Humans are exploring the moon, checking out Mars, digging deeper into the makeup of the atom, mapping incoming asteroids, yet dreaming, a common, ubiquitous experience, still eludes scientific certainties. In the words of William Dement, a leading sleep researcher, “Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.” And we all accept these nighttime states of delusion, disorientation, and non-linear experience as perfectly normal. And despite Freud and other dream symbol adventurers, we’re still pretty much on our own trying to figure out what the heck our dreams have to do with the rest of our lives.
Do dreams have different patterns person-to-person? When the content of a dream slips away so annoyingly just beneath consciousness, doesn’t it seem as if our minds are playing a childish peekaboo game with us? What explains that phenomenon? Can we learn anything useful from dreams, those at least that aren’t quite clearly derived from daytime anxiety?
Scientists claim there’s no sense of smell in dreams, yet some people claim they have experienced smells. Tactile sensation, sight, hearing, and kinetic sense are common. In kinetic dream experiences, lack of control is often a theme; falling, losing a grip, flying without a destination, or running away from something are dream events that most of us have experienced. In my own dreams I would fly with no consciousness of how I was doing that, nor my destination, and that fact would irritate me when I awakened. As a kid and in my twenties I used to have what I called “monster” dreams — something scary is advancing relentlessly and I can’t run fast enough to escape. Both these kinds of dreams I no longer have. Maybe, whatever the “monster” may have represented (ageing, financial failure?) caught up with me, and with a certain age perhaps we’re just too old to dream fly. Strangest to me have been dreams in which I’d been screaming very loudly, and on awakening find I’m making only a tiny croaking sound deep down in my throat. ( Even in a dreaming state then, things often aren’t what they seem?)
Contemporary dream researcher Rosalind D. Cartwright maintains that Rem sleep (when dreams occur) allows the dreamer to down-regulate emotional states, to dissipate negative emotions — frustration, fear, anger, etc.— by progressive Rem to Rem dreaming states throughout the night. A theory offered by Antti Revonsuo, a Finnish psychologist, at a 2004 conference put on by the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) is that dreaming is central to human evolution and possibly survival, because in dreams we practice “threat simulation.” It helped humans survive, he claims, when stalked by predators in the Pleistocene Era by sharpening the ability to quickly identify and respond to physical threats. In this scenario, remembering dreams isn’t important, the important thing is the threat response practice. Freud’s view of dreams was that they were essentially sexual biographies. For i.e., hats in a dream represent female organs, a necktie or cigar represents a penis, and so on. In Robert Moss’s book, The Secret History of Dreaming, he discusses how many non-Western cultures today, and prior to the modern era, see dreaming as less about personal psychology than about prediction or transpersonal experience. Australian aborigines, for instance, believe you can travel across time and space and into other dimensions, and you can decide where you’re going beforehand. For the Iroquois Indians dreams were messages from the spirits and the deeper self, and could contain guidance for the individual and the community. They believed if a dream told of their impending death that by enacting one part of their dream under controlled circumstances they could prevent the dream events from happening fully in life. For the Iroquois a prophetic dream wasn’t set in stone. Ancient Egyptians believed the gods spoke to them in dreams, that they could “tap into knowledge that belonged to us before we entered the life journey,” and that trained dreamers could operate as seers or telepaths. On the other hand, over the last two decades American Psychology departments of U.S. colleges taught that “dreams are meaningless by-products of brain processes.” Many of the myriad theories about dreams, if not all of them, are still in play. And modern lab research has added at least one more theory by way of sleep lab researcher Rosalind Cartwright, who posits that sleep-walkers can commit a homicide without their own conscious, awake intent — Cartwright has been an expert court defense witness on behalf of this concept. The expanding focuses of dream study are fascinating, can seem confounding, and will no doubt see further evolution.
Feelings in dreams can be experienced from both a participant’s point of view and an observer’s, sometimes serially or maybe simultaneously. The ambiance tends to be unreal, but while dreaming we’re not able to judge that — this lack of what we’d call “objective observation” in awake life is to me what makes dreaming so weird, there’s no rational discerning that can happen. Our walking-around minds can’t easily handle or use this kind of input because day-to-day requires a priority-oriented, goal-oriented kind of functioning, of necessity. So it revolves back to, Why do we have dreams of unfiltered shards of irrational information in seemingly vague, obscure, and confounding productions? Why doesn’t waking fantasy do it all for us, over-burdened sense receptors in our brains notwithstanding?
In dreams we miss a sense of consciousness of being in control of events or the order, and speed, of their flow that — whether illusionary or not — we sense we experience when awake. And the gradations of emotions in dreams are sometimes so nuanced, that it’s not possible to explain them completely. Not before the feelings float away anyway. The unrelated swiftly moving images make it impossible to parse most dreams in a reliable way. Some dreams, however, do seem a little less confusing, in content at least. Years ago I kept a record of my dreams and in 2007 I wrote down a vivid dream about my childhood home in rural New York. I was walking down a dirt road near our baseball diamond (which existed in reality) towards my grandparents’ bungalow, and there were a number of adults wearing Mid-Eastern clothing and they were casually playing baseball, the way we might at a family picnic, say. (After awakening I couldn’t easily accept that Muslims were playing baseball). I continued down the hill along the dirt road, and a bit further on toward my grandparents’ house, which was behind our house, there were men in yarmulkes sitting around conversing. I’m flabbergasted in the dream since this was a small town, and all-Caucasian with one exception. Furthermore, this dream was the second in one week about my childhood home and property, and I’d rarely dreamed of it before in adulthood that I could remember. In the first dream I was walking the same dirt road in the same direction, and heard wires overhead on telephone poles making a very unusual and loud, continuous noise. I thought, I need to tell someone that something is wrong here. I keep walking, and see a telephone pole crack, and its top section fall down. Then I see two small planes in the distance and think, They know about it since they must have seen the telephone pole break and fall. (And, remember, dear reader, sometimes a telephone pole is just a telephone pole.) I thought these dreams might have been prophesying that the early 21st century sectarian and religious-based quarreling in the Mid-East will come to the U.S., and perhaps that shared fun (playing baseball) in a shared space might bring these groups together, eventually to peaceful coexistence. Was I with these two dreams simply remembering the future, or applying wishful thinking?
