Living the DREAM

Much to my great disappointment, I don’t often remember dreams and only hazily recall them when I do. Lately though, I’ve remembered more dreams, perhaps because in the work-from-home era I’m less often jarred to consciousness by an alarm clock. Now, my mind surfaces naturally, and floats between sleep and full consciousness, as dreams drift like fog around my pillow. 

Living the DREAM

In this semi-awake state, last night’s dreams are as crisp the memories of yesterday’s reality. But the dreams burn off quickly, leaving behind only snatches of imagery that don’t make much sense. Some people have full recall of very structured dreams, with plots & character arcs that a screenwriter would be proud of. I’m not one of them, unfortunately.

I frequently remembered dreams in childhood. Children dream more than adults, who spend about 15-20% of their sleep time in REM (the part of sleep when we dream) whereas newborn babies spend 40-50% of their sleeptime in REM. It is debatable whether they’re dreaming in the way that adults do, but certainly after a few months, babies start to dream.

In my childhood, I believed that we all visit a real place when we dream. That dreams were memories of adventures our spirits had in an actual place each night, before journeying back to our bodies. I haven’t thought this since being a wee child, but it was a firm belief at one time. Probably formed from an amalgam of ideas absorbed from all over the place – barely understood notions of the Catholic Heaven (learned in 2nd grade catechism classes) perhaps combined with hazy ideas of the Aboriginal DREAMTIME, learned at school. Add a few ideas heard in movies & conversation, and my half-baked cosmology was born. 

According to this belief, a dream where I met my childhood friend Stephen, meant that we’d both actually met in some kind of DreamLand outside our bodies. This theory was never challenged by the fact that he didn’t remember any such encounter, when asked in the school-yard next day. Because I’d heard somewhere that we don’t remember all our dreams from each night, and just assumed he’d forgotten this one. 

As we age, we dream progressively less, sadly. Even so, if adults get their standard 8 hours of sleep each night, they dream for about an hour and a half. Watching the equivalent of a 90 minute movie in the head-multiplex, every night of our lives. In early adulthood, I’d write my dreams down, but got out of the habit and soon lost ready access to my own subconscious.

Given that we spend so much time doing it, WHY do we dream? One idea is that dreaming is where problems are worked through subconsciously, much faster than conscious thinking can. This certainly rings true to me. Often, a creative issue I tangle with in daytime somehow clicks into place overnight and the solution is there waiting for me in the morning. There really is wisdom to the phrase ’sleep on it’ (fermentation is part of problem solving, it seems). Another theory is that dreaming preserves the visual cortex by keeping it active, even when the eyes are closed for a third of a day (and ancient humans would have spent a lot of time in the dark, especially in the northern winter).

Do animals dream? There is more & more evidence that even invertebrates may dream. That other mammals dream is no surprise. We’ve all seen our pets whimper and even run in their sleep. It is thought that all mammals dream, but some may do so in different ways. The sleep cycles of whales & dolphins are unique among mammals, in that falling asleep is fatal to fully aquatic air breathers. They get around this problem by sleeping with half a brain at a time. Migratory birds, continuously in the air for weeks, also use this technique, with one hemisphere sleeping while the other stays aware of the world. Perhaps this way of sleeping means they do not enter REM sleep. Does this mean they cannot dream?

Koalas doze for up to 22 hours every day, dreaming of lush eucalypt forests, I expect (or perhaps nightmares of DropBears.. ) For all this rest, in their brief periods of wakefulness they always appear groggily still half asleep. Humans aren’t as dozy as koalas by any means, but it is a nutty fact that we spend one third of our lifetimes asleep. If I live to be 90, I will have spent 30 years snoring, and fully 6 entire years dreaming. Existing in an insane fugue state, flying around by flapping my arms, or being chased through molasses by giant nuns..

It has always been a mystery to me why the word “dream” is so aspirational? Freddy Kreuger is proof that popular culture occasionally acknowledges the disturbing aspects of dreams, but overwhelmingly, the word “dream” is positive. Simply by adding it to any other word – dream job, dream home, dream vacation, the American Dream etc – that other word gets levelled UP. I’m not sure why this is so. To me, dreams are not inherently positive. An actual dream vacation’ would certainly involve involuntary nudity in a foreign country, and an actual dream job’ would be utterly terrifying.. working in a slaughterhouse or something. Far from being a plus, “living the dream” sounds utterly horrifying to me. I am relieved that my real life is NOT “a dream come true“.. 

However, I’d like to remember more of these nutty narratives that the screenwriter in my head writes every night. It seems a tragic waste to forget them all. It has occurred to me though, that my forgetfulness might not be a bug but a failsafe feature. That my own subconscious may be deliberately protecting me from some of the demented stuff it gets up to each night.. “Baker, You can’t handle the TROOF!

Ha ha!

25 thoughts on “Living the DREAM”

  1. Thanks Jamie, I enjoyed your essay!

    Dreams for me are overwhelmingly positive and nostalgic for me. There are precious and personal. I often return to the same dream home/towns/location. I rarely have nightmares. A few times in my life I have woken with a jolt but have no memory of what caused it.


    • Hey Dave! I wouldn’t say my dreams are relentlessly nightmarish, but they aren’t comforting or nostalgic either. Lots of wandering through cities & places that I don’t recognise but are somehow familiar. Of course, there are happy moments too, but even they are somehow off-kilter. I guess whoever coined phrases like “a dream come true” must have had similarly comforting experience with their dreams as you do.

