With Meghna Chakrabarti
Why do we dream? To defrag the brain? Unbound our unconscious? There’s new science on the purpose of our nightly journeys.
Alice Robb, science journalist. Author of "Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey." (@alicelrobb)
Deirdre Barrett, assistant professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance. Editor-in-chief of the journal Dreaming: The Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams. Past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. Author of "The Committee of Sleep," among other books.
From The Reading List
Excerpt from "Why We Dream" by Alice Robb
I spent the summer of 2011 digging holes and talking about my dreams. Within two weeks, I had blown through the novels I’d taken to the remote Andean village of Nepeña, where I was excavating Moche remains with my classmates and a Peruvian professor. I’d saved most of my suitcase for bulky rain gear and emergency jars of peanut butter; I hadn’t anticipated how much time I’d have when my internet access was subject to the whims of an erratic café owner. So when my friend James passed me a beat-up paperback whose cover showed a man’s brain being penetrated by a ray of sunlight and a puff of clouds, I willed myself to set my skepticism aside.
As I scanned the table of contents, though, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at chapter titles like “Life Is a Dream” and “Rehearsal for Living.” I cringed at the list of exercises: the eerie-sounding “twin bodies technique,” the ludicrous “dream lotus and flame technique,” the ominous “no body technique.” Stephen LaBerge’s Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming had all the trappings of a New Age self-help screed, but with the closest English-language bookstore a six-hour bus ride away, I started to read.
“Proverbially, and undeniably, life is short,” LaBerge wrote. “To make matters worse, we must spend between a quarter and a half of our lives asleep. Most of us are in the habit of virtually sleepwalking through our dreams. We sleep, mindlessly, through many thousands of opportunities to be fully aware and alive.” In what LaBerge called “lucid dreams,” a sleeping person could become aware that she was dreaming and — with a little practice — control the plot of the dream. I was hooked.
Most people experience a lucid dream at some point in their lives, but only about 10 to 20 percent have them regularly. For some in that minority, lucid dreaming is so pleasurable that it becomes a hobby or a kind of self-help. Lucid dreams can seem more vivid than reality; they can provide a high as intense as psychedelics and even deliver sexual gratification. (One psychologist claimed to reach orgasm in one-third of her lucid dreams, and measures of vaginal pulse amplitude have shown that women’s dream orgasms correspond to real physiological changes.) Others use lucid dreaming to take control of nightmares or rehearse difficult real-life situations. Of all my memories of that summer in Peru — drinking pisco in the desert, finding a mummified baby, unwrapping it under less-than-scientifically-optimal conditions — the one that stands out most is the memory of my first lucid dream.
At nine o’clock, I climbed into the bottom bunk and curled up in my sleeping bag, worn out from physical exertion and the monotony of digging. I set my alarm for five a.m. and drifted off almost immediately, my body too tired to let my mind wander down its usual anxiety-laden paths. And then, the scene changed. It was a summer afternoon — not the Andean summer, with its thin warmth and cloudy nights, but a real summer, the kind of heat so extravagant you jump in the water and dry off in the sun. I soaked up the warmth I’d been craving, treading water in some bucolic pool I’d never seen before. I don’t particularly like swimming in real life; I don’t like exercising in any form without the distraction of podcasts or Pandora. But this was different — effortless and sensual. I had a heightened awareness of every part of my body, the physicality of the cool water and the bright air and a surreal forest enclosing the pool in magniﬁcent foliage. I woke up euphoric.
The memory had none of the haziness that usually clouds dreams, and the details remain perfectly crisp years later. But I wasn’t just elated; the whole thing was also vaguely disturbing. I hadn’t been in my sleeping bag in a dusty dormitory in Peru — I had been transported to some faraway place, and I preferred it there. My jaunt in the pool had shaken my sense of what was real, and I couldn’t explain it with-out sounding crazy. All I knew was that I wanted to do it again.
James and I spent the rest of the summer practicing LaBerge’s tips. We recounted our previous night’s dreams while we scratched the grime off ancient pots. We repeated LaBerge’s mantra ad nauseam: “Tonight, I will have a lucid dream.” We made up mantras of our own: “Tonight, I will fly to the moon.” We learned to recognize the signs that we were dreaming, like finding ourselves flying or meeting dead people. Every couple of hours, we would do what LaBerge called a reality test, asking ourselves if we were awake or asleep — a trick that, once ingrained, LaBerge promised would trigger lucidity.
