The Stuff Of Dreams
by Erin Anderssen
For 22 years, while Norman Gulko slept, his dreaming brain went on dates with his late wife. Her name was Flo, and they had been married more than three decades when cancer claimed her life in the summer of 1980. Two weeks later, she showed up in his dreams. She was standing in profile, her brown eyes young again, urging him to be happy.
Mr. Gulko had never much bothered with the scenes that ran through his head at night. Now he starting writing them on numbered scraps of paper he’d file away. He didn’t want to lose them.
“I was thrilled to see her,” he said. “It was a real love affair between us, and I wanted to hold on to the moment.”
While he grieved, the dreams kept coming: Flo raising her lips for a kiss, or holding his hand, or nestled in the crook of his arm in the backseat of a car. She looked beautiful, even when the dreaming Norman knew she was ill. Sometimes, she was just a presence in a room while he occupied himself with a chore; he spent other dreams fruitlessly searching for her.
One night in April, 1993, when he was tossing in bed over an upcoming medical test, his dream found them standing together in a field, and Flo placed her hand gently on his pounding heart. That one, Dream No. 80, he would mull over for days: Could her spirit have visited, or did he just want to think she did?
In all, he had 150 dreams of Flo. And then on, Aug. 8, 2002, he dreamt that she came wearily home from the hospital, hugged him and asked for a cup of tea. He went to brew it, and woke up in his bed. That was last time he remembers dreaming about her. Now 81, having accepted that he may never have another, he feels grateful for the comfort the dreams offered. “I am very glad I had them.”
Adult human beings are believed to dream for more than two hours every night.
In the average lifetime, that’s roughly six years wandering naked or chased by shadows or bringing loved ones to life, all the while nestled safely in our beds. American dream researcher Robert Stickgold described it as a nightly bout of clinical insanity.
Studies tell us what human beings, as a species, most commonly conjure in that madness — misfortune more than fortune, attacks more than affection, humiliation more than glory.
Neuroscientists can point to the parts of our brains that are busy churning out those dreams. But 50 years since REM sleep was discovered, and heralded as the new door to the unconscious, research has yet to crack the reason why we dream in the first place.
Could these fuzzy nighttime movies simply be random “fireworks” in the brain with no real life-sustaining purpose, a kind of biological white noise to get us through the night? Or do we need them — and should we become more skilled at using them — to learn and remember, to reconcile our darkest secrets, our deepest griefs?
“Dreams are like smoke,” said Mr. Gulko. “When you try to grab them, they just sort of disappear into the air.”
Scientists have made the same frustrating discovery. Faced with declining funding and the pitfalls of a research area that must rely largely on the recall of groggy subjects prodded awake in the middle of the night, only a small group of full-time, genuinely scientific and professional dream chasers remain.
Meanwhile, the Internet has fostered whole communities of people who debate and ponder their dreams. Dream dictionaries, churned out by the dozens, will tell you that a tidal wave means emotional upheaval, that rats symbolize poverty and filth, but rabbits running on grass is a good omen.
Technology also has hopped into the dream business. In California, a scientist-turned-seminar-instructor named Stephen La Berge will sell you a mask called the Nova Dreamer for $500 (U.S.). It is designed to emit flashing red light during REM sleep to alert users to the fact that they are dreaming, purportedly so they can manipulate the events. The tag line: “Stop sleeping through your dreams.”
Next month, a Japanese toy company starts selling the Dream Workshop, which claims to allow people to choose — using mood music, photos and recorded prompts — the subjects of their dreams before they doze off.
It sells for $200, and for the near future is available only in Japan. Even the manufacturers don’t claim it works more than 20 per cent of the time — one employee who wanted to play for Japan in the World Cup reportedly ended up dreaming about watching the game at home alone with a bowl of chips.
Some might argue that we shouldn’t go messing around with our dreams. Even setting aside psychoanalysis founder Sigmund Freud’s century-old claim that dreams are repressed sexual desires (although Freud’s admirers emphasize that is only part of the theory), most of us would probably accept that dreams whisper some kind of message, if only that we’ve been stressing out too much at the office.
Even in these modern, secular times, dream conferences draw people who believe the soul is transported to another plane of existence while we sleep. But it’s that blend of mysticism and reality, the chance that dreams might hold the key to human consciousness, that keeps scientists searching.
Said Antti Revonsuo, a researcher at the University of Turku in Finland: “How does the brain make this kind of miracle happen that neural activity is transformed into a subjective experience, of colour and objects and emotions?”
One popular story places Paul McCartney on a May morning in 1965, waking up with a tune that his brain had composed while he slept. Convinced he had heard it somewhere else, he went hunting for its origin. But the melody was his own creation, born apparently of a dream — and Yesterday eventually became the most played and recorded song of all time.