We may be consigned to swim in a sea of mystery, which is an integral part of the human day-and-night cycle. The more we understand about dreaming scientifically, the more there will be to understand maybe. I tend to see dreams as possibly some of all of the known theories, plus the simple concept that dreams give us a psychic time-out, a space in which there’s no need for self-control or judgment. A liberating event, as long as it isn’t a nightmare.
I recently read that the tenor of our dreams affects our mood the next day, regardless of whether or not we’re able to recall them. The rare occasions on which I’ve had a laughing dream, it has made me happy the following day. This possibility of dream-induced happiness suggests we might be able to induce laughter-producing dreams by as yet uninvented machines, technology, techniques, etc. To me dreams seem like clouds or shadows, delicate nets passing by that for the most part go unnoticed, unless we make a point of focusing on them. Dreaming is an experience that is self-generated, or so it seems, and yet it proceeds so independently. I wonder after “disappearing” dreams, Who’s in charge here, me or me? Afterall, these dreams take place in my own mind-space. Is it possible that “my space” is also part of a larger space? As physicist David Bohm put it, “Each person enfolds something of the spirit of the other in his consciousness.” The etheric web — for want of a better term — might be filled with entities that are capable of accessing our minds, as schizophrenics, pre-modern societies, and religious prophets have long claimed. But that’s why we turn to sleep lab research, to get to replicatable experiments that explain why and how dreams use the physiology and screen of our brains. Because prophets and schizophrenics rarely give reliable information about dreams. And because science is favorable by far to superstition and mumbo-jumbo, both of which have convenient political uses and so tend to be historically persistent, most especially in these times of the “factitional” spin on information.
As far as we now know dreams are no more controllable than the weather, and even less amenable to commercial manipulation(so far). Dreaming is one of the few places in life where there are no rules, or work required. Maybe the real biologic use of dreams is that they are a vacation to the Anarchy Islands. Our psyches in sleep are untethered in opposition to the sometimes frustrating strictures of day-to-day life; this pressure valve theory makes sense, as it allows for free-wheeling creative thought, fantasy, surreal imagery, and imaginative inspiration. Maybe Nature just wants us all to be artists and poets and — if we could interpret our dreams reliably — has given us perhaps a built-in technique for psychological self-examination. If dreams are only one person’s personal symbolism, and it’s so hard to figure out their intersection with our daily lives in a purposeful way, we nevertheless do go on trying to figure them out, and subject them to scientific examination. That’s our nature, to categorize, name, organize, and ultimately subdue. If, as at least one physicist has described it, the universe is more like one big thought then one big machine, we have to hope that the universe can also dream — but mostly happy dreams.
Some of the most recent research into dreaming concentrates on those rare people who are able to induce what’s called “lucid” dreaming, a dream state in which the subject can influence what’s happening in a dream, and can transmit simple signals with eye movements — one of the few movements not paralyzed in a dreaming state — back to electrodes placed around the eye sockets. Researchers can use the subjective reports and behavioral experiments on acts, reason, and recall, etc. to try to learn more about dreaming. University of Bern neuroscientist Daniel Erlacher has put lucid dreamers through experiments that had them counting, walking a specified number of steps, or doing a simple gymnastics exercise in the dream state, and found that mental counting happened at the same speed whether the subjects were dreaming or awake, but the physical actions took longer in dreams than in real life. Yet, Vaughn Bell, author of the online article explaining this in ”The mysteries of ‘lucid’ dreaming,” humbly admits that “the science of dreaming is still very much in the age of exploration.” And, of course, there’s now a developing online industry, gurus of “lucid dreaming” offering up technologies and practices enabling one to become a “lucid dreamer,” including use of electric scalp stimulation (caveat emptor on this one), an Alzheimer’s drug, a dream diary, and a “wake up, back to bed” method. One of the testimonials on a related site has someone crowing about having in one of his “lucid dreams” spent time with a favorite television star. Celebrity tourism (and why limit yourself to just one star?) for “lucid dreaming” initiates, maybe even dream tours inside the houses of Hollywood movie stars — on the horizon for “lucid dream” consumers shortly?
In day-to-day existence, when something quite out of the ordinary occurs, we’re apt to ask ourselves, “Am I dreaming this?” Do we mean by that the difference between reality and dreams at times fades and isn’t discernible? In these cases are space and time breached? Maybe weird things happen even when space/time isn’t breached, but we’re too ignorant and untuned to subtleties to recognize these events? In life sometimes there’s no satisfactory explanations for some events or concatenations of events. Dreams are like the weather, luck, immortality, the perverse workings of fortune — all those things that haven’t yet been scientifically nailed down, made amenable to human control. But we might like to maintain one or two wild frontiers. We might be better off chasing both the high and low frequencies while following that shimmering yellow brick road. Who knows what intricacies we’d discover? Uncertainties and mystery — do we want to lose them, or embrace them as affording some sort of a grand pinball game that exercises our essential and redeeming muscles of imagination, wonder, and awe?
(Copyright©2015, Penny Skillman)