|Edited by Brindy Francis|
The first dream I can remember having was a nightmare. I was confronted with a massively oversized skeletal spider, nearly half the size of my five year-old self, crawling slowly towards me in my bed. It was made entirely of bluish jagged bones and was eerily contorted as it crept along the duvet sheets. I woke up bolt upright in bed to my parents trying to quieten my screams. From then on, any bad dream I had was called a ‘jaggy spider’, and the term has stuck with me to this day. Whilst my life so far has been peppered with countless colourful and vivid dreams, with jaggy spiders few and far between, that specific one has made the most significant impression on me. I used to believe lots of strange things could prevent having a jaggy spider, like not eating cheese or Wagon Wheel biscuits before bed. Much like I don’t know if there’s any truth in my remedies for bad dreams, scientists don’t know for certain why we dream either.
There is a lot of pseudoscience involved in trying to explain what happens in our brains when we’re asleep. There is Sigmund Freud’s old cliché about dreaming as “the royal road to the unconscious”, and plenty of generally held beliefs, from fortune telling to mentally processing the previous day’s events. Many people feel that dreams are a reflection of our everyday emotions and anxieties, or simply just a ‘cinema of the mind’, there to entertain us when we switch off for eight hours. Oneirology, or the scientific study of dreams, is a topic of much research and a field teaming with internal debate. From as early as second century Greece, historical dream interpreters like Artemidorus have written volumes on the ancient knowledge of the Greeks, Assyrians and Egyptians.
Dreams are so difficult to study largely because we can’t ascertain exactly where consciousness ends and unconsciousness begins. In simpler terms, we unconsciously do things while we are conscious without requiring much focus on awareness, such as moving our legs to walk. Similarly, we can be lost in thought walking down a busy street, unaware of the noise and traffic, until something like a car horn alerts us to it. Even when we are much more obviously unconscious when we sleep, our brains are extremely active. The reticular formation, a structure located in the brain stem, helps to ‘activate’ other parts of the brain and allow responses to messages from the senses, even when we are sleeping. Sleep is divided into five distinct stages, REM being the most important of these in terms of reporting dreams. Taking its name from the characteristic eye movements which take place during this stage, the longest period of REM sleep occurs in the last third of the night and is when most dreaming takes place.
In the 1980s, pioneering DNA scientist Francis Crick proposed that dreams are the brain’s way of sorting through information and making new connections between random events and ideas. If true, this process may explain why Paul McCartney claims the song ‘Yesterday’ came to him fully formed in a dream. A less prophetic hypothesis is that dreams are the meaningless product of random brain activity. Psychiatrist James Hobson believes that the evolutionary parts of the brain responsible for basic functions (such as breathing and heartbeat) produce surges in activity that result in random action in the brain. The more modern part tries to make a meaningful story out of these sensations, instead creating bizarre combinations of the mundane and the fantastic.
So can these theories really explain why we dream about our teeth falling out, or overhearing a conversation with our favourite band, or discovering the location of a lost item or repeatedly watching our mother getting eaten by a dinosaur? Perhaps not entirely. For those who subscribe to more traditional interpretations, symbolism plays a key role in dream imagery. Symbolism is much older than human knowledge of the subconscious and many symbols are common to different cultures across the world. Recurring dreams of being naked in public, falling or turning up to an exam unprepared are frequently experienced. Throughout history, these images which frequently appear have been interpreted through the lens of religion and morality (for example, the Christian dove) or gypsy folklore which tends to go by contrary, for instance, dreams of lavishness are usually translated as an omen of wastefulness and poverty. In this case, my jaggy spider was a symbol of shrewdness and perseverance which foretells money. This may seem like a strange interpretation to bestow upon a young child but, as certain symbols may be deeply personal to the dreamer, their meaning can change (therefore recognising this as a manifestation of my childhood arachnophobia suddenly makes a lot more sense).
Symbolism and metaphor are innate in our speech, as we say things like, “Her life was an uphill struggle”. This harks back to early humans who perceived objects and their meaning through their consciousness rather than through words, which some way explains why subconscious thought is often expressed in the disguised form of symbols. Famous oneirocritics Freud and Jung emphasised the hidden meaning of these symbols – the ‘latent content’, as opposed to the ‘manifest content’ – with a strong focus on the sexual drive behind such dreams.
With such uncharted and intricate inner workings helping to create the vast tapestry of dreamland, it may be useful to keep a notebook and your bedside cabinet to record any interesting dreams you have before your mind is clouded by thoughts of the day ahead. They may all indeed be unrelated events fused erratically together by your bored and mischievous mind in the early hours. Or you may predict a major event before it actually happens. You could pen a hit song or even fight off a jaggy spider. Or you may not remember anything at all. At the end of the day, it’s all in a night’s work.
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