The meaning of dreams

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Jack kerouacJack Kerouac woke up most mornings in the 1950s and scribbled into a bedside notebook what he could remember of his dreams. Characters from his novels interacted with fantasies and real life events. The result was eventually published in 1961 as his Book of Dreams; 184 pages of mostly spontaneous or stream-of-consciousness writing, as this excerpt shows:

WALKING THROUGH SLUM SUBURBS of Mexico City I’m stopped by smiling threesome of cats who’ve disengaged themselves from the general fairly crowded evening street of brown lights, coke stands, tortillas-Unmistakably going to steal my bag-I struggled a little, gave up-Begin communicating with them my distress and in fact do so well they end up just stealing parts of my stuff! We walk off leaving the bag with someone-arm in arm like a gang to the downtown lights of Letran, across a field-

I was browsing through Kerouac’s book this week, looking for common themes that overlapped his and my own dreams. After all, there are dream elements that have been reported so often they’re considered part of the human experience: falling, being chased, flying, being naked in public (the latter, I’m sure, is every politician’s dream…).

I admire Kerouac’s efforts to make sense out of what is normally an incoherent jumble of images, actions and ideas. Kerouac, though, seems to have woven his dreams into his wealth of stories, continuing them in his sleep. I can’t tell, however, if in his recording he embellished the dreams with thoughts and memories of his own stories. Some seem like drafts for a novel or those deleted scenes in the feature section of a DVD. As he wrote himself:

“In the Book of Dreams I just continue the same story but in the dreams I had of the real-life characters I always write about.”

Some people remember their dreams, others don’t. Most mornings I can recall fragments of mine, sometimes entire narratives, like Kerouac did. Some mornings they are just snippets that evaporate quickly as I go about the day. A rare few I can recall past the morning, rarer still those that stick with me over the years (and most of those are from childhood, when my brain was more elastic and open).

Sometimes I have lucid dreams, too; dreams when I know I’m dreaming. Dreams in which I’m not only the actor but the director. Sometimes in those dreams I struggle to awaken. Nightmares? Not so much; I had them when I was a child, and still recall a few rather vividly, but few trouble my sleep these days. Night terrors? None, at least none I can recall.

Other people – Susan is one – forget their dreams immediately on awakening and often claim they don’t dream. But we do, all of us, every night. It’s in our biology. Kerouac, in his foreword wrote, “The fact that everybody in the world dreams every night ties all mankind together.” But is recalling your dream a genetic fluke or some survival technique?

What do dreams mean? Do they mean anything?

For millennia, dreams were translated by oracles and priests. Often some element of prophecy or prediction was involved, quite often a post facto interpretation, a sort of “I told you so” explanation. Caligula’s dream of being kicked our of heaven by Jupiter was later determined to be a forewarning of his subsequent assassination. It’s a lot easier to use hindsight to ascribe a meaning to something that is open to a wide range of interpretations.

Herodotus, for example, describes the dream of King Croesus in which his son is killed:

…he had a dream in the night, which foreshowed him truly the evils that were about to befall him in the person of his son. For Croesus had two sons, one blasted by a natural defect, being deaf and dumb; the other, distinguished far above all his co-mates in every pursuit. The name of the last was Atys. It was this son concerning whom he dreamt a dream that he would die by the blow of an iron weapon. When he woke, he considered earnestly with himself, and, greatly alarmed at the dream, instantly made his son take a wife, and whereas in former years the youth had been wont to command the Lydian forces in the field, he now would not suffer him to accompany them. All the spears and javelins, and weapons used in the wars, he removed out of the male apartments, and laid them in heaps in the chambers of the women, fearing lest perhaps one of the weapons that hung against the wall might fall and strike him.

But as you can imagine, Atys could not escape his fate. While prohibited from war, he is allowed to go on a boar hunt where he is accidentally stabbed by a compatriot’s spear. He dies of his wound, and then the friend commits suicide. A real dream by historical character? Or a morality tale Herodotus spins to underscore his own belief in fate, the will of the gods and the honour of friends?

Most likely the latter, given Herodotus’ tendencies to throw tall tales into his histories. Herodotus also recounts the dream of King Astyages where his daughter Mandane urinates until all of Asia is flooded. That, we learn later, was a prophecy of the rise of Cyrus. great leaders are often – later – said to have been prophesized by dreams.

