but you were not quite right. Sorry!

I love you all!