I said in my last post that I would write about the dream that I had after around a week or so. In fact, it was the first of a number of dreams over the period of 6 weeks, some ‘benign’, some terrifying! I did a little research into what dreams mean and why we have them. It seemed important to set some kind of context, as other dreams will follow in future posts!
Freud once said that whether we intend it or not, we're all poets. That's because on most nights, we dream. And dreams are lot like poetry, in that in both, we express our internal life in similar ways. We conjure images; we combine incongruent elements to evoke emotion in a more efficient way than wordier descriptions can; and we use unconscious and tangential associations rather than logic to tell a story.
Freud essentially called dreams those poems we tell ourselves at night in order to experience our unconscious wishes as real. Dreams allow us to be what we cannot be, and to say what we do not say, in our more repressed daily lives. For instance, if I dream about burning my workplace down, it's probably because I want to dominate the workplace but am too nervous to admit that aggressive drive when I'm awake and trying to be nice to the people who might give me a raise.
Freud certainly had a catchy theory about dreams, but it was also limited. For him, every single dream was the picture of an unconscious wish. But people who have had boring dreams or nightmares might feel something missing from that formulation. In turn, recent theorists have tried to give a more accurate account of why we dream. In the following post, I'll list some of the current theories on why, at night, our brains tell strange stories that feel a lot like literature. I'd like to know if any of these theories resonate with you, or if you have your own belief about why we dream.
Many great literary minds were obsessed with their dreams. Samuel Coleridge wanted to write a book about dreams—that "night's dismay" which he said "stunned the coming day." Edgar Allan Poe knew dreams fed his literature, and he pushed himself to dream "dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before”. So let us explore this first dream:
5 Theories on Why We Dream:
1. We Dream to Practice Responses to Threatening Situations
Ever notice that most dreams have a blood-surging urgency to them? In dreams, we often find ourselves naked in public, or being chased, or fighting an enemy, or sinking in quicksand. In REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the brain fires in similar ways as it does when it's specifically threatened for survival. In addition to that, the part of the brain that practices motor activity (running, punching) fires increasingly during REM sleep, even though the limbs are still. Many evolutionary theorists argue that in dreams, we are actually rehearsing fight-and-flight responses, even though the legs and arms are not actually moving. They say that dreams are an evolutionary adaptation: We dream in order to rehearse behaviours of self-defence in the safety of night time isolation. In turn, get better at fight-or-flight in the real world.
2. Dreams Create Wisdom
If we remembered every image of our waking lives, it would clog our brains. So, dreams sort through memories, to determine which ones to retain and which to lose. Matt Wilson, at MIT's Center for Learning and Memory, largely defends this view. He put rats in mazes during the day, and recorded what neurons fired in what patterns as the rats negotiated the maze. When he watched the rats enter REM sleep, he saw that the same neuron patterns fired that had fired at choice turning points in the maze. In other words, he saw that the rats were dreaming of important junctures in their day. He argues that sleep is the process through which we separate the memories worth encoding in long-term memory from those worth losing. Sleep turns a flood of daily information into what we call wisdom: the stuff that makes us smart for when we come across future decisions.
3. Dreaming is Like Defragmenting Your Hard Drive
Francis Crick (who co-discovered the structure of DNA) and Graeme Mitchison put forth a famously controversial theory about dreams in 1983 when they wrote that "we dream in order to forget." They meant that the brain is like a machine that gets in the groove of connecting its data in certain ways (obsessing or defending or retaining), and that those thinking pathways might not be the most useful for us. But, when we sleep, the brain fires much more randomly. And it is this random scouring for new connections that allows us to loosen certain pathways and create new, potentially useful, ones. Dreaming is a shuffling of old connections that allows us to keep the important connections and erase the inefficient links. A good analogy here is the defragmentation of a computer's hard drive: Dreams are a reordering of connections to streamline the system.
4. Dreams Are Like Psychotherapy
But what about the emotion in dreams? Aren't dreams principally the place to confront difficult and surprising emotions and sit with those emotions in a new way? Ernest Hartmann, a doctor at Tufts, focuses on the emotional learning that happens in dreams. He has developed the theory that dreaming puts our difficult emotions into pictures. In dreams, we deal with emotional content in a safe place, making connections that we would not make if left to our more critical or defensive brains. In this sense, dreaming is like therapy on the couch: We think through emotional stuff in a less rational and defensive frame of mind. Through that process, we come to accept truths we might otherwise repress. Dreams are our nightly psychotherapy.
5. The Absence of Theory
Of course, others argue that dreams have no meaning at all—that they are the random firings of a brain that don't happen to be conscious at that time. The mind is still "functioning" insofar as it's producing images, but there's no conscious sense behind the film. Perhaps it's only consciousness itself that wants to see some deep meaning in our brains at all times.
