What Good Is Dreaming, Anyhow?

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living” –The Bearded One

So here I am, typing along, having delegated the striking of keys to a subsytem, with some success, backspacing errors and retracing my thought, meticulously selecting this or that word from my vast armory of words, or that other word over there…. The question of whether I have free will (whatever that might mean) isn’t really top of mind for me, at the present moment. I’m too busy! The average American makes 35,000 “remotely conscious” (ditto) choices (ditto) a day, and if I bang out 2,000 words or so starting now, I will have exercised my free well above baseline. Of course, I can’t choose just any word…

“Nobody knows anything,” as screenwriter William Goldman remarked. As I have pointed out, repeatedly, “we know very little about what is most important to us. We don’t know why we are conscious, why we have (or don’t have) sex (verb or noun), or why we die.” Or why we love, why we laugh, why we sleep, why we wake, or — the point of this post, and I do have one — why we dream. From the Sleep Foundation:

Sleep experts continue to study what happens in the brain during sleep, but no one knows for sure why we dream.

We are said to spend two hours out of every twenty-four dreaming, or eight percent of hour time on this earth. And yet we don’t know why. Most people remember their dreams, at least some of them; others don’t. Nobody knows why that is, either. We are, at least, able to define what a dream is, or at least seems to be. More or less. Sleep Foundation:

Dreams are mental, emotional, or sensory experiences that take place during sleep.


Dreams are basically stories and images that our mind creates while we sleep.

My OED app:

A series of thoughts, images, sensations, or emotions occurring in the mind during sleep

I think we can all agree any one of those definitions “works,” even if there are big differences between them when you look closely (experiences v. stories v. series; “take place” v. “mind creates” v. “occuring in the mind”).[1]

I keep buzzing ineffectually around all these altered statessleeping, waking, brainworms, now dreaming — because of “our republic’s” response to the ongoing Covid pandemic. The level of denial (“it’s just the flu”), cope (“hybrid immunity”), and willful ignorance, especially among the powerful (droplet dogma) seems to me to be staggering; like a real life Stepford Wives, a zombie movie, or, more to the point, The Last of Us. Are we really awake? Are we really conscious? Are we in a state of light hypnosis? Are we narcotized? Do we dream while we are awake? I do not mean any of these questions metaphorically; I believe there is a “nightmare” weighing “on our brains” for which an account must be given, exactly in the same way that SARS-CoV-2 was shown to be airborne using the seating chart of a bus, knowledge of patterns of air circulation, and elementary logic. Surely, things were not always like this? In a Republic, “[the people] assemble and administer [government] by their representatives and agents.” But what if a very large portion of “the people” — of which the “representatives and agents” are a subset — are terribly impaired?[2] How is it possible for us to to say and do (“Let me see your smile“) the things we do?

Well, I’m not going to answer these questions today (and, readers, if you can, I am most anxious to hear). Or give the account that I seek. What I can do is run through the conventional (and some unconventional) thinking on why we dream, and place that thinking in the context of the current “nightmare.”

There are two main buckets into which I can throw dream theorizing, but before I do, one caveat. From WebMD:

There are many theories about why we dream, but no one knows for sure.

Again, nobody knows anything, so I’m not entirely justified in skipping over the possibility that God may be speaking to us through dreams, as in the Bible, or that dreams are omens, as for the ancient Egyptians. But I’m going to do it anyhow. I’ll call one bucket Equilibrium; and the other Embodiment.

Equilibrium. I plowed through a good deal of middlebrow literature on dreams, and I might as well quote HealthLine, because it recites the various, closely allied conventional wisdoms in jargon-free language (i.e., no Freud):

Though there’s no definitive proof, dreams are usually autobiographical thoughts based on your recent activities, conversations, or other issues in your life. However, there are some popular theories on the role of dreams.

Your dreams may be ways of confronting emotional dramas in your life… [B]ecause the amygdala is more active during sleep than in your waking life, it may be the brain’s way of getting you ready to deal with a threat… [Dreaming] helps facilitate our creative tendencies…. [Dreams] help you store important memories and things you’ve learned, get rid of unimportant memories, and sort through complicated thoughts and feelings.

In all cases, equilibrium disturbed during the day is restored, by dreaming, at night.

