On the Subject of Dreams

In his immortal poem “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote:

“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”

While Poe was obviously referring to dreams of the waking variety, the ones I’d like to talk to you about today are the dreams that come upon you in the wee hours of the morning, when everyone else is sleeping soundly; the dreams from which you awaken in a disoriented state, wondering just what in the hell that was about.

These dreams arrive with no rhyme or reason (most of the time). Nothing you do during waking hours should cause such wild and vivid images to flicker in your head. Whether exhilarating, terrifying, or simply nonsensical, they just sort of happen. I had just such a dream a few nights ago.

Well, that isn’t entirely true. I had two of them; on the same night! The day leading up to that night was unremarkable. I went to work, same as always. I interacted with people, same as always. I wanted to strangle some of said people, same as always. But when I went to bed that night, any similarity to days past immediately faded away.

In my first dream I was in a large room filled with tables and chairs that resembled  a break room. A man, whom I took to be the manager of the business which employed me (though not the one for which I actually work) was standing at the front of the room. He began to speak to the people assembled in the room, but soon weird things began to happen.

As he spoke, the man (manager) began to change. He quickly morphed from an amalgam of managers and supervisors from my past to someone I’d never seen before. The audience changed as well, switching from working adults to families. I’d just began to realize that I was in a school cafeteria when the speaker’s voice changed. He now had a British accent!

Nor was his voice the only thing that had changed. As I watched, the man began to act strangely, shaking his hips and hopping around. Then he stood right in front of me and stated the following: “I won’t know you over here, and you won’t know her over there!” Then he ran up the center aisle toward the front of the room.

Even in the dream I knew that something was off. Why would an authority figure behave in such a way? Before I had a chance to consider this question, a group of young female students appeared out of nowhere and tackled the speaker. I left the room and found myself in a house I didn’t recognize. I walked down a hallway and into a bedroom to find my family (not my real family) lying in bed, apparently traumatized but what we’d witnessed.

Now I’m not much for chaos and disorder. I much prefer to know in advance what is likely to happen in a given situation. Needless to say, I was more than a little unnerved by the nature of the dream. Unfortunately the insanity of my subconscious journey was just beginning.

With no discernible pause in my train of thought, I suddenly found myself at a fair or amusement park. I was in a parking lot, beneath a huge construction that resembled a Ferris wheel. Now, when I say huge, I don’t mean the usual definition of the word. I mean enormous! The width of the wheel was massive, and the top of it seemed to disappear into the clouds. Instead of buckets, there were cages spaced at intervals around the wheel.

And there were people inside the cages. I know this not because I saw them, but because I could hear them. They were screaming, though whether in excitement or terror I don’t know. The wheel spun in a massive arc, passing just above me. I could feel the wind generated as each cage passed inches from my face. I glanced to my right and saw another wheel, every bit as large as the first one, spinning in the same fashion about fifty yards away.

As if the fact that I found myself in such a spot wasn’t enough, when I looked up again, I saw that the wheel was beginning to sway from side to side! I suddenly knew that the wheel would soon slip off of its foundation and drop down, crushing me underneath before leaving a swath of destruction in its wake. Just as it began to happen, I awoke with a start, my eyes straining against the darkness which enveloped the room.

Needless to say, I wasn’t in the best state of mind following the intrusion of such abstract images into my otherwise carefully ordered thoughts. I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and trying to make sense of it all. But then I realized, why should it make sense? What use is there in trying to understand the ramblings of the subconscious mind?

Once I realized that sleep would not return, I slipped out of bed and sat in my office, thinking about the night just past. While I’ve never been the type of person to let what happens in the night dominate the day, I still found my thoughts returning to the dreams which had haunted me in the preceding hours. Out of that mid-morning purgatory, a curiosity was born.

What to make of my journeys into the surreal? If past experience was to be a guide, then not very much. After all, I’ve been prone to odd dreams for most of my life. Sigmund Freud believed that dreams are the result of things we are repressing during waking hours, and that they represent wish fulfillment. In that case, the majority of the human race is apparently prone to mental instability. After all, who in their right mind wishes to be thrust into a world that makes even less sense than the one we currently inhabit?

On the other hand, Aristotle held that dreams were the result of after images of sensory activity coupled with emotions, and that a dream can be perceived as reality as long as one is not aware of being asleep. Therefore any dream, no matter how surreal, is reality in the mind of the dreamer until such time as the dreamer is able to judge the difference between dream and reality. At this point, the dream turns into an illusion.

