August 31, 2022

Tuning in to our Mind’s Nocturnal Cinemas: What Dreams can Teach Us.


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“In dream work, both the patient and I marvel at the emergence from darkness of ingenious constructions and luminous images.”  ~ Irvin Yalom

I’m driving Lyft passengers, and my car keeps getting longer.

A former roommate from a writing camp I attended 15 years ago (who is from Louisiana) has just gotten in, followed by a woman headed to a “crossword puzzle class.” A Latina mother and her little girl join soon after—followed by Amy Schumer and a guy I went to preschool with.

Even though the number of Lyft Line riders isn’t supposed to exceed three, in this dream, passengers keep getting added. In response, my car grows miraculously longer to accommodate for all of them.

The added length makes maneuvering the roads difficult. It feels like an unruly tail whipping at the vehicles in close proximity. My car struggles to stay in a straight line. Outside, the vehicles around us are honking, nearby trucks are crashing, and a fire erupts.

My alarm drags me from this bedlam before I can experience any severe consequences.

Dreams have fascinated me from a very young age. The way I feel inside them is the way I felt the first time I opened my eyes underwater. Submerged and everything’s muffled, but you still feel almost hyper-alive.

In college, some days upon waking, before doing anything else—PJs still on and eyes readjusting to the light—I’d open my notebook to capture the dreams before they had the chance to evaporate from my mind completely. I wanted to transfer them to paper before the rubble of the day could sweep in to cover them over. Each detail of the dream felt like a firefly that would flitter off and cease glowing the minute the light of day hit its fragile wings.

Humans’ dreaming experiences run the gamut from people who claim to never remember their dreams to those who can recount intricate dream plot lines in lengthy detail.  

As someone whose nighttime cinema has always been extremely vivid, dreaming for me is extremely fun. I love how pretty much anything can happen in them. For a while before going to bed each night, I’d even excitedly wonder “what will my brain cook up for me this time?”

Waking up in the middle of a vivid dream feels like (to use a Harry Potter term) you’ve just disapparated. First, you’re in one place, and then literally seconds later, you’re in a completely different one.

Dreams have been recorded since the days of antiquity when Egyptian priests acted as dream interpreters. People with the power to interpret dreams were looked up to and seen as divinely gifted. And according to dream moods, the Greeks and Romans viewed dreams in a religious context, believing them to be direct messages from the deceased or the Gods. They even built shrines for people to sleep inside of so that the divine could pass their messages on to sleepers!

According to dream moods, the Greeks and Romans viewed dreams in a religious context, believing them to be direct messages from the deceased or the Gods. They even built shrines for people to sleep inside of so that the divine could pass their messages on to sleepers while they slept! 

Why do we dream though and what makes us more prone to remember them? Here’s some of what I’ve uncovered.

Dreams as a way of learning.

The concept of sleep learning is referred to as hypnopedia. In 1914, Rosa Heine discovered that absorbing new material before going to sleep promotes better retention than does learning it earlier in the day.

In one study conducted by Harvard psychology professor Deirdre Barrett, one-third of students who recorded their dreams for a week successfully solved problems ranging from how to arrange their furniture to where to take a vacation.

We also form new memories while sleeping, albeit unconsciously and implicitly. During sleep, the brain moves memories from the day into the hippocampus, where they stabilize. To illustrate this, Israeli researchers found that people are capable of associating sounds with smells as they sleep. The researchers released an unpleasant spoiled fish scent while playing a specific tone. When the tone was played to the dreamers once they awoke, they held their breath in anticipation of a bad smell.

Dreams as a way of integrating and processing experiences.

Dreams may help us to rehearse for confronting threats in real life. Finnish psychologist Antti Revonsuo found that during REM sleep, the amygdala activates in a comparable way to how it fires when confronted by a survival threat in waking life. That said, dreams help us to practice safety.

It’s a fluid, nebulous process though. The dream doesn’t always provide us with an explicit answer right away. Rather, it guides us along—much like a therapist. It’s up to us upon waking to decode its lessons by transferring its visual messages into language.

There’s a hiking trail, for instance, that reappears in my dreams consistently—though it does not exist in real life. It’s an epic, magical, technicolor place; the most reverential of nature trails. Every time I get close to it, I’m convinced that it’s real—yet I’m never able to reach it. I always become distracted, or I take a wrong turn—or it suddenly disappears once I’m halfway there.

What meaning do we take from dreams like these? It’s up to us to decide.

Dreams as opportunities for creativity.

Lambert wrote in an article for Healthline that those most likely to recall their dreams are people “prone to daydreaming, creative thinking, and introspection. At the same time, those who are more practical and focused on what is outside themselves tend to have difficulty remembering their dreams.”

