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Your elusive dreams: Do they mean anything at all?


If dreams are the stuff of random neuronal firing, then why are they so complicated? 

“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?

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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 neuro-scientist 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 anxiety-triggering molecule noradrenalin (the brain’s equivalent of adrenalin), while activating its emotional and memory-related 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.”

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

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? 

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of North & South.