Similarly, American inventor Elias Howe said he figured out where to put the eye of the needle in the first sewing machine after dreaming of men with spears.
But most dreams are the sort of everyday scenario that interests the dreamer alone. The evidence is convincing that dreams, however bizarre, and for reasons hotly debated, are a nighttime retelling of our daytime living.
Decades of sorting through laboratory recollections and dream journals have revealed that the most commonly shared themes — falling, flying, fleeing — are surprisingly consistent across generations and between cultures.
Content analysis has reached a consensus on format: Dreams, at least the ones we remember, are more likely to be negative in mood than positive. They are set most often in the present, believed to happen in real time and, the Dream Workshop notwithstanding, have proved generally impervious to outside influence — as researchers found in one study when they taped open the eyes of sleeping patients and showed them objects to try to shape their dreams.
Aggression, in general, is a more frequent storyline of men than women, and more often the subject of American dreams than, say, Swedish ones. And contrary to myth, you can die in your dreams with no real-life consequences — people have reported being blown to pieces and then sleeping peacefully until morning.
But most of our dreams are lost. The average person remembers only one dream every two or three days, although with a little practice, and pre-sleep concentration — just telling yourself “I will remember my dream” — dreamers can significantly boost their recall.
It is rare, but lab experiments have captured people having “lucid dreams,” in which they become aware they are dreaming, and may even manipulate the dream. This is not a common occurrence, and has its own limitations; Tore Nielsen, director of the Dream and Nightmare lab at Montreal’s Sacré-Coeur Hospital, says lucid dreamers have trouble getting off the ground when they try to fly and, in one experiment, were unable to kill themselves. In those cases, the gun misfires or the leap off of a cliff ends in an easy landing, as if the brain steps in with its own bodyguard.
While the harvesting of dreams continues, neuroscientists have tried to resolve, at least, the mechanics of dreaming. In 1953, a pair of researchers discovered rapid eye movement, the stage of sleep that cycles around roughly every 90 minutes, when the brain becomes as busy as it is during the day. The discovery launched a new line of dream research.
In those early experiments, when the lab subjects were awakened during REM sleep, they were significantly more likely to recall their dreams, than in earlier stages of the night, and the dreams themselves were more vivid and lasted longer. The theory evolved that dreams and REM were synonymous.
And if dreams were the byproduct of a preprogrammed automatic process, generated out of the brain stem — the part of the brain that keeps the body running but serves no higher mental function — then Freudian or psychoanalytic theories that dreams were thoughtful and motivated fell apart.
But in the mid-1980s, a South African researcher named Mark Solms began to study the dream patterns of brain-injury patients, and found a different answer.
First of all, he found subjects who did not dream but had REM sleep, and others who had no REM sleep but dreamed, all depending on the nature of their brain damage. He also found evidence that the motivational parts of the brain were necessary for dreaming.
As the research set off in a new direction, brain scans offered a clearer picture. It is now accepted that human beings dream throughout the night. The creative cores of our brains, controlling our desires and emotions, stay busy; our executive offices, the planning, reflective and scheming sections, go off line. It explains why, one researcher suggested, our first instinct is to run when we see a werewolf in our dreams rather than question the existence of werewolves.
But all this research has left the big question dangling: Why do we dream at all? Theories abound, hotly contested. Rosalind Cartwright, a Canadian researcher who has studied the dreams of depressed subjects, proposes that we dream as a form of therapy, to work through the issue troubling us.
Dr. Revonsuo, in Finland, has developed a “threat-simulation” theory that dreams (particularly attack or chase dreams) are rehearsals the brain runs to prepare for danger, an evolutionary remnant from the days when human beings lived in caves and had to worry about being eaten by wild beasts.
Other scientists believed the dreams may foster learning and consolidate memory. A few years ago, Dr. Stickgold at Harvard Medical School monitored the dreams of people learning to play the video game Tetris for the first time. In the game, players have to fit falling blocks into a geometrical pattern. By the second night, those falling blocks began to show up in the dreams of a majority of the participants, even those suffering from amnesia, who had no memory of the game itself.
Around the same time, researchers at MIT discovered the brain activity of rats running mazes was exactly duplicated when the rodents were sleeping — which suggested that animals dream, while bolstering the theory that dreams are a mental tool to rehearse new skills.
Another study at Trent University observed people who were asked to perform a rotor pursuit task, in which they had to keep a pencil between two zigzagging parallel lines. The subjects who performed best, reported dreams about cars that swerved off roads, or jogs that landed them in ditches — as though perhaps the brain were practising an unfamiliar skill in a familiar environment.
“Our brains tend to put us in difficult positions,” speculates Dr. Nielsen. And perhaps that is the point: The brain is generating its own errors to figure out how to correct them.