Paul McCartney was rumored to have written “Yesterday” while dreaming. As Amanda EK put it in OFM’s January 2022 issue, “Our dreams offer boundless creative inspiration and opportunities for tapping into our intuition, to help us explore new avenues of thought and self-awareness.”

Dreams as scrambling together of past and present. 

 In one dream, a girl I knew when I was a kid was sleeping in my childhood bed and wets it. My brain’s selection seemed very random. I hadn’t seen this girl since childhood—and even then, we weren’t that close.

Why did I dream about her? Why do we dream about people we haven’t actively thought about in years?

Of the hundreds of dreams I could remember having during quarantine, in only one of them was I or anyone around me socially distancing.

I wondered why this was. As complex, highly adaptable organs, wouldn’t our brains have caught up to the reality that we’re living in a pandemic, and therefore adjusted their dream output accordingly?

Then I considered that during dreams, our brains are drawing from tens of thousands of experiences built up across the span of our lives. Nestled inside these mental catalogs are memories from as far back as childhood. Each of these is at their disposal when crafting their intricate (and at times nonsensical) plot lines.

That person we first kissed when we were 15 lies somewhere in the mix. So does the one we randomly crossed paths with once, only to never see again. Important, long-term relationships, scrambled together with passing, one-hour encounters—all of that’s floating around through the brain gumbo.

The fact that it’s not just the most recent fodder that your brain draws from explains why we might dream about someone we haven’t thought about in years.

In conclusion, it’s less that our brains are lagging behind our current reality, and more that they’re working from such a vast body of material. COVID memories simply become submerged in the haystack of the sheer quantity of them all—especially the older we are.

Furthermore, it’s less about that particular person than about what they represent. They could just be an apt symbol for a particular lesson our brain is trying to teach us.

As lucid dreamer, Rebecca put it, “Sometimes they can represent parts of your psyche, sometimes reflections of their real-life counterparts, and sometimes simply empty shells. They rarely tell explicit truths; like dreams themselves, their insights are usually encoded.”

Dreams as means of overcoming phobias.

According to Verywellmind, “A lucid dream occurs when a person is asleep but aware that they are dreaming. In this state, a person can take control of their dream’s narrative to some degree, essentially guiding and directing the course of their dream.”

Research conducted by Aspy has found that lucid dreaming can help phobias lose their negative hold on a person. They function as a form of exposure therapy, wherein dreamers continually confront the source of their fear as a means of gradually overcoming it.

There are ways to improve our lucid dreaming skills. A 2017 study that Dr. Aspy and colleagues conducted explored a technique called “reality testing,” which involves performing specific actions to verify whether you are dreaming (both in real life and during a dream). According to Medical News Today, “This technique relies on intention. In real life, the wall will remain solid and impenetrable, but in a dream, the hand will easily pass through it.”

One time I reality-checked inside a dream by putting my hand on the person I was talking to. My hand went through them like they were a ghost. I tried to hug a person; they turned into sand.

Dr. Aspy said that people who are proficient in dream recall are the likeliest to have lucid dreams (according to Medical News Today). So those interested in lucid dreaming might benefit from keeping a dream journal. We might also consider writing down a few intentions before going to bed.

Some questions to consider: What do I want to dream about tonight? What problem do I wish to overcome? Who in my life do I need more help understanding?

The company Lucid Dream Leaf even sells synergistic herbs to help people lucid dream (listed in their products section: “organic mugwort: supports creative dreaming”). 

Experts do acknowledge that some people may be more at risk from lucid dreaming. Those with schizophrenia, for instance, have trouble differentiating between hallucinations and reality. Lucid dreaming could further complicate their ability to distinguish. People who are prone to disassociation are also more at risk for adverse consequences. For this reason, if you do plan to lucid dream, several sources recommend reflecting on why you want to and what you hope to get from it.

Dreams as human equalizers.

I believe the substance of our night worlds to be one of the great human equalizers. I believe we can learn as much about the human condition from a five-year-old’s dream as we can from a 70-year-old’s. Even in the absence of verbal skills, dream language—where trippy, unlikely images mix together with scripts, plots, and magical realism—evokes comparable sensations amongst many. Reading back on dream journals from childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, I’ve noticed that while the faces, characters, and scenery might change, the emotions stay the same.

When we’re asleep, it’s the one time our unconscious can fully talk to us, without the interfering noise of the outside world. It’s the one moment of the day where it’s just the two of us, one-on-one and face to face. 

We can take advantage of this by being good listeners. Maybe this means keeping a dream diary. Or maybe it means simply taking five minutes to reflect on our dream in the morning—exploring how it ties in with our life and the issues we’re facing.

Dreams and their teachings can greatly enhance our worlds if we allow them to.

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