Presently I am working my way through “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, which is 57 hours on Audible. So for a change of pace, I would like to talk about something I’ve been experimenting with, even if outside of a lab setting. Let’s talk about dreams!
0) What are dreams?
I have no idea who would ask this, but here goes. Dreams are a byproduct of REM (Rapid-Eye Movement) sleep, a phase of sleep that takes up both halves of the brain, and occurs in all mammals (and likely other many vertebrates) except cetaceans (dolphins and whales). Why don’t dolphins and whales have REM sleep, you ask? Well, unlike other forms of sleep, the brain lights up all sorts of regions in REM, including ones normally associated with muscle movement. To avoid the body from getting up and acting out one’s dreams, your brain paralyzes you, for REM sleep specifically. People partially in REM hallucinate, and the experience of sleep paralysis happens when someone is just waking up from REM sleep, but the REM and the paralysis haven’t quite faded yet. As you discover you can’t move, your brain interprets that as some old hag, or ghoul, or aliens sitting on you and preventing you from moving. This paralysis is also the reason dolphins and whales don’t get REM after they’re born, as they need to swim to breathe.
Dreams seem to accompany REM sleep consistently, as anyone who is woken from REM directly can recount to you vivid dreams, though they may seem to forget them shortly thereafter. Also, I vaguely recall studies where specific regions of brain activation during REM correlate to the events that one encounters in dreams, so it may someday be possible to have a machine that interprets our dreams.
A factual answer does not quite do dreams justice, though, as a dream will jump from one scene to another on it’s own internal logic, as you walk around with the vague sence that everything’s coherent even though you have no idea how you got from one place to the next. They can pull on deep symbolism, and tell us things about ourselves that we don’t realize consciously. A healthy relationship with our dreams can enrich our lives, and frankly, are vastly more entertaining than any movie out there. And with that here are five points I’d like to make about dreams.
1) They are one of the few unexplored places you can reach.
Barring Antarctica, virtually all the land has been walked over at least a thousand times. Hundreds of people flock in a day at reach Mount Everest’s peak. However, the depths of your unconscious are yours alone to experience, and yours alone to share. What’s more, they can tell you things about yourself. The treasures you come back with are personal to you, and can result in a new attitude towards life. I recently made a life decision, to begin looking for a graduate school, that but two years ago would have repulsed me. What allowed for my change in attitude? A dream.
When I was sixteen, I had a dream where I was eaten by a house. It had two parts. In the first I went to the bus stop on the way to school. As I stood there, I saw this house across the street. Plain, white, lovely house. I heard a slow, screeching violin music start to come from it, and was entranced. I took one step towards the house. Then another. Then another. Despite my growing sense of danger I couldn’t stop myself, until finally a hand on my shoulder. The music had abruptly stopped; another kid signaled to me that the bus had arrived.
When we got off at the bus stop and I started to head home, I turned around to notice another kid taking the same, slow, uncontrollable steps towards that house. I could hear the music that was in his head and could sense his danger. “He must not cross the threshold!” I said to myself, and, making a point not to look at the house directly, went after him. But I was too late. By the time I had gotten to him he was already in the yard and headed towards the house. I reached out as far as I could from the pavement … and slipped. As soon as both feet were in the yard I was trapped–I couldn’t lift my feet. The creepy music switched to a rumbling sound and a vast weight of pressure. I saw my face in the other kid’s eyes as we both aged decades in seconds until we turned to dust.
I remember that dream a decade later because it taught me something about my true nature. It taught me what I most fear.
2) They can range from simple to complicated.
The last dream I had last night was of me arguing with my roommate over a minor debating point. The previous dream I had last night was a nightmare with foreshadowing and plot development. Some weeks ago I had a complicated, comedic dream with the feel of a “B” rated movie, with a celebrity cameo by Tony Robbins.
3) You can call them forth.
I learned about this from a Jungian podcast recently. By an invocation to the goddess psyche, asking her essentially that if she brings you dreams then you will write them down, and by honoring this by starting a dream journal, you will have dreams more often. Technically you have dreams every night, multiple times a night, but if you wake up from a deep or light sleep then you don’t remember them. Since it’s a matter of timing, one trick Edison did was fall asleep in a chair on top of a metal pan whilst holding a pair of metal balls in one hand. When he would enter REM sleep, the balls would relax and fall crashing to the ground, thus waking him. I mention the invocation to Psyche as that could also be a matter of timing — your unconscious mind has a fairly accurate sense of time, even when asleep. You may remember a time when you desperately needed to wake up really early, and naturally awoke before the alarm clock. That’s your body trying to help.
Anyway, I’ve been experimenting with a dream journal recently, and have had a remarkably high concentration of dreams. In the last two weeks that I’ve been doing this, I had two dreams with a detailed plot, and several other instances where I remember just a couple vague elements of a dream. Compared to one major dream in months or years, it is a significant improvement.
4) Sharing a dream with someone can be a deeply personal/intimate experience.
Dream interpretation isn’t a science, and input from others can give you a fun perspective. A friend of mine who’s heard several dreams (including the house one) of mine has been able to pick up trends (where I am in life correlates to the dream) and themes. The themes and trends across my dreams (especially across the span of years) is not something I would’ve picked up on. Therefore, he had insights about me that I didn’t necessarily have about myself. Share your dreams with someone you trust.
5) Reading Carl Jung probably helps.
I once listened to the audio-book “Man and his Symbols” by Carl Jung over the course of a long car trip. That was probably a mistake– the deep detail of the archetypes that he described conjured images in my mind almost to the point of a psychedelic drug. I was half tempted to pull over and trip out on a book! I wouldn’t be surprised at all, in fact I kinda half expect it, if reading some Jung before bed gave you more vivid dreams.
I hope you enjoyed this discussion about dreams. If you would like to explore the world of dreams and archetypes more, I recommend you check out this Jungian podcast below!