The most intriguing thing about dreams to me, is that we don’t really know why we have them or what their purpose is. There are many theories, but no proof. It would be hard to establish any proof since the study of dreams requires us to enter into a world that is the equivalent of a house of mirrors, in the middle of the night, in the middle of our minds, one person at a time. Every experience is unique.
I am not sure if it’s just me, whether it has something to do with my advancing age, or if it is something about my sleep pattern in the Covid era, but in the last year my dreams have become more frequent, more vivid, more memorable, and more confusing. I noticed this early one morning when I awoke from a dream in which I was explaining my latest dream to a group of people who were sitting on a loading dock. In other words, I was having a dream about dreaming.
As a teenager, I worked on a loading dock, emptying tractor trailer boxes full of a merchandise at a Sears store a short walk from my family home. It was the first job I had that offered a weekly paycheck. Two dollars and thirty-five cents an hour. It is not clear to me that the loading dock of my dream was the Sears loading dock, but it looked familiar. Was the loading dock of my dream a metaphor for something happening in my current life? It is possible, because the sorting of information is one explanation of the purpose of dreams.
When we enter a certain stage of sleep, the theory goes, our brain begins sorting and cataloguing information gathered during the day. Past events merge with current events, perhaps in an effort to prepare us for future events. It often comes out as a jumbled film as we experience it, but these nonsensical screen plays could be something more than the random synapses of a resting mind.
For many years, two dreams dominated my sleeping hours. One involved school and one involved work. In both cases, I was falling short.
The school dream takes place in college. Usually a political science class or a literature class. I recognize no one from any of these dreams, because the other characters are not important. What is important is my knowledge that the semester is coming to an end, I have not completed the work I was assigned, and I have no chance of getting it done before the last class. In the case of the literature class, I only attended the first class of the semester and never formally withdrew. As the semester is coming to a close, I am in a panic about whether I will get a grade for the course, what it will be, and whether I will have enough credits to graduate.
These dreams drain me emotionally and when I wake up I need to tell myself that I finished school years ago, I have my degrees, and they cannot be taken away from me. It always takes a few minutes to come out of the state of panic caused by these dreams and to convince myself there is nothing to worry about.
School dreams ended for me in my mid-forties, but when I started teaching college courses, about a year ago, they came back and now they are a regular feature of my dreamworld, especially toward the end of the semester.
After college, I worked as a journalist in radio. It was a job fully dictated by the clock in a way no other job I’ve ever held compares. Every minute of each hour was dedicated to a specific task, all culminating in a top of the hour newscast. When I worked in radio, my anxiety dreams were centered on that minute by minute clock and whether I was meeting the demands of those sixty separate deadlines.
Three decades later, when my mind rifles through the radio files, the dreams that result are centered around the big top of the hour deadline. It’s :30 seconds to air and I do not have my script. I have no choice but to walk into the studio and deliver a newscast, because regardless of how prepared I am, the news must be delivered at the top of the hour.
The clock strikes, I open my mic and I do my best to ad-lib the top story, as I plan to walk out of the studio during the upcoming commercial break to grab the copy I need to deliver the rest of the newscast. I signal to people walking by the glass walled fishtank of the studio that I need help, but no one sees me. I walk into the newsroom during the break to grab my script, but it is not there. I have no choice, but to go back to the mic and try to deliver the rest of the newscast from memory.
Though it has been years since I have operated equipment inside a radio station, I am amazed with how effortlessly I do so. I understand that I am dreaming. I am watching myself live through the moment of being unprepared. Part of me knows I will survive. I will come out the other side.
The five minutes I am on the air feels like a half hour. I’m sure it sounds bad to the listening audience — I am flailing — but no one seems to notice or care. I wake up. None of it was real. I breathe a heavy sigh and try to go back to sleep. In this state of semi-consciousness, I am eager to go back to the same place and make things right. To finish the newscast in the proper way, with my name and a promise to deliver “breaking news as it happens and storm warnings as they are posted.”
In doing some research on dreams I’ve learned that they can last from five minutes to thirty minutes. This is new information to me. I had always been told dreams are very short — a few minutes at most — but they can seem long. The idea of the thirty minute dream helps explain those times when I feel I am stuck in a time loop, all through the night, replaying the same scene over and over from about 3a.m. until I wake up with the sunrise. I can’t remember most of these epic dreams, I just know I find it hard to escape them. They are the night time equivalent of “song stuck syndrome.” They are not nightmares, but they are not pleasurable. They are exhausting.
The dreams I most long for are flying dreams. I wish I could have one every night, but it has been years since my last night flight. In a flying dream I begin walking in an open landscape and slowly my feet leave the ground. It starts slow, my body is in an upright position, as if I am standing, but as the minutes pass my body becomes parallel with the earth and I begin moving quickly, birdlike, with an ability to maneuver with great skill over the landscape, and around and between obstacles like buildings and trees. Sometimes I am being chased, but I don’t know what or who is chasing me and I am never captured. I wake up exhilarated, happy, and eager for more.
Since we can’t explain their purpose with any degree of certainty, it is natural that there is a school of thought that says there is no point or purpose to dreams. They are simply the product of a resting brain.
I find that hard to believe. The human body is an amazing machine. Nature has thought of everything. Every piece of us serves a specific purpose and often, if one piece is failing to do its job everything else begins to malfunction. With that as background, is it really possible that dreams are the one thing our bodies do without purpose?
I like the sorting theory, because it seems to make sense. It not only explains dreams, it explains sleep itself.
Every day we experience life through our senses. We are bombarded with sights, sounds, smells, situations requiring quick analysis and quick decisions. How does the mind sort it all? Like an editor, during our waking hours the brain takes in all the information, but quickly decides what is important and what can be set aside for later, or never used at all. Where does all the extra information go? Is it lost?
Given the nature of my own dreams — with all their disconnectedness to any linear storyline — it seems to make sense that the mind uses dreams to catalogue information collected during our most recent waking hours, combining it with similar experiences already stored in our memory. This in turn gives the brain the ability to edit, with efficiency, as we navigate waking life. It is a process that prevents us from experiencing every day and every occurrences as something brand new. But this is nothing more than an unproven theory that feels right.
Although I am connected with many people throughout the day, the last two years has been a time of solitude. The pandemic has changed the way we interact and for many people the isolation has led to feelings of stress and anxiety. Speaking only for myself, it has changed my sleep patterns and I theorize this has something to do with the frequency of my dreams and their intensity. I end each long, lonely day wondering what the next one will bring — and how long our lives will continue on this slow rail. In the dream state my mind makes an effort to make sense of it and offers answers wrapped in riddles.