I’m not much of an interpreter of dreams, but let us suppose for a moment that either of these theories holds true. In the case of Freud’s theory of wish fulfillment, what to make of my two nonsensical dreams? Do I subconsciously wish for confusion or chaos? Or perhaps I long for danger and risk? While I’m certainly no  expert on the subject, this argument simply doesn’t seem to ring true.

What about Aristotle’s theory then? Were my dreams of a madman and a gigantic machine run amok actually real? Since I didn’t know I was asleep at the time, did everything that took place in the dreams really happen? And, if so, what might have happened had I been crushed beneath that insane Ferris wheel?

Superstition holds that should you die in a dream, you will never wake up. While this obviously isn’t the case (at least most of the time), it is widely believed that dreams of death are stress related, and often herald a change, or an ending of some kind. If this is the case, what situation did I long to escape, or what major life-altering change was fast approaching in my life?

I won’t pretend to be an expert on the subject of dreams, but I’m a firm believer that a dream, no matter how vivid, doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything. Certainly some dreams are related to a real life situation, or a deep seated fear or anxiety. But sometimes dreams have no meaning. To support this theory, I offer a pair of recurring dreams from my own childhood.

In the first of these, the town where my family lived was being invaded by aliens. For years, I would awake from dreams of little green men in the front yard of our house, threatening to come inside. Even as a teenager, the dream continued to haunt me, though the older I became, the more ridiculous it seemed.

The most common theory of the meaning of such a dream is that the dreamer fears changing surroundings, or the loss of a home or family. The dreamer feels that his or her privacy, or personal space is being invaded. Therein lies a possible issue with this theory.

While my dreams of aliens go back as far as I can remember, I lived in the same house until I was seven, and then lived in another until I was fifteen. No loss or trauma accompanied the move from one home to another, and at no point in my early life do I ever remember fearing the breakup of my family. I do remember that, on occasions when I was at home alone, I would sometimes suffer unfounded doubts that my parents would return. So I suppose that could have been a factor.

The other dream wasn’t necessarily recurring in that it wasn’t the same every time. I was often in different places under different circumstances in each manifestation. In fact, only one thing remained constant: the fact that each dream ended in a fall. Sometimes it was a fall from a very high place, like a tower of some sort. Sometimes it was merely flying out of a playground swing. No matter where the fall began, the resulting sensation was always similar.

I can still remember the feeling of plummeting through space, seeming to fall forever. Often the time it took to reach the ground seemed out of proportion to the height from which I’d fallen. But then again, I never actually made it all the way to the ground. I would always wake up just as I sensed the earth rushing up to meet me, my heart pounding in the dark.

What is to be made of dreaming that you are falling? According to DreamDictionary.org, this is the most common dream of any, and the average human will dream of falling to his or her death more than five times. The website  presents the theory that falling in a dream can symbolize losing control over a situation in your life; jobs, finances, even a relationship.

Furthermore, the article states, small differences in dreams of falling can mean different things. Losing your balance and falling suggests that you are not stable and that you need to become more confident; Being pushed implies that someone is pushing you over the edge mentally, or that you are pushing yourself too hard; Slipping suggests that you fear making  a mistake in a particular situation.

Of these three situations, the first would most likely apply to me. I have no memory of anyone else being present in my falling dreams, and don’t recall ever slipping. I would simply be somewhere, and then, for no reason at all, find myself in a free fall. So apparently, I was not stable at the time. Then again, what six year old is?

These explanations of different dream scenarios are vague at best. I believe it is safe to say that no one really knows why we experience dreams for sure. Despite my own skepticism of dream interpretation, I find myself a bit intrigued by some of the theories I’ve read. While I still don’t feel that a dream must mean something more than what it is when taken at face value, I won’t discount the cause and effect idea completely.

I often wake from dreams unable to remember much about them. Or even if I do, the knowledge doesn’t last long before the dream begins to fade. Given the types of dreams I normally have, this is usually a good thing. But sometimes, a dream comes along that I couldn’t forget even if I wanted to. And quite often, I want to very much.

As an example, I present the time I dreamt of waking in the middle of the night and going into the bathroom. As I stood at the sink, washing my hands, I began to sense a presence in the room. Without thinking, I said aloud “Be gone from this house.”

The second the words were out of my mouth, something bumped me! I stumbled and nearly fell, catching myself at the last instant. I straightened up only to find that my vision had blurred! I shook my head in an effort to clear my mind. Aware of what was happening, I attempted to repeat my mantra from a moment before. When I opened my mouth, the words which emerged were slurred and unintelligible. While I’ve never suffered a stroke, this is the only experience I can imagine to compare with what was happening to me.

