“I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?”
When we sleep, our bodies shut off. Our heart rests at a steady pace; air whispers through our lungs, and our eyelids begin their nightly dance. But our minds enter the world of our subconscious—a labyrinth of fantasies and urges we pay professionals to interpret.
And when we wake up, sometimes for a minute our minds blend. Our eyes might be open, but there are a few lingering seconds when we peer over our covers, scanning the room for the creature we’re hiding from or the loved one we’re still trying to embrace. This colliding of worlds is reminiscent of ancient beliefs.
Back in primitive times, people assumed dreams were how the supernatural world spoke to humans. They believed dreams were intentional figments of our brain, as if our subconscious minds were a paranormal channel of some kind. Today, people still believe dreams are purposeful. Some even believe they predict the future:
“In this dream I had, I was out with work friends. I don’t really remember the details, but I vividly recall ending the night with a cab ride. I was sitting next to one of my coworkers. I didn’t think anything of the dream at the time—I’m not one to take cabs or go out with coworkers. But sure enough, a few weeks later, I found myself out with a big group of them. It got late and a few of us split a cab home. When I got in the back seat, I looked up and saw that same coworker from my dream, looking at me with the same expression! Crazy, right?”
Psychologists have tried to debunk this theory with the notion of self-fulfillment; we fabricate a memory as a means of fabricating foresight (the I knew it all along moment), but still it bears questioning—why do we want to add purpose to our subconscious fantasies? Why are there are thousands of dream interpretation websites, paperbacks, and even interpretation services in our society?
Freud chimed in on this one. Overall, he defined dreams a means of wish fulfillment. We want to add purpose to our subconscious as a means of completing goals or satisfying desires we cannot otherwise experience.
This all makes sense for those dreams you never want to wake up from. The memories you cling to as you groggily find reality again in your bed, recalling the time, repositioning yourself in Monday morning. But how does one explain nightmares?
“In a single jump he came out into the hospital night…He thought he must have cried out, but his neighbors were peacefully snoring…He panted, looking for some relief for his lungs, oblivion for those images still glued to his eyelids. Each time he shut his eyes he saw them take shape instantly, and he sat up, completely wrung out, but savoring at the same time the surety that he was now awake…”
Sometimes these figments of our subconscious are terrifying, like that dream we’ve all had about being chased with some barrier to running away. I can’t imagine wanting to fulfill myself with dreams of massive spiders clawing my guts apart, but maybe that’s just me. Where does this unpleasantness come from? The International Association for the Study of Dreams (yes, that’s a thing) says nightmares are our brain’s way of dealing with unresolved situations. For instance, people who consciously experience trauma need to cope to get through daily activities, so they bury their dreams far below the surface. At night, our minds are idle, so they tap into those subconscious depths in our brain and try to make amends.
This all still confuses me. How can we have some dreams that we avidly seek out for fulfillment, yet others that our brain is constantly fighting to repress?
Either way, Freud made a decent living off the subconscious mind candy.
Dreams freak me out. Our brain, the organ we use constantly, never gets a break. It’s constantly talking to us, telling us what we need, and especially in the subconscious sense, what we want. Maybe dreams mean nothing at all. Maybe it’s a way for our brain to relax without shutting down completely, and our mind just has to accept it. If that isn’t supernatural, I don’t know what is.