But these are only theories. Other research suggests that dreams may be more like the appendix of the brain — they don’t do much harm, but neither are they necessary.
California researcher William Domhoff spent his life cataloguing dream content; 40 years in, he has decided that dreams, while useful to an individual who chooses to listen to them, serve no real biological purpose — that if we stopped dreaming today, the quality of our lives and sleep would not decline.
Dr. Domhoff cites the case of a young Israeli man who stopped dreaming almost completely after a shrapnel injury to his head, and went on to graduate from law school, with no apparent memory or reasoning deficiencies.
He points to the work of David Foulkes, who analyzed hundreds of dreams from children between 3 and 11, and discovered they didn’t dream often, and when they did, not very well. If dreaming is a function of learning and remembering, he asked, then how could children not be better dreamers?
Critics like Dr. Domhoff suggest that researchers continue to mistake REM — a widely accepted memory booster — with dreams, which may just be a byproduct of brain activity, like the smoke, as Dr. Solms puts it, from a warming fire.
Ongoing research, Dr. Solms says, will try to pin down an explanation for the smoke — with MRI experiments studying dreams outside REM sleep, and continued work exploring the functional abilities of non-dreamers.
Dr. Solms’s own theory is that dreams result when the brain can’t physically act out its still active motivations. But that only leads to another door he can’t open: Why do the motivational parts of the brain bother staying busy in sleep?
Still, in some way, the question of why we dream is too simplistic. Drs. Domhoff and Solms agree that, even if dreams eventually are proved to have no function, humanity has certainly found a purpose for them, in religion and culture and personal introspection.
“It’s not one of medical science’s great necessities that everybody’s dreams should be interpreted,” says Dr. Solms. “But I do think there is reason in them. It’s perfectly plausible that you will find something about a person’s concerns, interests and desires.”
Some researchers challenge why we even feel the need to ask the question — do we waste time debating the purpose of waking thought?
For many dreamers, like Norman Gulko, it matters not whether dreams exist to resolve our personal trauma or simply mirror, by some fortunate accident, the state of our conscious minds. It is not about brain function and neural networks. It is enough just to revel in the magic of a dream, and take what you can from it.
Erin Anderssen is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.
Science may be uncertain about the purpose of dreams, but that hasn’t stopped us from obsessing over them and doing our best to uncover their hidden messages — the objects of centuries of study, and hours of therapy. The Globe and Mail asked four analysts from different schools of thought to offer rough interpretations of actual dreams, within the limits possible without talking to the dreamers. Here is what they said:
1: Lost tooth
Single, female, 33, no children
I have several variations on this dream. I have it a lot. It involves me in front of a mirror over the bathroom sink discovering a loose tooth. And then it comes out in my hand. There’s a lot of blood, and I get very panicked, not over the blood, but because I’m worried about how I will look with a missing tooth. It’s usually this feeling of a terrible loss that can’t be undone (it never occurs to me that a dentist can fix it like new — it’s gone for good). Sometimes I realize it’s just a dream, but I still get panicky. I’m sure it’s something related to vanity because there’s always a mirror. Sometimes it happened as an offshoot of an entirely different dream — and then I’m in front of the mirror losing the tooth.
Layne Dalfen, founder of the Dream Interpretation Centre, Montreal : It is very important to listen to the language of the dreamer, where you’ll often find the clues to the dream’s meaning. Often dreams that have something going on around the mouth may point to something the dreamer wants to “come out with” — or the dream is reflecting something they already did come out with.
This dreamer is concerned about how she might look once she expresses herself, and as she says, there is a feeling of a terrible loss as if it “can’t be undone.” True. Once you come out with something, you might be able to reword what you have said or to apologize (her dentist metaphor), but you definitely can’t put the words back in your mouth. As she says herself, “It’s gone for good.”
Doug Frayn, Toronto psychoanalyst , author of Understand your Dreams: A Guide to Self Awareness : This dream has to do with the fear of loss of something that is irreplaceable — often loss of teeth represents losing a baby (miscarriage) or fertility concerns. This 33-year-old, single dreamer relates it to vanity, but the mirror may also indicate that she is just observing herself rather than taking charge of her life.
Tuula Haukioja, Jungian analyst , Toronto: Metaphorically, we use our teeth to digest our experiences. The blood is symbolic both of life and death. In this case, I think the mirror is referring to self-reflection. If the dreamer were to look at what’s happening around at the time she had the dreams, she would probably be able to connect it to ways that her self-image is being threatened.
Maryanne Alvero , co-owner, Globe Psychics, Barrie, Ont. : This is an insightful person who reflects reality, not a fantasy of herself. She will find a passion, although she is also concerned about loss of vitality or creativity if it is actualized. She seeks an honest insight and to break through any negative inner dialogue.