During the night I had the first of what I describe as a ‘vivid’ dream. These are ones where I see myself clearly and what is happening around me. They will often include strong imagery and sound. This dream actually woke me up shouting! Here it is:
I was among many men aboard a ship that was full of straw bales topside and below decks. We were dressed in baggy trousers and jerkin tops – a bit like pirates. The ship was a massive wooden sailing boat with 3 large tall masts. There were also 2 women on board (they happened to be my wife Buffy and a close friend of ours called Alexis). It seemed that the captain had orders for us to sail it into a port (not sure where) and set light to the ship. We were also expected to stay on board and burn alive with it, which surprisingly enough, we all seemed relaxed to do. We were the ‘do and die’ boat. The captain looked like a very old seadog dressed in a naval type uniform and sporting a wonderful large brimmed hat. On the other hand we were all very young. Our guide to the direction of travel was a massive red star on the horizon by which we kept the bow of the ship sailing towards. A very large lion with a massive mane stood at the prow of the ship. I cannot remember if it was chained or loose. We also had a flock of hooded crows in the rigging, which were lined up straight and forward looking like a line of soldiers on parade. As we got closer to the port, the 2 women suddenly got into a lifeboat and rowed away. This caused consternation amongst the rest of us and there was a lot of grumbling. It was too late to do anything about their departure as the captain suddenly tossed a firebrand down onto the deck. The fire started almost immediately and that's when I realised that we were already in the port. There were houses all alongside the port wall and on seeing the fireboat approaching, many people started to jump out of their houses and into the water. It was at this point that I saw the man beside me on fire and screaming. I looked down and saw the flames licking around my ankles and legs but for some reason I felt no pain. I did however when the flames crept higher and were burning the flesh on my chest. I felt the pain and smelt a sickening sweet smell that was my own flesh. I started to scream with the others, and then I woke up!
My initial thoughts of what this might mean were (in no particular order):
Memories of the Wizard of Oz film– The Lion without a heart, the Straw man with no brain, the hooded crows similar to the winged black flying monkeys.
All the elementals were present – water, fire, air, and earth represented by the king of beasts. This could mean total balance in the dream.
The Hooded crows – bearing omens, superstition representatives keeping watch, second sight, guardians to take the men to the ‘other side’ when we burnt to death.
The Lion – power animal, king of beasts, royal, courage and our leader?
The 2 women – departing representing a feminine intellect that says the future alive is better that a certain demise!
Who knows, maybe you have an idea and could comment with your interpretation below?
Day 7 - Sunday
Argggh - rain again! I woke up to hear what sounded like hooves outside the door. Are there loose horses about I thought to myself? Looking carefully through the small curtains I observed deer moving down the path and into my garden - three of them! What a beautiful way to start the day and very welcome, if not a little strange, visitors. I say strange because we normally have encounters with deer at distance and away from buildings or fleetingly at night with car lights as they cross the road. These shy creatures had obviously thought that the bothy posed no threat.
Today is my Red Cross parcel day as Buffy is coming with a replenishment of fruit, vegetables and food stocks. My initial stocks are beginning to run down, so additional foodstuffs will be very welcome indeed! Despite the rain I spent part of the morning building my shelter away from the bothy, partly for night time sleeping and partly to be away from Buffy when she comes. I went off for a walk but the steady rain beat me back to my 'hide'. It rained pretty much until lunchtime when it started to ease off. Sitting in my ‘hideaway’ was a little chilly but also exciting as I waited for Buffy to arrive. She won't be able to see me, but I will her! Suddenly she arrived. I heard her before I saw her, singing down the track carrying bags of goodies. After a couple of minutes in the bothy she was off again. I caught a fleeting glimpse of her - beautiful as ever. Wow, it hit me deep in my heart how much I missed her and then she was gone.
Before I could get down to the bothy, I had another amazing encounter with some deer. As I started down through the woods I saw two small deer approaching me. They were oblivious to me. Then the lead one saw me and stopped immediately. It looked at me with deep brown eyes and ears all up pointing towards me. It was a subliminal moment. I remained perfectly still. They then just ignored me and continued on their way. They came to within 30 feet of me and another joined at the rear, slightly older with small antlers appearing. It was a reminder that if we are calm and quiet with animals they will be as well towards us.
Back at the bothy my supplies dropped off by Buffy were amazing - avocado, spinach, potatoes, carrots, bananas, tangerines and bacon with eggs - yes bacon! So, thoughtful of her to also include a beautiful loaf of brown crusted bread. I will indeed feast on this.
The rain stated in earnest again around 6pm and that's when I discovered the various places that drips managed to get through the roof of the bothy. I adjusted my kit accordingly to ensure it didn't get wet. Early to bed tonight after camembert cheese and bread (thanks darling!).