Perchance to Dream

some rambling thoughts on dreams

Please tell me you dreams.

I know others may have asked you not to, or made snide remarks about how boring it is, or think that dreams are pointless. But I disagree, so please tell me your dreams.

Dreams are the great mystery that we all constantly live with. Earth’s ocean depths are may be less explored than space— but dreams are the uncharted waters neurology and psychology. And while some may assert that your brain is just doing some rapid-fire processing or that neurons are just doing their thang, you would be lying if you didn’t feel that dreams were significant, even if you can’t logically explain why. According to lore, dreams have affected the world in huge ways— from Joseph and the Pharaoh saving Egypt from famine, to Mary Shelley inventing science fiction with Frankenstein, to Muhammad’s Night Journey, to scientific discoveries ranging from the periodic table to DNA’s double helix. And on a smaller scale, dreams can affect our mood and alter our realities and memories, and blur our understanding of truth.

I have long been obsessed with the idea that chaos and the surreal make more sense than any explanation for the meaning of life. This is nihilistic to a degree, but I find it immensely joyous. Accepting that life cannot be explained opens up a world of color and randomness and excitement. To me, it’s a full-circle effect: accepting the absurdity of life means you can then find happiness in absurdity itself, because that’s where solidarity and shared experience then reside. It’s why we laugh when things get worse and take coincidence in stride and delight in randomness.

And it’s why dreams are so endlessly fascinating to me. Our brains, when left to their own devices, don’t seek out meaning as we consciously understand it. Instead, they dive into the surreal and inexplicable. And by doing so, they often feel more truthful than reality.

My interest in dreams first became an obsession when I was in Junior High. One night, I had a vivid dream where I opened my locker and found a plastic bag full of rotting meat. The dream wasn’t disturbing, per say, but curious. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days, so eventually I found a dream dictionary online and tried to see if I could figure something out. The explanation was simple— rotting meat represented a degradation of your psychology. At the time, I was dealing with severe anxiety and depression. It made sense.

Obviously, I took this with a grain of salt. Dream interpretations, like horoscopes and Tarot and Magic 8 Balls, do more to help you figure out your own thoughts than reveal anything new. But the fact that other people have dreamt commonly enough about rotting meat for it to be on a website was fascinating in and of itself. There are many dreams that are a common experience— being naked in a public space, missing a test or class, falling, and losing teeth are probably the most widely experienced. And these common unconscious experiences can feel like a shared consciousness.

The idea of shared dreams gets more interesting the more specific it is. My mother and her siblings often have dreams of discovering new rooms in their houses. I and many of my friends have had nightmares about trying to keep younger siblings safe. There was a period of time when other people told me— a relatively nice and decent person, I think— that they had dreams about me in which I was simply awful, most often that I was in a relationship with their significant other. I recently had a dream where my roommate B., one of the kindest people I know, went out of her way to mock me when I hosted a screening of The Third Man. When I told her this, she said that people consistently have dreams about her being cruel. These threads of similarities hint at another plane, a through-the-looking-glass existence with limited access.

Dreams also appear to exist outside of time and space as we understand it. I often have dreams where my siblings are still children while I maintain my age, and time become fluid as dreams seem to speed up or slow down to their own accord. Some locations I consistently dream about— my high school, college, or Disneyland— certainly don’t appear as they do in real life, but somehow maintain a consistency across my dreams. I return to those dream landscapes rather than reinvent them.

This all makes it seem that we, as conscious souls, are in some way separate from what happens in our brains. Dreams happen to us, and unless you are gifted with the ability to lucid dream, we have no control over them. Like with mental illness, you feel a disassociation between yourself and your brain— and this means your brain can be an antagonist.

This reverberates through film, especially horror. There’s Nightmare on Elm Street and its dream-invading serial killer. There’s the chilling episode of The Twilight Zone, “Perchance to Dream,” where a man is convinced that if he falls asleep his dreams will kill him. There’s the representation of sleep paralysis in The Haunting of Hill House and the specter of the Bent-neck Lady. Even Eraserhead and its “baby” could qualify. In each of these, dreams become a manifestation of anxiety and fear. Being a person with vast amounts of anxiety myself, I find these nightmares comforting rather than terrifying. Anxiety itself is such an unwieldy, amorphous beast that merely putting a form to it can make it feel more manageable, and processing reality in the safety fo dream-space seems like a wonderful tool. This concept is beautifully expressed in “Wake Up and Dream” from Radiolab, wherein a man is haunted by a recurring dream until he learns how to confront it.

Of course that goes both ways— meaning, dreams can also bleed over into reality. I find nothing quite as delicious as that weird sense of deja-vu I get when I remember a dream halfway through the day— but that can quickly turn to embarrassment when it catches you off-guard, or you mistake a dream for a memory. And dreams can be far more intrusive! Comedian Mike Birbiglia’s album Sleepwalk With Me is a hilarious and touching account of a sleep disorder that upended his life.

Admittedly, what I’ve written doesn’t add up to much beyond a collection of reasons why I love dreams. Dreams are, ultimately, a mystery, despite minor advancements in dream science that give us a clue into what our brains are up too. Given how subjective the dream experience is, and that it literally happens in our own heads, I don’t see any major advancements in dream science happening anytime soon.

If I were to summarize my thoughts on dreams, and why I am so obsessed with them, I would simply say, “they’re weird!” But that’s exactly it. Life is weird, but it’s rare that we allow it to stay that way. Things get organized and sorted out and analyzed and cleaned up. Ambiguity is tossed out the window in favor explanation and interpretation. Dreams, on the other hand, stay weird. They stay unexplained and goofy and nonsensical and because of that often feel like a concentration of life and all the silliness that goes with it. It’s that absurdity to meaning circle I wrote about above.

So, anyway… please tell me your dreams.