Sunday, 24 January 2021

We live, we dream - what's that all about?

On 1 January I inaugurated a new procedure - logging all my dreams in a large diary by my bed. The purpose - to further my understanding of what goes on in the brain while we sleep. Given that we spend a third of our lives asleep, and around half of that time dreaming, it is a woefully under-researched activity, despite its universality.

Every night, as we go to bed, is liking going to the movies, watching two or three films, each with ourselves as the protagonist, not knowing whether we'll see a horror, a comedy, a drama or a romance. It's just that it becomes routine, and we forget to remember, we lose the lessons that dreams offer us about our human condition.

Already, after three and half weeks, I am gaining some interesting insights.

A bit of methodology. I am drinking a large glass of mineral water, a mild diuretic, before going to bed, to ensure two or three rises in the night to go for a wee - and before returning to bed, to write down any dream memories, capturing them while they are as fresh as possible. I find that one memorable image, written down, will open the gates to a fuller narrative. Noting down dreams at half past two or four o'clock in the morning can be tiresome, but it is important. One thing it has quickly proved to me that dreams do become more vivid and memorable as the night draws on.

One theory I have is that as we sleep, the body - and brain - warm up slightly, due to increasing amounts of body heat trapped in the bedding. In the same way as we tend to get more creative thoughts under a hot shower, in the bath or in a sauna, the effects of eight hours of duvet being warmed by the body is warmer blood passing through the brain.

In particular, I'm looking to see whether pleasant dreams can be achieved in a repeatable manner by using a given set of parameters. This is but the start of a journey I hope to continue for a long time.

A useful guide to oneirology, the science of dreaming is a book by Dr Mark J. Belchner, called The Dream Frontier. Dr Belchner mentions two phenomena that happen often in our dreams. One he calls 'disjunctive cognition', in which two or more persons, places or things do not match. For me typical such dreams involve the blending of my brother and my son as one person, or London and Warsaw as one place. Rarer are 'authentic dreams', in which the classic Greek unities of action, time and place. So far this year, I have had one, set in contemporary America's Pacific Northwest. No bizarre things happened (no unicycling walruses for example), no blended people or places - as real as real life.

Another proposal by Dr Belchner is that 'dreams don't lie'. "Our dreams", he writes, "are not concerned with disguise and censorship. They are our most honest communications, perhaps the only human communication in which we cannot lie. We can lie about our dreams, but not in our dreams." When you are dreaming it, you are getting the raw truth. Of course, once we wake, we strive to make convincing narratives from the material that's been dreamt - but I strive in my diary to make my notes as authentic as possible, and not to shy away from embarrassment or emotional discomfort. From our dreams we can learn much about our truest, deepest anxieties, often ones we don't confront in waking life.

And I am also testing the folk wisdom that cheese before bed sets of vivid dreams. So for control purposes I am eating 50g of vintage Cheddar or Parmesan. An effect I noted one night when I took no cheese before sleep was a lack of memorable dreams, something that's never happened on any other cheese-eating night. In the diary for Friday 22 January at 07:10, I wrote: "EATING CHEESE BEFORE SLEEP DOESN'T NECESSARILY RESULT IN MORE VIVID DREAMS, BUT IT DOES HELP YOU REMEMBER THEM!" The following night, I doubled my cheese intake. This resulted in a terrifying dream of a fiery apocalypse descending from the sky onto central Warsaw, and me in a darkened apartment off ul. Marszałkowska urinating blood, dying young in my early 50s, just as the worst evil imaginable was about to engulf us all. That was 03:45 on Saturday 23 January.

And lo! I dreamed...

At the end of this month, I intend to tabulate the results, with the aim of creating a quantitative database looking for common themes and clues that might further the undervalued science of understanding what goes on in our minds as we sleep. And every now and then, some more oneirological insights. In the meanwhile, Lent is less than a month away, and that will mean another concentration of blog posts of a spiritual nature.

My thanks to Beata for inspiring me with the idea, to Ben Hoyle (@bjp_ip), for the most enlightening Twitter feed (neurology/evolution/tech), and to my brother Marek, my chief intellectual sounding-board.

This time five years ago:
Searching for growth

This time eight years ago:
The more it snows - a decent snowfall in Warsaw

This time nine years ago:
A Dream Too Far - short story

This time ten years ago:
Compositions in white, blue and gold

This time 11 years ago:
Dobra and the road

This time 12 years ago:
Polish air force plane full of VIPs crashes on landing in bad weather


Jacek Koba said...

One or two insights from me about dreams (and there is a veritable animal menagerie here – a coincidence?) -

I have discovered that whenever my dream narrative involves having to do some sums (even basic ones) or writing something down on paper (where your eye can see your hand guiding a pen on a piece of paper), the cogs in the brain grind slower and slower and the dream ends disappointingly with me failing to do either. Could be evidence that dreams don’t really belong to the part of the brain responsible for higher mental processes. The lizard brain then?

Internalized fears probably outnumber internalized amusement by a large factor but occasionally we laugh through our dreams. I grew up on a farm and the first source of amusement available to me was the farm cats’ antics. All dreams when I was heard laughing through my sleep in my life involved cats. (I wonder if the popularity of cats on the internet has something to do with the human race’s capacity to feel relaxed at the deepest level?)

Animals dream too. I have seen both cats and dogs swipe their paws over their head in sleep as if to chase away something and wake up abruptly with that goofy look in their eyes.

Gordon Hawley said...

I've had many instances where my dreams foretell the future. It's really unusual and a bit unsettling. It happened again just this past weekend. I had a dream about a fire in the hills. I wasn't sure of the specific location. Woke up Sunday morning and lo and behold there's smoke in the hills I can see from where I live. This isn't the first time I've had something like this happen. Wish I could dream about the winning lottery numbers.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Gordon Hawley

Dreams that predict the future are a fascinating subject. There is, I believe, some mechanism - albeit weak, one to which the dreamer must be sensitive - that allows this to happen. It's easy to dismiss with scepticism (in this instance, the sceptic could say 'well maybe you heard the fire engines in your sleep'), but I'd go along with a human intuition - based on quantum mechanics - that is at work here. One to look into further - hence the need to a quantitative study of dreams.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Jacek Koba

With a new cat on board, often napping on my bed as I work from home, I can see regular stirrings and motion in her sleep that suggests vivid dreaming is going on. The seat of dreams in the brain is a moot point, the link between dreams and consciousness is something science has not really looked into all that deeply.