Dreams: Their personal, strange, amazing, scientific aspects
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Be they of naked strolls down school halls or of flying free over mountains, dreams hold tremendous sway over our lives. All of us dream, even if you don’t remember them. And all our lives have been touched by the dreams of others.
History is littered with amazing tales of dreams, be they insightful, symbolic, or prophetic. We’ll get to those. First I’ll talk a little about my own nocturnal motion pictures.
I dream every night. Sometimes I even lucid dream. These dreams have shaped who I am, and informed my choices in everyday life. When I was in pre-school, from four-to-five years old, I dreamt of flying to the stars in some kind of star vehicle shaped like the Big Dipper. Once in that scintillating cloud of interstellar dust, I became one with the universe and all its secrets. Grandiose, no? Well, the dream repeated several times. I still recall how amazing it felt, like a sun rising in my tiny mind, this sense of being filled by an infinite joy and knowledge of all things. Upon waking up, I felt certain that some day I’d actually head to space and get bathed in all that good stuff when I was an adult (some might say this happened, as I have been accused, rightfully so, of living in outer space at times). It’s notable that I had these dreams not long after watching Carl Sagan specials on TV and in slideshows at home with my family.
I’ve always believed I’d be a writer, a belief reinforced by my dreams. Since grade school, I’ve had a recurrent dream in which I open an impressive leather volume and start reading what, in my dream, is the best book I’ve ever read. The sentences and words fall over me like musical drops from a waterfall. At some point in the dream I realize that I’ve written this book; or that I will write this book someday. Boundless bliss ensues, mirroring how I imagine a drug like ecstasy would feel (never done it, if you’re wondering). The coolest variation of those dreams happened a couple times when my deceased mother would read the book over my shoulder with me and I’d say, “Can I really write this?” And she’s like, “Of course!”
Not all my recurrent dreams are blissful and zen. I mentioned in an earlier post that I have at least two zombie apocalypse dreams a year. I also have the occasional dream in which I have to walk through a field of snakes. Then there’s the one where I’m back in high school because in dream logic I never actually got a high school diploma and to do so I must re-take math and chemistry, both of which are utterly incomprehensible to me in the dream (throughout which I keep yelling, “But I have a Master’s in Science! This is crazy! Why am I here?).
My least favorite dream? The one where I lose my teeth. I hate it. It feels so real, so disconcerting. I can taste the ground up teeth, feel them as I spit them out like calcified sunflower seed husks; I’m disgusted at the twisting, crystalline shape of them, and freaked out at the tiny new teeth already poking out of my gums. This is generally considered a symbol of change in life, as Stephen King used as part of his process of body change in his book, The Tommyknockers. Stephen King, in fact, has mined his dreams for numerous novels, including Misery. Others have done similar things, as I’ll get to later.
It was fairly serendipitous that my first science job was as a research assistant in a sleep lab at Harvard Medical School. The study didn’t involve dreaming, but sleep deprivation – we’d keep people up for 88 hours at a time to study the effects that not sleeping had on their body, like blood pressure, brain activity, and their immune systems. Nobody went insane, contrary to the popular belief perpetuated by the 1950s New York radio DJ, Peter Tripp’s self-experiment and stunt with sleep deprivation, where he stayed on-air for over three days straight with the assistance of pep pills. He experienced hallucinations, paranoia, and supposedly had long-term psychological effects, including believing he was an imposter of himself. No one at our study experienced psychosis, although good Lord did they get tired and grumpy. That’s partly because they had a 10-CM rectal probe inserted to monitor body temperature, and were wired like a PA system: head electrodes to monitor brain waves, an IV and catheter for blood draws, an EKG taped to their chest, and 24-hour beat by beat blood pressure finger cuff. Basically they signed on for exotic torture to the tune of $1000. But it was fascinating research.
Moving on to others. Some people’s sleep and dream experiences are astonishing. A roommate of mine said his father, when he couldn’t figure out a mechanical problem with a car or a piece of farm equipment, would go to bed with the problem in mind, and then he’d dream of an answer for it. It was a fairly straightforward, logical process for him to access his creative neural clusters to problem solve. Creativity, science is beginning to show, is probably a process by which a constellation of neural networks communicate with each other; it’s not that old left brain/right brain thing we’ve been brought up on. Dreaming amps up that creative communication for some.
