So­cial Stud­ies

Margo White on find­ing mean­ing in dreams.

North & South - - Contents - by margo white

“NO, YOU CAN’T tell me about your dreams,” said one friend to an­other over break­fast re­cently. “One thing I can’t lis­ten to is other peo­ple’s dreams.”

I could see her point, to a cer­tain ex­tent. Other peo­ple’s dreams are about as com­pelling as five- day cricket, and talk­ing about them is a con­ver­sa­tion killer, a sin even in fic­tion. “Tell a dream, lose a reader,” said Henry James. But my friend had just fin­ished de­scrib­ing what her cat did that morn­ing, and if you were go­ing to lay down rules on “bor­ing sto­ries”...

Still, if you’re go­ing to talk about your dreams, you should prob­a­bly keep it short, and even then, it’s prob­a­bly best saved for your near­est and dear­est. Nat­u­rally, I find my own dreams un­be­liev­ably fas­ci­nat­ing – a source of won­der, some­times hor­ror. How, even in my wildest dreams, did I make that up?

Why do we dream? Philoso­phers, artists and sci­en­tists have been try­ing to fig­ure that out for cen­turies, but still don’t know. The an­cient Greeks and Ro­mans thought dreams helped us pre­dict fu­ture events and/or were a chance to be vis­ited by the dead. Sig­mund Freud thought dreams were coded mes­sages from the sub­con­scious and re­lated to re­pressed con­flicts and de­sires, par­tic­u­larly sex­ual con­flicts and de­sires. Carl Jung also thought dreams pro­vided sym­bolic point­ers to the stuff of life we hadn’t re­solved, but not nec­es­sar­ily about sex.

Both psy­cho­an­a­lysts are out of vogue, but I sus­pect most of us still tend to look for and find mean­ing in our dreams, in a Jun­gian way, that con­forms to the be­liefs and anx­i­eties of our wak­ing life.

Dreams are dif­fi­cult to study, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons. We can’t re­mem­ber most of them and, even if we could, they’re idio­syn­cratic to the dreamer. Also, we’re un­re­li­able nar­ra­tors of our dreams. We of­ten don’t know when the dream ends and when our con­scious self starts fill­ing in the gaps to make sense of our noc­tur­nal nar­ra­tives.

While we don’t yet know why we dream, neu­rol­o­gists and psy­chol­o­gists have come up with some con­vinc­ing hy­pothe­ses. Most dream­ing oc­curs dur­ing REM (rapid eye move­ment) sleep; babies spend 80% of their sleep in REM sleep (adults only 20-25%), which sug­gests we need to dream in or­der to grow or, if you pre­fer, for “neu­ral mat­u­ra­tion”.

Some sci­en­tists sub­scribe to the ac­ti­va­tion- syn­the­sis the­ory, which posits that dreams are mean­ing­less, the re­sult of the brain in­ter­pret­ing ran­dom ac­tiv­ity from the spinal cord and cere­bel­lum dur­ing sleep. Or, it’s some form of data dump­ing, our brain sift­ing through the events of the day and con­sol­i­dat­ing what it wants to re­mem­ber. Our dreams, then, may be the stitch­ing to­gether of ran­dom bits of data like, you might say, a mad woman’s knit­ting. “We dream to for­get,” said No­bel lau­re­ate and neu­ro­sci­en­tist Fran­cis Crick.

MRI scans sug­gest the brain ar­eas that are in­volved in fo­cused at­ten­tion and ra­tio­nal thought are less ac­tive dur­ing dream­ing, while the ar­eas in­volved in emo­tional pro­cess­ing and vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ences are more ac­tive. This may ex­plain why dreams are so vivid, weird and of­ten neg­a­tive. It also sup­ports the threat-sim­u­la­tion the­ory, which holds that dream­ing is a chance to re­hearse our re­sponse to the threats we might be fac­ing (or think we’re fac­ing) in wak­ing life.

