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While You Were Sleeping 

Mapping the dreamscape of dream research

Wednesday, Sep 27 2000
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Illustration by Jason Holley
I REMEMBER ONLY TWO DREAMS FROM MY CHILDHOOD, but in both of them I'm running for my life. The first is less a narrative than a fragment, an image, really, of my preschool-age self fleeing through the streets of some nameless city with an enormous spider hot on my trail. I can see its fangs and its awful hinged limbs, and as it closes on me the buildings loom tighter and the sky grows darker until, at the very last minute, I wake up. If you were to ask me, I could tell you just where I was when I had that dream -- on the foldout couch in my grandparents' living room in Connecticut -- and describe the strangely brittle mix of terror and relief I felt upon returning to the conscious world. Still, for all the specificity with which, more than three decades later, the memory lingers, the dream itself is fairly common, the kind of chasing dream my own 5-year-old son tends to have (although in his the chasing is done by skeletons, not giant arachnids), and to tell the truth, it's been years since I paid it any mind.

The second dream is different, and has always seemed to me to harbor a message about who I am. It's elaborately detailed, a big-budget extravaganza full of complex camera angles and special effects. I am on the streets of a city again, alone, when a man appears and threatens me. I want to run, but as often happens in dreams, I am inexplicably rooted. As the man draws nearer I try to scream, but my voice is silent; I move to strike him, but my arms feel like they're made of lead. Just as he reaches me, the perspective shifts to an aerial view of a two-lane road running through the Connecticut woods. It's the road to my grandparents' house, a road whose every dip and turn I've long since memorized, even though I'm only 4. After a moment, I see my parents' car and, through the roof, my father fiddling with the radio as he drives. My mother sits beside him, but even as I wonder why they are without me, my father finds a news station, and listens while the commentator reports my death. Before my parents can react, the perspective begins to telescope, pulling back from the car like a crane-held camera, the vista going wide enough to reveal the curve of the Earth. And in that moment I finally see myself, flying high above the car like a guardian angel -- or a nightmare, depending on your point of view.

There are a couple of reasons why I remember this dream so distinctly. First is the oddity of having died, yet also survived in some ghostly fashion, a circumstance informed, I'm sure, by the cosmology of a 4-year-old, but powerful to me all the same. Among the common myths about dreaming, after all, is that if you die in a dream, you die in real life, and although my experience clearly contradicts that, it makes me wonder about the ability of dreams to take us to another dimension, where we see or do things impossible in the everyday. Second is the dream's vividness, its three-dimensionality, even down to the sensation of flying, the feeling of the wind on my face. It's what researchers call an "anomalous" dream. The most common such dreams generally have aspects of the paranormal: premonitions of the future, even visitations from the dead. Yet equally significant are those involving out-of-body experiences, such as this one, or states of lucid dreaming, in which the dreamer actively manipulates the dream. For much of my adult life, I have suffered from screaming nightmares, in which I find myself running from a danger so extreme that the only way to escape is, literally, to take control of the situation and shout myself awake. These nightmares are what initially attracted me to dream research, as if, were I finally able to understand them, I might make them go away. That hasn't happened, but after navigating my way through the current theories, from psychology to parapsychology, from Content Analysis to "world dreaming," I can't help feeling that I've traced a psychic through line from my childhood to my grown-up self.

It's this idea, this edge of (possible) connection between dreaming and waking, I believe, that is at the heart of our fascination with dreams. Since earliest history, we have looked to dreams for something to believe in, from the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, who considered them a form of prophecy, to the Australian aborigines, whose very mythos revolves around the proto-reality of the dreamtime, a state from which we are born and to which we return after death, and which influences our most quotidian activities in the form of rituals and signs. Here in the modern world, shamanism has long since yielded to psychology, but if we now see dreams as representing our fears, our desires, we have yet to decode them in any definitive way. A hundred years ago, Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams signaled what seemed like a breakthrough in our understanding, but the last century has not been kind to Freud, nor to his idea that "Every dream, when the work of analysis is complete, turns out to be the fulfillment of a wish." The same, to a lesser extent, is true of Freud's disciple Carl Jung, whose theory of the collective unconscious has also come under fire in recent years, considered too specific to its time and place (early-20th-century Europe) to stand as evolutionary history. Since the early 1950s, when REM sleep (the rapid-eye-movement state in which the vast majority of dreams occur) was first identified at the University of Chicago, we've known that dreaming and REM are intimately connected, but 50 years later we still can't say, with any certainty, why. Some researchers tell us that we dream to remember, while others insist â that dreaming is an emotional purgative, in which we relive unsettling experiences in order to forget them once and for all. Some see dreams as shadow landscapes where what we experience is as real as anything that happens during waking consciousness, while others consider them as little more than side effects of sleep, with no particular biological purpose of their own.

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