The Science Behind Why Your Dreams Are So Weird

Maybe it’s all those sheep I’ve been counting

10.09.18

In August 2016, Meghan started thinking about dreams. Why can’t anyone agree on why we have them? What do they actually mean? Do they matter? Do mine matter? Below, she asks all those questions and more to the internet, a neurological expert and a Jungian analyst, and in honor of Dreams Month, we’re resharing it today. Happy dreaming.


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toddler I’m obsessed with is having a recurring dream about a frog trying to kiss her. She’s almost three, this little pumpkin. Her parents, my friends, are bewildered and exhausted — they have a newborn, too. His tiny duck-fuzz head is sweaty against my chest, his eyelids fluttering through a REM cycle, possibly dreaming (soundlessly, most likely in ghostly forms of black and white, who knows, babies are weirdly possessive of their dreams). Their cat is asleep on the sofa, paws twitching wildly. My friend, their dad, is lying on the floor with his hands across his stomach. I’m not sure when he last slept. “Dreams, man,” he says, shaking his head. “What the shit.”

I dream often and vividly. I respect them, my dreams, am even impressed by them and the power of my strange brain. Unfortunately, my most common dreams predicate anxiety. I have one that absolutely won’t give up: it’s Christmas and I’ve forgotten to buy gifts. I wake sobbing, sticky with heat, reaching for my phone so I can reassure myself to chill, it’s only March. Clearly I’m anxious about something, but why Christmas? And why again and again and again?

Even though we spend a full third of our lives sleeping, deciphering dreams can actually be kind of contentious: ancient civilizations believed dreams were messages from the gods; science has yet to provide a definitive theory; psychoanalysts are divided on their purpose and value; and still, somehow, no one wants to hear about your dreams, which is odd since last night in dreamland I was hanging out in a lo-fi Japanese brothel, and today IRL all I have planned is to buy cat food.

Dreams. What the shit?

REM sleep is where we have our most vivid, memorable dreams, and it’s the strangest thing you’ll ever come across in biology. Our bodies get paralyzed every 90 minutes, our eyes flutter. It’s a very peculiar thing going on where you cannot move, but your brain is more activated and sexually turned on, forced to watch these things we call ‘dreams.’ Why would mother nature do something like that?”

That’s Dr. Patrick McNamara, Associate Professor of Neurology at BU. He’s that rare bird who is more interested in other people’s dreams than his own, the guy you’d want to corner at a cocktail party — a scenario he says happens often. “I could listen to other people’s dreams for hours. Every single dream is a puzzle. It’s an endless frontier, really, and it’s amazing what’s unknown.”

Much of the science of dreams is still theoretical. Dream study happens in sleep labs, where patients are woken up several times over the course of a night to track a dream’s emotional tenor, locations and character interactions. But we’re pretty fallible, us humans, prone to hide or categorize, wanting to please. Still, scientists mostly agree that dreams and REM sleep work to consolidate emotional memories into long-term memories (among other things). This could explain why women are overwhelmingly more able to recall dreams, as we are conditioned to pay more attention to our emotions. Dream recall also differs by personality: For example, introverts recall more dreams than extroverts. Those experiencing PTSD are experiencing fear loops because the fear memory is unable to be desomaticized during dreams (in this case, nightmares), and therefore lingers in the system. All this evidence indicates that dreams are biologically necessary for emotional processing and memory.

Still, the link between dreaming and emotional processing is about as far as most scientists will go, and McNamara, for one, isn’t willing to make the leap into dream analysis as revealing some great unknown. “I do think dreams contain gold,” he says, “so I think they are absolutely central to human cognition. I’m just not so sure that they reflect our personality quirks, or that they are valuable for therapy.”

And that is where he and every therapist I’ve ever seen (a lot of them) part ways.

Psychoanalysts at the turn of the 20th century — Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in particular — believed that dreams were a window into the unconscious. In a converted house with no locks on the doors, I visit Mée Hiroki, a Jungian analyst. She’s tiny and soft-spoken, and I have to keep inching my chair closer to be able to hear her over the small fan trying to cool the warm, sleepy air. She laughs often and speaks very carefully, often pausing to return my questions back to me: “What do you think it means?”

Hiroki studied Jungian therapy in her native Japan, and said she was drawn to it in particular because Jung’s brand of dream analysis requires a full understanding of cultural contexts to appreciate the multiple layers of a dream. She’s candid about her own dream life — “I dream a lot” — but is careful to add that she doesn’t think she has any answers. “It’s a big mystery to me!” I like her.

As Hiroki puts it, Jung believed in a self made up of the conscious and unconscious. Metaphorically, the unconscious is like one of our inner organs, your slippery liver or a beet-purple kidney: it’s there, you know it exists because, well, you’re alive, but you can’t see it directly. The unconscious, that tricky beast, is difficult to access, and dreams (said Jung) give us some access to that underground part of ourselves. They are a snapshot of the unseen, with elements both personal and universal. That they emerge from the unconscious helps to explain their wildness. “They have their own rules,” Hiroki says.

I offered up my Christmas dream to both Hiroki and McNamara. According to McNamara, my dream is a classic example of a counterfactual: a logic exercise, a “what if.” Counterfactuals can be unproductive regret loops, but — as is the case with my dream — they can also be useful conditioning exercises. I’m being conditioned to remember to buy gifts for Christmas by enacting — over and over and over again — a scenario I don’t want to happen so I’m less likely to engage in this situation in real life. In this way, dreams help us learn, and can even help us to avoid threats.

Hiroki is palpably excited by my dream, although she prefaces it by murmuring, “That must be very hard for you.” (It is!!!!!) Christmas is ripe with symbols, and Jungians are obsessed with symbols. While I have my own idea of Christmas (a time of family and closeness, devoid of Judeo-Christian overtones), Hiroki notes that the holiday traditionally celebrates the end of an old era and the beginning of a new, so my anxiety could be my unconscious conveying that something in my past is no longer serving me. My dream, then, is my unconscious trying to elbow my consciousness out of the way so I can more easily evolve. I think. Maybe?

If science and pseudoscience can agree on anything, it’s that you should listen. McNamara dismisses out of hand my questioning whether it’s possible that dreams mean nothing at all, that our consciousness is simply recycling what it doesn’t need. “The data overwhelmingly says that dreams are not random noise,” he states firmly.

Hiroki, too, understands dreams as an essential communication device — one that, with attention, allows us to grow. “In order to live in this world,” she says, “we have to reshape ourselves.” She says there are pieces of ourselves, potentials of action and character that we have deemed useless or problematic, and that’s what is trying to rise up in our dreams. They want to be loved and heard, and the self knows how and when to give them value.

Which is truly bananas, and a little sorrowful — imagining all the gentle parts of yourself you’ve quashed that your dreams are patiently, kindly, trying to nurture.

Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi. 

 

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