Similarly, the Bible is replete with dreams and visions, mostly in the Old Testament, some of which are recast in the New Testament to justify elements of the Christian story. Post facto, again, of course, sometimes with the help of editors.

It’s a fairly common to find in ancient records dreams used to justify or rationalize or explain later events. Homer speaks of Penelope’s dream of her husband’s return in the Odyssey, and of King Agamemnon’s dream of war in the Iliad, both of which are used to confirm later events.

I tried to look up some other historical “prophetic” dreams online but quickly slipped into the Net’s quagmire of quackery. Many so-called prophetic dreams are mentioned without any valid source attribution, so they can’t be taken as factual (and not surprisingly, the sites where they can be located are usually selling some service or book). There is way too much flim-flammery online.

Sigmund Freud wrote his book about interpreting dreams in 1899, stating all dreams are wish fulfillment. His student, Carl Jung, went well past his mentor. Jung thought dreams had their own language, an ancestral, symbolic language derived from the collective unconscious, and thus dreams contained valuable content, but separate from our waking selves.

While not entirely convinced of Jung’s theories, dreams often seem to contain content that fits well into his ideas, and the later Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle. Or the basic seven plots theory. It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether we are projecting conscious interpretations onto our memories of dreams. We recall and analyse dreams using our waking self, which tries to ascribe substance to things that may not have any. Like pareidolia: our minds manufacture meaning where none exists.

Books about dream symbols and images abound, even today, part of the history-long fascination with the supernatural and our innate superstition. Our search for meaning allows con artists to make money “interpreting” the dreams of the gullible, just like astrologers and “psychic” scammers do. You can read all sorts of New Age bafflegab online like this:

…there are those dreams that have a mystical and special characteristic to them which are for your spiritual development and progress. They produce instant knowledge and information that is beyond your ability to garner through intellectual or logical means.

Well, no they don’t produce instant anything. In fact, the act of translating the dream’s images into articulate language constrains and redefines a dream so that it no longer functions as such. Your waking mind disassembles and reconstructs them along waking logic lines, like capturing soap bubbles in a jar. They are not the same when written down or spoken of as they were when dreamed. 

Dreams don’t mean anything like your waking self conjures up: they are the result of your still active neurons firing more or less at random while you sleep. Sort of like those static electricity wheels you had in your high school classrooms. Sparks flying out like wild arcs of energy, but no voltage to speak of. They don’t develop from the sort of logic or reason that your conscious mind operates under. Your ancient reptile brain, buried deep under its mammalian camouflage, comes to life for its nightly walkabout with the brain stem:

It was found that REM is generated by a small region of cells located in the brain stem called the pons (it sits slightly above the spinal cord at the nape of the neck). The pons releases acetylcholine which travels to parts of the forebrain. Cholinergic activation of these higher areas was thought to result in the meaningless images that make up our dreams. This process is switched off by noradrenaline and serotonin which are also released by the brain stem.

Dreams are, in essence, brain farts: a natural process of clearing out the intellectual gas. As it also notes on Wikipedia:

Two researchers have postulated that dreams have a biological function, where the content requires no analysis or interpretation, that content providing an automatic stimulation of the body’s physiological functions underpinning the human instinctive behavior. So dreams are part of the human, and animal, survival and development strategy.

That doesn’t mean dreams have no value: many great ideas have come from remembered dreams. Wikipedia has a similar list. Many of us have had the experience of awakening with an idea that the day before had seemed problematic, but “sleeping on it” brought the solution. I myself have awoken many times – sometimes in the middle of the night – with wording and content for articles or books that I had struggled to assemble the day before. As it notes on WebMD:

A good night’s sleep helps your mind process what you encountered during the day so you can efficiently utilize the information later. But it’s also essential for bringing in new information in the first place. A University of California, Berkeley study found that getting adequate shut-eye before learning helps recharge our brains and makes them ready to take on new information. Sanna describes this process by comparing bits of information to pieces of paper, and the brain to a series of filing cabinets. “Different pieces of paper are filed in different portions of the brain, and the pathways to access those different files are consolidated [during] sleep,” he says.

I suppose that I’m a dream atheist: I don’t believe they offer any deep insight or meaning. They are entertainment, with no greater validity, no greater depth than astrology. But I still enjoy mulling them over for the brief moments they remain with me on awakening.

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