2: Deflated baby
Single, female, 32, PhD candidate
I had a dream that I had a baby and it deflated in the heat of the sun. I tried to re-inflate it and it came back to life, but it just wasn’t the same any more — like a wicked thing from a horror film. “Poor baby,” I thought. “Poor wretched baby.” I felt puzzled and a bit saddened at the baby’s fate.
Layne Dalfen: Here’s a situation that might bring on a dream like this. Say the dreamer is in a relationship with a man. The relationship needs “tending to,” like all relationships do. He ends the relationship. She feels responsible for the end of it. She feels she didn’t “look after” him well enough. The relationship has “deflated,” it died. She tries to make amends to him, and she is able to convince him to give it a go again, but “it just wasn’t the same any more — like a wicked thing from a horror film.”
Dr. Frayn: This student dreamer says she felt “a bit saddened” by the deflation of her baby! What an understatement! The sun is a nourishing divine maternal object usually, rather than a depriving deflator/devourer of babies. This might indicate concerns about being able to nurture herself or others in any healthy way and fearing only having a false or destructive self available to love or be loved.
Tuula Haukioja: Symbolically, babies can be anything that’s new, a new potential, an idea, a relationship. When there’s a new idea in the air, we get a bit inflated. Just like you wouldn’t actually put a baby into the full sunlight, that [new circumstance] needs nurturing. But it seems like the dreamer might not be too aware of what the problem might be; on one hand there’s a great need to use the intellect to shine and control, at the same time there’s a complete helplessness, it’s “fate.” You need to really honour new things in life the way you would newborn babies.
Maryanne Alvero: This is a positive symbol of upcoming change, good news and the letting-go of old childish ways. The sun signifies the opening of creativity — in life and/or art itself. The dream indicates growth into the fullest potential of herself, leaving behind the ways of the past.
3: Strange gunman
Married, male, 45, one daughter
This dream recurred every night for a week: I return to my native Jamaica to visit my grandmother. Playing with kids outside her shop, I notice a man in a trench coat and fedora in the bend in the road half block from her shop. He sees that I noticed him and he begins to chase me. I run through the sugarcane fields while he chases, firing a handgun at me. I escape by slipping under a barbed wire fence that is too low for him. As the week progresses, I anticipate his arrival, adjust my route during the chase, all the while plotting to shoot him. On the last night, I am armed. The chase begins and we are firing at one another. Instead of escaping, I climb a tree at the barbed-wire fence and wait for him. He arrives, stops under the tree, pacing. I take aim and pull the trigger. The gun clicks empty. He tilts his head back, I see his face for the first time as he points his gun at me. I wake up. The dream ends.
Layne Dalfen : A dream that repeats itself during a short period of time like this one does is your healthy unconscious trying to “grab your attention” to a matter you seem to be avoiding during the day, that obviously needs tending to. In this case, the dreamer seems to be afraid of, or avoiding an aspect of himself.
Say you are unusually hard on yourself. You “shoot yourself down” all the time. Of course then there will still be a part of yourself who feels it needs defending. This is what goes on here. It is a struggle, a pressure. The dreamer is “caught,” literally. His attempt to hide from himself is foiled. The dream is a healthy one, even though filled with anxiety and anticipation. In the end, he is practicing facing himself.
Doug Frayn: This is a recurring anxiety dream, the dreamer says it took place “every night for a week” but my guess that he has had this dream or some form of it since childhood. It has many of the qualities of a post-traumatic situational dream from childhood. He visits his (grand)mother and is chased by a bigger frightening phallic (powerful, authoritative, dangerous) man such as one would usually find associated with a competitive father figure. There is competition but he is impotent to subdue his male, powerful rival and now he awaits the retribution and final defeat but he awakes rather than is killed. This means the dream will continue in some way as long as he harbours the wish to compete, without the confidence of being in the right, or adequate to assure victory. This may have to do with revisiting his home and family — reviving old family rivalries, or their present-day equivalents.
Tuula Haukioja : This fact that the dream occurs five times is really significant, really trying to make the [dreamer] aware of something he needs to deal with. When energy goes backward, it’s to kind of get at something that has been holding us back. The hopeful part of the dream is the ending. Although he is very good on his gut level, he can’t deal with the shadow figure on that level, and accomplish what he thinks he wants. Some kind of relationship with whatever this is could happen, if he does something different from what he is used to doing.
Maryanne Alvero: This dream is an integration theme. The man here seeks to integrate the more aggressive side of himself to help achieve goals more directly. He seems uncomfortable with his more direct or aggressive side, but is returning to wisdom learned in the past to allow for more direct actions toward goals.