Embodiment. And now for something unconventional. In The New Yorker, “What Are Dreams For?”, August 2023, we learn of a neuroscientist named Mark Blumberg. Blumberg begins with a new way to look at REM sleep:

People, he knew, also twitch during sleep: our muscles contract to make small, sharp movements, and our closed eyes dart from side to side in a phenomenon known as rapid eye movement, or REM… Human adults spend only about two hours of each night in REM sleep. But fetuses, by the third trimester, are in REM for around twenty hours a day… In adults, dreams are offshoots of waking life: we have experiences, then we dream about them. But a baby in the womb hasn’t had any experiences. Why spend so much time in REM before you have anything to dream about?… [Blumberg’s] videos attest to the apparent universality of twitching: not only do many animals twitch in REM but they start before they’re born…. After finding that sleep twitches in early development aren’t caused by activity in the cortex, Blumberg increasingly wondered whether it might be the other way around—perhaps the twitches were sending signals to the brain.

And the key point:

In a series of papers, Blumberg articulated his theory that the brain uses REM sleep to “learn” the body. You wouldn’t think that the body is something a brain needs to learn, but we aren’t born with maps of our bodies; we can’t be, because our bodies change by the day, and because the body a fetus ends up becoming might differ from the one encoded in its genome. “Infants must learn about the body they have,” Blumberg told me. “Not the body they were supposed to have.”

As a human fetus, the thinking goes, you have nine months in a dark womb to figure out your body. If you can identify which motor neurons control which muscles, which body parts connect, and what it feels like to move them in different combinations, you’ll later be able to use your body as a yardstick against which to measure the sensations you encounter outside. It’s easier to sense food in your mouth if you know the feeling of a freely moving tongue; it’s easier to detect a wall in front of you if you know what your extended arm feels like unimpeded. In waking life, we don’t tend to move only a single muscle; even the simple act of swallowing employs some thirty pairs of nerves and muscles working together. Our sleep twitches, by contrast, are exacting and precise; they engage muscles one at a time. Twitches “don’t look anything like waking movements,” Blumberg told me. “They allow you to form discrete connections that otherwise would be impossible.”

The kicker:

It’s a process that’s most important in infancy, but Blumberg thinks this might continue throughout our lives, as we grow and shrink, suffer injuries and strokes, make new motor memories and learn new skills. Blumberg plays the drums, and, when he learns a new rhythm, he wonders whether sleep is involved. “You struggle and struggle for several days, then one day you wake up and start playing and boom—it’s automatic,” he said. “Did sleep play a role in that? If I had been recording my limb movements, would I have seen something interesting? That keeps me up at night.”

Blumberg’s theory really appeals to me, partly because he takes the otherwise inexplicable fact of “twitching” and makes revelatory sense of it, but mostly because there’s now a plausible mechanism. I do see that I have conflated REM sleep and dreaming, whereas in fact all we know is that REM sleep and dreams occur at the same time, but heck, all the other kids are doing it. The Atlantic makes exactly that point:

Blumberg argues that the brain uses REM sleep to test-drive the body. The brain pings the neurons that control muscles, creating twitches; it then collects sensory information from those moving limbs. By testing those connections during times of stillness, it can refine and recalibrate the network to work more efficiently during times of wakeful chaos. According to this view, REM-phase movements aren’t about dreams at all. They’re the work of a brain that’s learning how to more effectively pilot a body.

Blue-skying freely: This argument doesn’t make sense to me (whether Blumberg or the Atlantic writer I can’t say). A “test-drive” by definition is — if we go back to our definitions of dreams — “experiences v. stories v. series.” Ditto “piloting,” if we replace “test drive” with “flight plan.” A dream would be the brain/mind’s way of twithing what needs to be twitched in the proper order.

So I stan for embodiment. (Don’t ask me why the brain just doesn’t send a signal directly to whatever it wants to twitch; evolution is something of a bricolage; and in any case, the brain isn’t learning how to, say, lift a leg; it’s learning how to run.) Now let’s turn to the content of dreams, which necessarily have to come from the world the dreamer inhabits, in which they run.

Covid shows up in dreams. From Nature and the Science of Sleep, “How our Dreams Changed During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Effects and Correlates of Dream Recall Frequency – a Multinational Study on 19,355 Adults“:

In the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, a study in China observed a higher frequency of pandemic-related dreams, which were associated with higher levels of psychological distress. This finding of qualitative changes in dreams during the pandemic is in line with the continuity hypotheses, which suggests that emotional waking experiences are reflected in dreams. There appears to be demographic differences in dream recall. In an Italian survey 20% of the sample reported having dreams with explicit COVID-19 references, with women reporting higher [Dream Recall Frequency (DRF)] (50.8% of women were high recallers, 39.4% of men were high recallers), emotional intensity, and negative emotions in their dreams compared to men. Similarly, two other web-surveys conducted in Italy revealed that age, gender, not having children, depression and living alone were significantly related to pandemic DRF, respectively. These findings are consistent with a U.S. study, where the dreams of female participants, participants with high education level, and participants most affected by COVID-19 regar

Also from Nature and the Science of Sleep, “Nightmares in People with COVID-19: Did Coronavirus Infect Our Dreams?