      Thanks for reading & commenting, and adding YOUR perspective!

  2. That’s really interesting about migratory birds using half a brain while awake. I imagine after a while all that flapping is pretty tedious. I sometimes wonder about how it is that I can use half my brain for drawing and the other half for listening to books. There isn’t any other state in which I can do that, and I know other artists can, too. Maybe it has something to do with REM or sleep cycles. I certainly feel like I’m in a different state of consciousness when I’m drawing.

    • yes, migratory birds and aquatic mammals can sleep with half their brains at a time, and therefore stay aware of the world and rest the brain as well. And I agree that there is something happening when we get in THE ZONE which is similar to a waking dream, I think.

  3. While I still have good and strange dreams, to your point…I don’t have them as often…and I don’t remember them as I once did. (I have some dreams that seem as real decades later as actual memories.)

    I DO remember this morning’s dream. I was at a party and the host had a hat (a bowler/derby). He called it the Hat of Secrets and played a party game like truth or dare, but instead of a dare if you didn’t want to tell the truth, you had to whisper the truth and another secret into the hat.

    I somehow knew that the hat kept all the truths and secrets…that when the party was done, he’d put the hat on and know what everybody told it.

    • Oh wow, you HAVE to use that dream-idea in one of your stories! See? That is why I wish that had better recall of my dreams. I feel sure that there would be at least a few juicy ideas in them once in a while..

      Thanks for commenting Chris!

  4. I have come to realise that the dreams I remember are almost always related to my projects. I can envision the studio space , the artists and al of the development art. I write stories in these spaces by drawing them as visuals. The other part is where I inhabit the locations from the story and interact. I’m unable to remember the exact details of these but I do remember the flavours. It seems like these dreams take all night but I feel certain life interrupts to some degree. The only consistent factor is the presence of cats. At least four.

  5. Nice piece Jamie! Last night I was able to levitate and fly to and fro at almost any altitude. Others in my dream were not able to do it and disbelieved me. Of course I got the last word in when I would leap off cliffs or make a hasty exit or entry through the air in the Z axis. When I did it they were non-plussed but it didn’t detract from my overall feeling of freedom and literal levity. I woke feeling great.

  6. Dreams are a gift. Or are they? Aren’t they the language of surrealism? Too much of Inception and the Wizard of Oz would probably make me appreciate my waking hours more. Awake and sober rather than three sheets to the wind,,, I guess the rational mind has its limits but so do dreams? The answer? Physical exercise. Marcus Aurelius was big on walking to clear out the log jams. Oh, and a maximum of 5 people in meetings for efficiency…

    • Yes, that balance between the two states of mind is probably the key. Either too much ‘reality’ or too much ‘surreality’ will.. drive you crazy?
      Thanks for reading & commenting Martin!

  7. Sometimes, in a dream, I remember “oh yeah, I can fly.” Like it’s something as natural as breathing, just forgot I could do it. Thanks for posting these thoughtful insights into your world.

  8. Nice one Rrrraimy!
    I totally relate to your experience as a dreamer. Rarely remember it, but sometimes I have these “creative breakthroughs” right after I wake from one of those that I fully forgot. I know, it seems weird, but I learned to accept as a “gift” from my unconsciousness.

    • Yes, Alex! Although I have only a spotty memory of my dreams, I do trust that my subconscious is a pretty helpful problem solver. If I place some thorny issue in the proving drawer, a solution will often come, eventually.

  9. Nice essay. One thing I enjoyed about my dreams was the flying. When I was young, it seemed my entire bed would transport me at night, aloft over a city twinkling with lights. Later I needed no bed at all, but just stretched my arms out and could float upwards, maybe 50 feet or so above the house, and it was daytime. I could move around town in such a manner. Perhaps I escaped peril at times in a dream by floating upwards, but it seemed that the flying itself was such a novelty that I remembered that most vividly.

    • I’ve had flying dreams too, but I can only stay aloft by frantically flapping my arms. I never get very far, or high up, and the overwhelming feeling of my flying dreams is that flying is… LAME. ha ha!

  10. Hi Jamie
    I enjoyed that piece. You did your research! I’m developing a short about a dreamer, just as an excuse to string some images together. I liked it for a while but now I’m putting à critical eye on it. Been studying dream sequences in film, to see what works. Of course now I see references to dreams everywhere.

    • Hey Dan! Glad you liked this one. I’ve been thinking about dreams a lot lately, and just WHAT they are exactly. Especially wondering about how old memories of dreams, real events, and fictional events seem to have about the same ‘resolution’ when we look back at them. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference…

      I think you should push ahead with YOUR piece! Dreams are a great subject. Always worth another take.
      thanks for commenting!

  11. Deft treatise JB and superb illustration – thank you. Most of my dreams are vivid, in colour & fortunately err on the side of quirky & congenial rather than stressful or nightmarish. When talk of dreams surfaces I think of the Twighlight Zone’s intro blurb … “It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity … it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” I suspect dreams serve many purposes. While rare for me, the dreams I enjoy most are the ‘lucid variety’ i.e. those where you seem to have control over your thoughts & actions within the dream.

    • JD!
      I’m glad you commented on this one. Am I right that you had some sleep walking episodes in our teens? I don’t think I’ve had any such experiences myself, but I remember some times where I was awake but heard one of my brothers talking in his sleep. I spoke to him, and he spoke back to me. A weirdly memorable experience that stays with me.. Suffice it to say that I think there are MANY things happening while we sleep..

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