What’s The Deal With Dreams?

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

Last Saturday Thisbe dreamt about steak. The night before, she had learned that that’s what they’d be serving at brunch, and as we headed over to Silliman she told me about her experience staring at three pieces of steak scattered across a table. I asked her what she thought the dream meant. “I dunno,” she said, stopping to think. “Probably that I wanted steak.”

But was Thisbe’s dream really about steak? I consulted DreamGlossary.com and found out that dreams of eating steak mean that your earnings will increase and that you will have less free time. (This is distinct from dreams about buying steak, which mean you will have problems at work, and dreams about grilling steak, which mean that you are doubting your partner). I had my own theories, too. What if the dream reflected a desire for simple comforts amidst a high-stress college environment? Or what if each of those three pieces represented a person from our friend group: me, Thisbe, and Salif? What if it reflected no desire at all—in other words, what if it was a completely and utterly random occurrence, and any relation it had to real-world happenings was merely coincidental? 

Thisbe’s dream might seem to obviously be about steak, but if we accept this conclusion, we must also accept its implications: that dreams are reliable reflections of our psychological interiors. If that is the case, how do we explain the absurdity of so many other dreams? Is there a consistent means of analysis to back up statements along the lines of this dream means such-and-such?

John Bargh, a professor in the Department of Psychology who studies the unconscious, does not think so. He explains that, as humans, we tend to trust “anything coming in naturally and easily” as fact. We also trust information that is consistent with what we already think (e.g., that Thisbe wanted steak), and for that reason we are prone to finding significance in our dreams where there might not be any (e.g., concluding that Thisbe’s dream was directly caused by a desire for steak). “People used to think that dreams were like God talking to us,” Bargh said. “We didn’t produce them. Anything that comes from our mind that we didn’t do is seen as either supernatural or something from the outside.”

Meir Krygar, an expert on sleep and emeritus professor of medicine, adds that new research on the brain suggests that dreaming is more of a biological process than a psychological one: dreaming, he said, might consist of “random firing of centers in the brain.” It seems highly likely that most dreams are just accidental byproducts of the various duties of the brain while we are asleep. 

That being said, neither Bargh nor Krygar deny the effects that real-life thoughts and experiences may have on dreams. Dreams are often a medium for the brain to work on unresolved problems. With this in mind, it seems less far-fetched to say that Thisbe’s dream about steak stemmed from an actual desire for steak—her brain could have been working out the problem of craving steak and not having any. 

Besides, it is disheartening to think that our dreams could mean nothing at all. Even if we cannot always attribute them to a particular, deeper psychological phenomenon, it is certainly worth examining dreams as distinct sensory and emotional experiences. Kryger walked me through a brief survey of dreams in art. Most striking to me was Dalí’s “Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate.” The painting depicts the common experience of having a dream that ends with a noise that wakes you up. “It’s like a warping of time,” said Kryger. The line between the waking and dreaming life blurs in these moments. Sensory information is being processed in two existences at once, raising questions about how the human mind deals with external stimuli in general.

Over the past week, I have collected a variety of dreams from friends and acquaintances. I view these as proof of the human brain’s exquisite, deeply moving, and sometimes alarming sense of imagination when left unregulated by self-consciousness and social convention. 

Mattie’s dreams are almost always apocalyptic. Bella’s dreams often involve some of our other friends: she has dreamt that Eve’s dad was famous and that Bron tried to kill her. Bella has also dreamt that she accidentally killed her sister, Julia. Julianne once dreamt that Joni Mitchell tried to run after her in a pink jumpsuit. Inika dreamt that it snowed in the Natural History Museum.

Serin told me about a recurring dream she has in which she is running away from the Mad Hatter in a world made of paper. In this dream, she is a bunny, accompanied by two other bunnies that she suspects are her mom and brother. I wondered if this meant that Serin is afraid of losing herself in the world of fantasy. 

A few people offered more vivid recollections. Jocelyn had a nightmare when she was about eight. She was in a magnificent old toy store. It was warm, and the shelves holding the toys were all made of warm wood. She was with her friends and parents. But when she went to the bathroom the setting was no longer warm and wooden. The floors were made of metal and the lighting was harsh. In that bathroom, she found a man in a fuzzy green sweater waiting to kill her. “Something about the fuzzy green sweater always stuck with me,” she said.

Jared told me about four dreams that he had that I felt merited an article by themselves. I was particularly intrigued by the third one. He dreamt that he had a tree growing inside him. In his dream this was a terminal illness. Over the course of the dream he had to come to terms with dying, and speaking about it with his family and friends. “They tried to fix it at some point, but it didn’t work,” he told me. “I could tell because when they did an x-ray all the leaves were falling off.”

John Bargh told me he could talk for hours about lucid dreaming. As a young adult he and his sister read and re-read a popular fantasy book in which characters could access an alternate reality through their dreams. The siblings tried it out for themselves. With a little practice, they found that they were able to enter their dreams and do everything they wanted to. In the end they stopped out of a fear they would not be able to leave. 

The best dream I ever heard is one that my friend Aemilia had in middle school. One morning she told me that she had dreamt that we were sitting on a raspberry listening to jazz. Perfect. 

No one really knows what to do with their dreams. Most people don’t do much with them at all. We wake up, move on, and begin another day. There is usually no practical reason to think about our dreaming. After all, dreams aren’t real. Underlying this thought is the assumption that only the intentional exercise of personal agency has an effect on waking life. Anything that has no direct relation to other human beings may as well disappear unnoticed. 

But what about that lingering memory of steak? Are these vivid and solitary experiences really so distinct from our own selfhood just because we didn’t choose to have them, or because no one saw them but us? I would like to think that the workings of the unregulated mind, whether blissful or terrifying, are important components of human life. I believe that all aspects of human life are worthy of our attention, or at the very least our curiosity.

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