A writer’s imagination doesn’t quit just because they’re asleep. While science can’t tell us with absolute certainty what the purpose of dreaming really is, dreams can still be a great source of ideas and inspiration for a writer. In fact, some of the classics were inspired by dreams, including Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, among many others.
With such a powerful tool at a writer’s disposal, it calls to wonder why more don’t focus on the subject. One reason might be that the degree of mystery surrounding dreams is so great it’s hard to know where to begin. Which begs the questions, what are dreams and how should one go about interpreting them? The answer might not be as clear-cut as you think.
Popular Theories on Dreams
- An accidental side effect of random neural impulses
- Encoding short-term memories into long-term coding (the brain stores memories whether we’re awake or asleep, and dreams are like a temporary storage facility)
- Garbage collection
- The mind consolidating what we’ve learned
- An evolutionary outgrowth of the ‘playing dead’ defense mechanism. Studies have shown similarities between animals that are playing dead and people who are dreaming. This theory suggests that dreaming could be related to an ancient defense mechanism called tonic immobility (aka ‘playing dead’). When you dream, your brain behaves much the way it does when you’re awake, with a crucial difference: chemicals, like dopamine, associated with movement and body activation are completely shut down. This is similar to what happens to animals that undergo temporary paralysis to fool their enemies into thinking they’re dead. So it’s possible that dreams began as a defense mechanism which our bodies retained—in a different form—as we evolved into creatures that no longer experience tonic immobility.
- Threat simulation, to basically practice your mind at reacting to threatening situations.
- Problem solving. The dreaming mind makes connections more quickly than the wakeful mind.
- Oneiric Darwinism. Basically, dreams are a natural selection for ideas. The less-fit ones die out.
- Processing painful emotions with symbolic associations.
Phil’s Opinion on Dreams
I believe the content of the dream is a combination of several of the listed theories above, but most likely the brain sifting through random images/experiences of the day. After all, in order to function effectively in life our conscious brain must process only a fraction of what our senses really take in. It’s actually pretty amazing how it well it prioritizes in fractions of seconds. But just because we aren’t cognizant of everything the senses take in doesn’t mean it isn’t recorded somewhere/somehow in the brain. I think this is what dreams are—sifting through this stuff to either make sense of it or purge it.
With that said, I think we can still interpret dreams by assessing how we feel about the content/circumstances of the dream. I think that part of the dream is more indicative of our stress and true feelings. For example, I have had dreams where I’m in a haunted house. I’m sleeping on an air mattress in the living room of someone else’s house. Right before I go to bed, the hosts warn me that the place is haunted, but if you don’t freak out the ghosts usually leave you alone. Well, not long after they left and the lights went off—save for a dim light coming from the kitchen—the ghosts visited. Really, it was quite scary and it felt real. But I wasn’t scared; not at all. I’m sure I’d be frantic in real life, but I wasn’t in this dream. Instead, I just lie against my pillow and strained my eyes to catch whatever glimpse of the phenomenon I could. I was utterly fascinated by it.
The point is, if I were to tell someone this dream and leave out the part about me not being scared, one might conclude that I was over stressed about something, or afraid, or whatever. But I wasn’t afraid, and I didn’t feel stressed. I was just fascinated. Our feelings and reactions to the content of the dream should ultimately dictate our interpretation of that dream, I think.
Again, don’t just take my opinion as doctrine. There are plenty of other opinions on the subject. I would LOVE to hear yours—would be happy to include it here.
In the meantime, pleasant dreams…or at least interesting ones.
Be sure to also check out the Dream Factory page, for more on dreaming as well as a library of some of my strangest dreams.