Dream studies are in a difficult situation for a host of reasons. As a phenomena, dreams are simply troubling. They”re downright inhospitable from about every possible angle for researchers, scientists, and regular folks who just want to understand what happens to them when they go to sleep every night. On top of that, our culture ignores dreams, or otherwise demonizes them, so finding answers is not easy.
Dreams are slippery. We hardly remember them. When we do, it seems like someone else’s memory, or like looking down the bottom of a well into a murky reflection. Not only that, but dreams are tricky. They poke at our soft spots, precisely when we let our guard down to go to sleep. Old memories, ex-lovers, dead people and weird creatures populate our night. Unfamiliar people and empty hallways are the norm, along with occasional bursts of joy and visits to our childhood homes. Dreams are absurb jokes, but nobody lets us in on the punch-line.
But in the dream, we go along for the ride. We are the punch line. It’s completely natural that we”re talking to a bird-headed centurion. We”re slightly bored to be back in elementary school, eating in the cafeteria. Even if we”re in a heated argument with our dead grandfather, or being pelted with fruitdrops by howler monkeys (true story), we accept it.
This is the first mystery of dreaming: that as strange as they may seem to us when we wake up, we are perfectly content with the experience as it happens.
Scientists link this trait of dreaming to the dampening of brain activity associated with critical thinking, self-awareness, and volition. Another, complimentary, way to see the “anything goes” quality of dreaming is that we”re more open to the imaginal realm, which we keep in check during our waking lives. Past, future and present mingle in unlikely combination. We remember things that never happened. Even the boundaries between our selves and the world around us are in flux.
Joseph Campbell wrote that dreams are private myths, and myths are public dreams. I believe there’s a part of ourselves that always has belonged in the dreamworld. That’s why we accept the bizarreness of it all; after all, we”ve been coming here every night for our entire life. A part of us knows that the world works differently in this place.
And we are not who we think we are.
The next installment digs deeper into how we define dreaming.