We’re ca­pa­ble of dream­ing in a way that makes ra­tio­nal sense, but of­ten the metaphor takes over. They can be ob­vi­ous: teeth or hair fall­ing out; be­ing able to fly, but los­ing con­trol of your abil­ity to fly; turn­ing up at the air­port with­out your pass­port; get­ting ready to go to the ball but not hav­ing a thing to wear. Then there’s the man, lurk­ing in the shad­ows, climb­ing in the win­dow, chasing you down the street and through the fog, and your legs are filled with con­crete so you can’t run, as is your throat, so you can’t even scream.

Dreams can leave you feel­ing shat­tered upon wak­ing, yet ac­cord­ing to neu­ro­sci­en­tist Matthew Walker, sleep ex­pert and author of Why We Sleep, dream­ing is a form of heal­ing. It’s only dur­ing REM sleep that our brain shuts off the anx­i­etytrig­ger­ing mol­e­cule no­ra­drenalin (the brain’s equiv­a­lent of adrenalin), while ac­ti­vat­ing its emo­tional and mem­o­ryre­lated cen­tres.

“This means that emo­tional me­mory re­ac­ti­va­tion is oc­cur­ring in a brain free of a key stress-re­lated neu­ro­chem­i­cal,” he writes, “which al­lows us to re-process painful and even trau­matic mem­o­ries in a safer, calmer, neu­tral en­vi­ron­ment.”

With­out bor­ing you with the de­tails, I have a re­cur­ring dream that (ac­cord­ing to Walker’s the­ory) sug­gests I’m still pro­cess­ing the trauma of be­ing con­fronted with an over­flow­ing toi­let at a rail­way sta­tion in In­dia 30 years ago. Or, is my neu­rotic sub­con­scious self telling me, metaphor­i­cally, that I’m full of shit? Sorry, that prob­a­bly was too much de­tail.

Most dreams ( ap­par­ently 80% of them) de­pict or­di­nary sit­u­a­tions. But even our more in­sane dreams might lead to in­sight, says Walker. “Dur­ing the dream­ing state, your brain will cog­i­tate vast swaths of ac­quired knowl­edge and then ex­tract over­ar­ch­ing rules and com­mon­al­ties, cre­at­ing a mind­set that can help us divine so­lu­tions to pre­vi­ously im­pen­e­tra­ble prob­lems.”

This is an ap­peal­ing the­ory, al­though it also strikes me as not too far from what Jung would have said, with a neuro- sci­en­tific twist, and we prob­a­bly knew that al­ready. Dream­ing is a time for prob­lem solv­ing. As Walker points out, when we’ve got a prob­lem we are ad­vised to “sleep on it” and that seems to be uni­ver­sal; the French say dormir sur un prob­lem, and in Swahili it’s ku­lala juu ya tatizo.

Any­way, there’s plenty of anec­do­tal ev­i­dence to sug­gest dream­ing is a force for cre­ativ­ity. Paul Mccart­ney claimed “Yes­ter­day” came to him in a dream. Sal­vador Dali re­lied upon them for his art, and even de­vel­oped an ap­proach to nap­ping which he rec­om­mended for any­one want­ing to har­ness their dreams: sit in an un­com­fort­able chair hold­ing a heavy key be­tween fin­ger and thumb, which will clat­ter to the floor when you nod off, wak­ing you up so you can re­mem­ber what you were dream­ing about.

We need to sleep on it but also, it seems, dream on it. But if dreams are point­ers to our prob­lems, or po­ten­tial so­lu­tion to prob­lems, or even a source of cre­ativ­ity, then maybe we can talk about them... some­times?

Whether any­one is pre­pared to lis­ten will de­pend on how well you are telling the story – but surely, most of the time, they’ll be more in­ter­est­ing than cat sto­ries? +

Span­ish sur­re­al­ist Sal­vador Dali re­lied upon dreams to in­spire his art.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.