From a qualitative point of view, healthy individuals have reported higher negative emotional intensity in dream content during the COVID-19 outbreak. Moreover, pandemic-related contents were identified both during the first wave of pandemic and in the post-lockdown period. In a relatively large United States sample (N = 3031), dream activity and mental health were shown to be associated during the pandemic, with the finding that the more participants were affected by the pandemic, the more it affected their dreams. Similarly, individuals having COVID-19-related traumatic experiences, such as death or disease of relatives/friends, report increased distress in their dream content and nightmares. Further, people reporting more changes in their life situation (eg, sleep habits or working life) have more emotional dreams. Furthermore, some trait-like features have an impact on oneiric activity. Indeed, women have shown higher DRF than men, and older adults have reported lower (dream recall frequency) DRF and (nightmare frequency) NF than younger individuals.

Propaganda infects our dreams, too. From The New Yorker, we learn of Charlotte Beradt, who collected 75 dreams under the Third Reich:

Not long after Hitler came to power, in 1933, a thirty-year-old woman in Berlin had a series of uncanny dreams. In one, her neighborhood had been stripped of its usual signs, which were replaced with posters that listed twenty verboten words; the first was “Lord” and the last was “I.” In another, the woman found herself surrounded by workers, including a milkman, a gasman, a newsagent, and a plumber. She felt calm, until she spied among them a chimney sweep. (In her family, the German word for “chimney sweep” was code for the S.S., a nod to the trade’s blackened clothing.) The men brandished their bills and performed a Nazi salute. Then they chanted, “Your guilt cannot be doubted.”


Beradt’s work uncovers the effects of authoritarian regimes on the collective unconscious. In 1933, a woman dreams of a mind-reading machine, “a maze of wires” that detects her associating Hitler with the word “devil.” Beradt encountered several dreams about thought control, some of which anticipated the bureaucratic absurdities used by the Nazis to terrorize citizens. In one dream, a twenty-two-year-old woman who believes her curved nose will mark her as Jewish attends the “Bureau of Verification of Aryan Descent”—not a real agency, but close enough to those of the time. In a series of “bureaucratic fairy tales” that evoke the regime’s real-life propaganda, a man dreams of banners, posters, and barracks-yard voices pronouncing a “Regulation Prohibiting Residual Bourgeois Tendencies.” In 1936, a woman dreams of a snowy road strewn with watches and jewelery. Tempted to take a piece, she senses a setup by the “Office for Testing the Honesty of Aliens.”

From the present day, we have the 45 Dreams project, inspired by Beradt:

I had a dream about Trump the other night. He asked me to give a speech but the speech writer sabotaged it and had me looking stupid on live TV.

had a dream the trump admin brought back the draft but called it “war try-outs”

Had a dream I was touring the White House, and in every single room (including each bathroom) speakers were blasting songs covered by Trump.

Blue-skying even more freely: The “altered states” that enable denial, cope, and willfull ignorance of Covid are caused, at least in part, by propaganda from hegemons. (Of course, there are other factors, like interest, even taste.) As we see above, both Covid and propaganda infect our dreams. But why cannot dreaming help us disinfect our minds from propaganda? I would argue that all forms of submission to propaganda must be embodied (a smile, for example, would be a case of Blumberg’s “new motor memories” and “new skills”, embodiments the brain learns). And what is learned can be unlearned. We have heard of lucid dreaming. Could there be Bayesian dreaming? Why is there not already? Surely, Bayesian dreaming would be adaptive. Even, or especially, during a nightmare…


[1] The noun “dream,” meaning as above, only appears in English in the mid-13th century; I would have thought such a salient feature of the human experience to be traceable all the way back to an Indo-European root, and have all sorts of branchings. Oddly, not.

