Monday, October 23, 2006

Dreaming Survival

Some months ago I was reading up on the science of dreams, a subject that has long fascinated me. There's been very little study done on dreams until recently and lots of speculation as to their function/purpose. Most people I know lean towards the side that suggests dreams are psychological puzzles about our own feelings/thoughts that we need to unlock so as to better understand ourselves. But there is, actually a biological function of dreams that science uncovered that I think is interesting. I've come to see it working now that I know what I'm looking for.

Science suggests that dreams are designed to help us integrate our memories. Originally, this was to integrate memories such as how to kill a mastodon, how to make fire, and how to skin a boar so that we didn't lose precious survival skill time while we slept. In other words, dreams were night-time lessons that made sure we survived.

But memory is a vast tundra and now that we have evolved to have so much more to remember, from content of books to world news to social/family mores and then some, our dreams have a lot more territory to cover.

However, I notice that if I have done/read anything new, my dreams are full of references to what I did or read that day. I've been reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, (which I'll be blogging about on Nov. 3), a gorgeously textured novel about people caught in the struggle of Nigeria that turned into the Independent nation of Biafra (famously remembered for its starvation). I read a lot yesterday, so it was deeply imbedded in my unconscious last night when I fell asleep. And then I dreamed of Africa and African people and related threads. I had also watched Sixty Minutes, which took yet another look at the horrific situation in Darfur and my mind's eye was full of those haunted, starving, persecuted people.

But this post is not a manifesto on the egregious outrages of genocide, though I could go there; this is a post about our dreams and our memory and how they are linked, and how incredibly cool it is that the way our minds present information while we are sleeping is in these surreal, timeless, elaborate montages that make many of us wake with a feeling of great portent or meaning. And when I do write a dream down and look at it clearly I do come to a greater understanding of myself, so perhaps this suggests in the evolution of survival, that self-awareness is, in fact, a survival skill in a far different world from the one in which our neanderthal cousins first dreamed.

I'm very interested in other kinds of dreams, too, especially prophetic ones--which features in my novel. I know people who claim to have had these dreams. These, I think, are closer to intuition. I have this belief that if an event is already in motion, that it can be "detected" intuitively (others would say "psychically" but I don't like the associations that word conjures). For instance, my mother's husband dreamt of a fiery plane crashing into a skyscraperthe night before 9/11. We know the plans for that were already in motion, so somehow I don't find it that strange that he could have dreamt such a thing. My husband once dreamt of a terrible bus accident that killed many people. He woke up and found that such a thing had indeed happened and was already in the news.

Anyway...if you have theories on dreams, I'd love to hear them.



At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the idea of dreams as ways of processing our daily life makes a lot of sense. I've been treated with EMDR (you'll have to google it) for PTSD, and the treatment is essentially a way of forcing your brain to (re)process something that wasn't originally processed by dreams the first time around.

At 2:01 PM, Blogger Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

And has it worked for you, the EMDR, I mean? I've heard about EMDR--unfortunately, only the negative. But I believe in the mind's power to heal with just the most minor of suggestions...


At 10:45 AM, Blogger Samus said...

I must not be dreaming much. My memory is for shit.

At 3:26 PM, Blogger Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

Samus: Yeah. If you are waking up at night a few times, you may be interrupting REM sleep.


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