The bar for what constitutes good conversation may be lower when you spend most of your time scraping the sand with a trowel, but even after I left Peru, even when I had more than four people to talk to, high-speed WiFi, and whole libraries full of books, I couldn’t stop thinking about dreams. They were so much fuller, so much more mysterious than I had ever imagined.
I began keeping a dream diary, carefully logging whatever I could remember of my dreams in a spiral-bound leather notebook each morning; I had read that it was important to record something every day, no matter how fragmented or boring. The results were almost immediate. Within weeks, the entries in my journal went from a dutiful No recollection or brief, tentative snippets (I am watching the Nutcracker? There is a spider?) to two or three long, convoluted narratives almost every night. My new night life was every bit as active — and at least as entertaining — as my waking hours, and I was stunned: I understood that I had been having dreams like this all my life, but I had been promptly forgetting them, letting them fade away as though they had never happened. What adventures had I gone on and then forgotten? What opportunities — to gain new insight or just to take a break from reality — had I missed?
Most new skills — especially those that promise to change how you experience the world — are difficult to learn. Mastering a new language takes years of concentrated study. Meditating requires patience and frequent, sometimes frustrating practice. Gains are incremental, often imperceptible. But improving your dream life can be as simple as increasing the time you devote to thinking about dreams from none at all to a minute or two each day, sparing a pre-bed thought for your intention to remember your dreams or taking a moment to write them down or speak them into your smartphone in the morning. The process is painless; the progress is swift. And the payoff is life-changing. Becoming aware of your dreams is like dipping into a well of otherwise inaccessible fantasies and fears, signs from our subconscious and creative solutions to projects and problems.
Excerpted from Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey by Alice Robb. Copyright © 2018 by Alice Robb. Published and reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
New York Times: "Opinion: Why Do You Keep Dreaming You Forgot Your Pants? It's Science" — "One muggy Saturday last summer, I went on a date with a man who seemed entirely fine. We drank two beers and went for a walk, and he explained why he liked certain buildings that we passed. We kissed, and his breath tasted like cigarettes. We parted ways, and I couldn’t muster the energy to answer his emoji-laden follow-up texts about my weekend activities.
"The date was mediocre at best — but in the days that followed, I second-guessed my decision not to see him again. Maybe I had written him off too soon; maybe I should have given things a chance to develop. After all, he had some good qualities. He was handsome, tall, employed — and not, refreshingly, as a writer.
"It was only after a painfully on-the-nose dream a few weeks later that I stopped doubting my intuition. In the dream, I had agreed to a second date, and I had brought along two friends to observe our interactions and help me assess him. At the end of the group outing, my friends pulled me away and offered a unanimous decision: He wasn’t for me. I had made the right call."
Time: "People Say It's Boring to Talk About a Dream You Had. Here's Why You Should Do It Anyway" — "When Shane McCorristine, a scholar of modern British history, went trawling through police reports from 19th-century England, he was struck by the number that contained descriptions of dreams: witnesses and victims seemed to make a point of telling police and coroners if they had anticipated a crime or a death in their dreams. Telling dreams, he said, was a way to create “a social bond between a vulnerable person and the authorities.” But he noticed that dream reports started dropping out of inquests and news stories in the 1920s, and he pinned the blame on Freud. 'Freudian theories were spreading, and they were recalibrating people’s relationship with the dream world,' he said. 'There’s increasing embarrassment around dreams.' Suddenly, they might be interpreted as signs of some latent neurosis or sexual deviance.
"A century later, conventional wisdom dictates that dreams are not a subject for polite conversation. Writing for the New Yorker’s website in 2018, Dan Piepenbring began a review of Insomniac Dreams — a book about Nabokov’s relationship with his dreams — by apologizing for the topic: 'Dreams are boring. On the list of tedious conversation topics, they fall somewhere between the five-day forecast and golf.' A few years earlier, radio producer Sarah Koenig devoted an episode of This American Life to laying out the seven topics that interesting people should never talk about. Dreams came in at number four, right behind menstruation. In the Guardian, British writer Charlie Brooker claimed that listening to other people’s dreams made him dream 'of a future in which the anecdote has finished and their face has stopped talking and their body’s gone away.' Novelist Michael Chabon wrote in the New York Review of Books that discussion of dreams is all but banned from his breakfast table, railing against them as poor conversational fodder: They drag on and on. They get twisted in the telling. Most unforgivable, they are bad stories. When I explain the topic of my book, people frequently offer their sympathies: 'People must want to tell you their dreams,' they say with an I-feel-your-pain nod. 'Those are the most boring conversations.' "
This program aired on November 20, 2018.