At last, my vision began to clear. I cleared my throat and once again said “Be gone from this house!” This time I was outright shoved by the unseen force! I stumbled into the wall and raised my head to observe the horror I knew as waiting for me. At this point, I awoke covered in sweat and mumbling to myself.

What to make of this? Many paranormal experts believe that ghosts which appear in dreams are representations of loved ones who have passed away. But what about the aggressive nature of the entity in my dream? I found one explanation for dreams of possession by evil spirits which held that the dreamer fears losing his or her wealth, or suffers from stress or depression.

The truth is that I suffer from none of these things. I have no wealth to speak of, and believe that I feel no more stress or occasional depression than the average person. Perhaps my dream was brought on by nothing more sinister than watching movies like “The Exorcist” or “The Amityville Horror.”

We’ve covered a lot of ground so far. We’ve talked about dream theories, dream interpretations, and widely held beliefs about the meanings of several common dreams. While we may be no closer to understanding the complexities of the dream state than we were before, at least we’ve gotten a few things off our chests (or at least I have!).

Before we wrap things up, I’d like to share one final dream with you. While I’ve always been a vivid dreamer, and have definitely suffered through the occasional nightmare, I recently experienced the single most horrifying dream of my life, and I’d like to tell you about it.

In this nightmare (it didn’t start out as a nightmare, but quickly became one), I sat in a chair, looking at the bottom of my foot. There was no lead up to this image, I was just there. As I held my foot in one hand, I noticed a tiny abrasion on my heel. I ran my hand over it, but felt nothing more than a small scab. Then I began to pick at it.

Why did I pick at it? Why does anyone? What is it about humans that causes us to interfere with the very process of healing? A psychologist would likely tell us that the urge to rip off a scab is symbolic of some deep desire for self destruction. I prefer to think that we just get bored easily.

Back to my dream. The scab quickly became a sore, and the sore began to spread. The next time I looked, my entire heel was dominated by an open wound. I glanced away, and when I looked back, I saw that the wound was threatening to cover the entire bottom of my foot! And then I noticed that there were things in the wound that didn’t belong. To this day I’m not sure just what those white blobs that I picked out of my foot were, and I remain thankful for my continued uncertainty.

By the time I awoke from this nightmare, sweating and convinced that I had contracted some sort of flesh eating bacteria, I was nearing panic. I immediately threw back the covers and clutched my foot in both hands, marveling at the unbroken skin on the bottom.

So far I’ve been unable to find any detailed explanation of just what this nightmare might have meant. Dreammoods.com presents the theory that dreaming of injury suggests that you need to work on healing old wounds, though I just can’t seem to reconcile emotional angst with a dream of wasting away physically.

No matter what the underlying cause, dreams can be a powerful force. Whether based on a real situation or complete fantasy, their power can’t be discounted. We may never know just what causes them, but we would be wise to acknowledge the effects they have on our waking lives.

While by no means a definitive list of the weird dreams I’ve experienced in my life, I feel that the ones I’ve covered here go a long way toward summarizing the type of dream to which I’ve always been susceptible. There are so many theories regarding the reasons why we dream. In addition to Freud and Aristotle, whose hypotheses are presented above, a few of the more respected theorists include:

-Carl Jung, who believed that dreams represent lost or neglected parts of ourselves.

-Robert Moss, who wrote in his book “The Three ‘Only’ Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Confidence, and Imagination” that “Dream’s are open vistas of possibility that take us beyond our everyday self-limiting beliefs and behaviors.”

-Tom Scammell, MD, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, who says that no one knows why we dream. “One speculative possibility,” he says, “is that dreaming allows you to practice things you may not ever have to do.”

-J. Allan Hobson and Robert McClarley, who in 1977 proposed the activation-synthesis model of dreaming. For those of you of a more scientific disposition, this theory states that circuits in the brain become activated during REM sleep. The brain synthesizes and interprets this internal activity and attempts to find meaning in these signals, which results in dreaming.

While all of these ideas definitely have merit, I stand by my theory that a dream doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Sometimes our subconscious minds simply go to places better left unexplored. In my opinion, there is a reason why some experiences are repressed, and why there are areas of the mind that are best left undisturbed.

As I’ve said before, I’m no expert. But as someone who has experienced more than my fair share of disturbing dreams, I feel that I am completely justified in paraphrasing the words of Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamota, who in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor is reported to have said “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.”

When it comes to dreams and the subconscious mind, perhaps we ought to let that giant sleep. The last thing you want is a face to face meeting in the night.

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