Likewise, a student of mine at the university I teach at in Finland really blew me away with how he learned to optimize his sleep time. He’d been one of 30 pilots in the Italian airforce, a freakishly competitive and demanding undertaking, from getting in, to staying in, to staying alive. Even though he operated on relatively little sleep, less than five or six hours, that time sleeping still got in the way of his studies. So he learned to turn his dreams into a flight simulator. He’d fall asleep, drift into a dream flight simulator, and practice all the things he’d been studying while dreaming. The next day he’d go into his real flight simulator or airplane and he’d feel he’d have a leg up on the exercise. While this blew my freaking mind, I have heard doctors say they experienced similar things during their 90-hour-work-week and 4-hours-sleep-a-night residencies. (Quick aside—as your mind doesn’t actually rest during REM sleep, when dreams happen, it further amazes me that people can use what little sleep they have as dream theaters and dream flight simulators; deep, restful sleep is supposed to be necessary for keeping our body temperature steady, for multiple health systems, for cognitive function, and more. One of the reasons we have such terrible, nightmarish sleep after getting drunk is that drunken sleep is stuck in the REM state).
And then there are those whose dreams actually altered history. Robert Louis Stevenson was an extraordinary dreamer, able to conceive whole plots in his dreams and return to them in successive nights until he had essentially conceived the books for which he would become famous, such as Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Likewise, Mary Shelley dreamed of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster after being challenged by Lord Byron to come up with her own ghost story. This happened, not coincidentally, at the same time experiments in electricity were being conducted on cadavers, which people thought were being returned to life because they were flopping and writhing about on tables after being juiced; this was in 1816, a time when the body’s nervous system and its conductivity was poorly understood.
The understanding of the nervous system was improved a century after Frankenstein via a dream by Nobel-winner, Dr. Otto Loewi, who dreamed of an experiment that would prove correct his theory on chemical transmission of nerve impulses. He was far away from the only scientist to have dreams that would transform his field.
You wouldn’t think of chemistry as a scientific field of dreams, but it essentially is. Chemistry’s most essential tool, the periodic table of the elements, was conceived by Russian chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev in a dream. Like many before him, Mendeleev had been trying to develop a unifying organization to the 63 elements that were known at the time, in 1863. He arranged them all on notecards, got frustrated, and passed out on them. It was like the old tale about sleeping with your math book under your pillow, except Mendeleev dreamed up of one of the most important tools in human history.
Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz furthered the chemistry dreams tradition. After years of struggle, he finally grasped the structure of organic molecules through a dream in which atoms began to whirl and dance together. The smaller atoms paired up, and the larger atoms embraced them. Veterans of organic chemistry class (I shudder still at the words) understand this as carbon’s tetravalent nature, how it has four bonding sites. It is the foundation of organic chemistry. Von Stradonitz later had a dream in which the dancing atoms formed a snake that ate its own tale, which he understood was the structure of the benzene molecule, a particularly elusive structure for the brilliant dreamer.
It wasn’t a dance, exactly, but James Watson said in a 2005 TED talk that he helped co-discover DNA and its double-alpha-helix structure partially through a visionary dream involving spiral staircases. And Einstein, for his part, had numerous dreams that elucidated and illustrated various theories, including relativity.
In mathematics, Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Indian genius mentioned in the bar scene in Good Will Hunting, conceived of many of his hundreds of theorems and equations in dreams in which they were presented to him by the Hindu goddess Namakkal.
And then there are prophetic dreams. Abraham Lincoln dreamed of his own death 10 days before his assasination. Lincoln was, in fact, highly devoted to the power of his own dreams, even telling his generals that he knew when to expect important news on the status of the Civil War based on dreams he’d had.
It’s a tragic irony of history that where Lincoln didn’t use his dream to stave off death, Adolf Hitler did. Hitler dreamed, in World War One, that he and his brothers in arms would be swallowed by the Earth and engulfed in molten metal. He woke up, left his trench, and watched as a mortar exploded in the space he’d just vacated, killing everyone else but him. Personally, I wouldn’t put it past him to have fired the mortar himself just to be a scheisskopf.
I’ve always been fascinated by Carl Gustav Jung, so we’ll conclude with him. He is one of the founding fathers of psychology, Freud's scholarly heir to the throne, but Jung was also an unabashed mystic. He wrote a major tome on man and his symbols, many of which are derived from alchemy, that I’ve vaguely woven into my novel. He also had numerous prophetic dreams. In one, his dead father visited him to ask about marital psychology; two months later Jung had a nightmare in which a wolfhound in a frightful forest was commanded by “the Wild Huntsman” to carry off a soul. Jung awoke “in deadly terror;” his mother died that same day; Jung later saw that his father’s dream visitation had been a warning.
In October 1913, Jung began having ominous visions, dreams, and sensations portending war across Europe. As he recounted in his memoir:
“I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood. This vision lasted about an hour.... Two weeks passed; then the vision recurred, under the same conditions, even more vividly than before, and the blood was more emphasized. An inner voice spoke. “Look at it well; it is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it.”
While this was technically a vision as it happened before he'd gone to bed, it was followed up by three related dreams in the spring of 1914, in which Europe was covered by vegetation-killing ice and frost. War broke out three months later.
So this is a fairly epic post. Those of you who managed to read to the end probably did so because you have a personal connection to dreams and dreaming. Please do share any remarkable dream experiences you have had. I'd love to hear them!