A defining point in my teenage years was discovering the works of William S Burroughs, his revolutionary approach to literature changed the lives of many people. One mistake I made early on, not by choice, was I absorbed all I could find as fast as possible. Along with the ubiquitous Naked Lunch (which addled my underdeveloped brain, I had to revisit it years later) Junky and the heady heights of Cities of the Red Night (still my favourite) I also read My Education: A book of dreams where he explores his own dreams, surely even this from the most eloquent and smack addled godfather of modern experimental writing would be mind-blowing, right? It was good, but not a doorway book for an author. The point is I was always quite obsessed with dreams, so I saw no reason at the tender age of 15 to think the book would be anything other than magnificent, I remember very little of it now, but one statement has always stayed with me and affected my life quite fundamentally. I paraphrase heavily…
“Other people’s dreams are inherently boring; they are only interesting to the dreamer in their own personal context”
Of course we are fascinated by our own dreams, it’s the inner working of our subconscious, our bodies have shut down and our minds are free to wander beyond the constraints of our banal waking lives. Naturally, upon waking from a deep sleep and having had a particularly bizarre, maybe surreal dream you feel inclined to tell someone, it’s often a good way to remember it, most dreams swiftly disappear from our fore thoughts.
“I was in a cave, the walls were moving, the walls were insects, but no insect I had ever seen before, then my first teacher was there, he told me to sit up straight, then all of a sudden I was a baby, flying over London on a magic carpet in a thunder storm, isn’t that amazing?”
Most people will have the same response, they may listen, but chances are they are drifting off into their own thoughts. Other people’s dreams are nonsense to others. I bet that when you read the title of this piece you probably yawned in the expectation I would be waxing on about some profundity I had recognised in my own sleep thoughts…
Personally, I believe the main purpose of dreaming is to organise our thoughts subconsciously, particularly thoughts that may be difficult to cope with while awake.
The human brain is still mysterious, a complex map of interconnected synapses that read signals from inside and outside our bodies, make us function physically and psychologically, control our emotions, allow us to respond to our senses, the brain is still far from fully understood by neurologists, or philosophers. With something of such complexity, does it not make sense that within its deepest recesses our thoughts can become a jumble of seemingly unconnected images and feelings, or it may recall something you’d never think about awake, or create something you’d never think of?
If my theory is correct, the ideas, feelings and images, often complex series’ of events that dreams can be makes more sense.
I don’t prescribe to dream interpretation theories, a rose means love, and a horse means progress or whatever the fuck it means. But one that I can see making sense is broken teeth in a dream means you’re anxious about something, perfectly logical that broken teeth should represent a strong feeling of stress or anxiety. There is a clear and logical psychological connection. I have certainly had dreams where no matter how much analysis has brought up zero results, I just have to assume that through the dream my brain did the work it was supposed to and filed away the necessary information. I assume that repeatedly dreaming the same dream, or on the same subject that it’s your mind still working through whatever it is that needs to be sorted out.
As a child one of my ambitions was to be a brain surgeon, I don’t remember my motivation and in hindsight it was probably just as unrealistic as my other ambitions to be a super hero or a rock star. I wasn’t aware of neuroscience at the time, but I ended up making a career out of behaviour management and educating others about behaviour management, so I kind of ended up working with the human mind in a way, I guess there was something natural about it for me. Clearly I have always had a fascination with how the mind works, this has pervaded my music and art for as long as I can remember, my alter ego as an artist is The Oneirologist, roughly translated to dream scientist. Some exhibitions of photographs had titles like Deep and Dreamless Sleep, Oneirology and Sleeping Sickness. I have also been plagued by bouts of insomnia and poor sleep, so my life has been substantially affected by sleep and dreams. As have all of our lives, but I just keep thinking about it.
It has long been thought that sleep enabled us to grow, repair our bodies, rest our bodies in preparation for the next difficult day, but recent thought has gone towards the thinking that sleep is fundamentally about repairing our minds for the difficult next day, and that we can go longer without sleep physically than previously thought, but lack of sleep affects our minds rapidly and significantly. It doesn’t take long without sleep before we become clumsy, before we forget things, before we feel like we’re in a drug-like haze, those are all to do with our brain, not our body. Even the clumsiness is related to our vestibular sense, and is more about the signals between our body and brain, not physical fatigue in the way we may think.
Therefore my theory makes sense again, without the suitable amount of sleep we don’t have a suitable amount of dreams and our brain doesn’t have the opportunity to repair and organise as it needs. I’ve met many people who say they don’t dream, which is untrue, they just don’t remember them.
You might think that a dream about flying represents some ideal; some thought of being superhuman, it may do, it may just mean you long for freedom, or it might mean you don’t give a shit about anything… I don’t like to suppose, but I am happy to accept a variety of purposes behind any sort of dream experience or imagery, your brain, not mine. We all work differently; our minds in particular are vastly different from one another. Putting aside factors of social experiences, ethnicity, and nurture and so on we still are all individuals. One individual may not choose in the waking thoughts to acknowledge thinking differently, or may not articulate it in any way, but they do. Did Neanderthals dream of flying? Had they conceptualised flying? They certainly saw birds and insects, did they wonder why they also couldn’t fly or did they accept their existence at face value? I suspect they did dream of it. I think that human evolution is largely affected by dreaming, the creation of fire and tools had to come from a primitive person’s mind conceptualising, and I believe that the ability to conceptualise, to imagine, to think is significantly related to dreaming, to our brains sorting out the abstract thoughts and bringing together for our waking mind to put into action whether it be practical like fire, or recognising why we’re angry or anxious.
Our dreams are our most deeply personal thoughts, they help us to make sense of the world internally and externally, they are important to you whether you remember them or not they are however, not important to anyone else, they’ve got their own subconscious to deal with.