[2] See, e.g., “Speech Sounds,” by Octavia Butler.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. .Tom

    My dogs’ dreams interest me. (As with considering the nature of consciousness and free will, I find pondering the similarities and differences between humans and dogs quite instructive.) Zeno, a 3 year old 40-lb male mutt from Alabama, sometimes sings in his sleep. He makes a long plaintive grunt and then gives three full lung-fulls of wake-the-neighbors aaahOOOO, then a couple more grunts and back to snoring. One time he did this while I had the lights on so could watch him and I saw that he neither raised his head nor opened his eyes. It’s amazing, especially how he doesn’t manage to wake himself with such an enormous noise. I like to presume it’s related to dreaming but, since he never sang at all except when sleeping, I’ve no idea what the content of the dream might be. Perhaps he has anxiety dreams about getting lost in the forest.

  2. Raymond Sim

    A long time ago I happened upon a blog whose author proposed what (I think) he called a “pattern extraction architecture” as the basis for the organization of the brain, with a major argument in its favor being that it naturally accounted for rem sleep. I found it extremely impressive. Alas, that’s all I recall of it now.

    1. ejf

      I remember that, the pattern extraction architecture… I half remember that from a link off a link on Ian Welsh’s old site when he used to have links on his front page.
      the “architecture of software” is built on familiar software patterns, or the organization of software logic

  3. Chet G

    I like dreams. Sometimes a dream is useful, becoming a story. Other times its meaning is neither here nor there but an interesting experience.
    A body’s autonomic systems continue while asleep: the heart beats, the lungs provide oxygen, and so forth. So why shouldn’t the brain do its own thing, whether images and/or sounds.
    I’ve the feeling that dreams expand a person, making the impossible possible.

  4. eg

    If only twitching were the worst of it. I have often “acted out” during dreams, usually violently so — hurling myself off the bed; running into the hallway; throwing things or pushing against walls or door jambs. In one notorious instance I ran through a room full of people sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags, fortunately without stepping on or tripping over any of them. I’ve found myself waking up downstairs from the bedroom, and once as a teenager on our driveway.

    Thankfully as I have gotten older the incidents have gotten less frequent, thought I did launch myself over my wife and onto the floor on the far side of the bed within the past month.

    I don’t know what this says about the purpose of dreams, though sometimes aberrant behaviours can provide clues about normal behaviour. Certainly it’s evidence of a kind for the “embodiment” thesis.

  5. thoughtful person

    “Are we in a state of light hypnosis?”

    Yes, maybe most even deep hypnosis, if we think about it. We see homeless people at the corner, we hear about wars, climate disasters and how else can we cope? We don’t know what we can do about all these things and even picking out one and ignoring the rest is too much for most. Then think about the future die off or the Jackpot. No wonder we are mostly focused on sports, sitcoms etc.

    I think the concept of the brain learning the body through REM sleep seems quite plausible.

  6. samm

    “I again commend dreams; we live and experience in dreams as well as we do when awake… The dream is a life which, combined with the rest of our life, constitutes what we call human life. Dreams merge gradually into our waking state: one cannot say where a man’s waking state begins.”

    – Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

  7. Oldtimer

    Why can one have a wet dream yet it’s impossible to have an ejaculation when you are awake without physical stimulation just by trying to think of an erotic situation? Does brain have a stronger control of body when sleeping?

  8. britzklieg

    No disrespect for the effort to understand exhibited here, our minds are designed to ponder and it’s part of what makes us human, I’d imagine. Indeed, maybe that’s the answer – we dream so that we can ponder why we dream. Still, I’m left with two questions:

    1. Why do some people not dream… or perhaps a better way to ask, given the expressed and apparently scientific “proof” of dreaming during REM sleep… If one dreams but doesn’t remember it, is it still a dream?

    2. Why does it matter?

    In a previous essay about sleep I related that having recently stopped smoking pot it was taking me longer to fall asleep but that I was dreaming (remembering my dreams?) quite vividly. I also found the dreams, even the darker, more disurbing ones, entertaining. But now, 4 months clean of ingesting THC in any form, I am back to my lifelong circumstance of not dreaming much and the few dreams I recall are “small” – neither vivid nor terribly interesting. I’m also back to easily falling asleep, and sleeping as well as I did before, when I was still using. I do miss the entertaining nature of my brief time dreaming, or remembering my dreams more vividly if that’s what was happening… but I’m also sleeping better than when I was dreaming (or remembering my dreams) more vividly.

    This is offered as just my experience, nothing more. It is not intended to prove or mean anything.

  9. Rick

    I would have thought this would attract more comments!

    I know for sure in my case dreams are a way of dealing with emotional distress, now including living in a society that has abandoned the ideals of public health. Dreams may be other things as well, haven’t thought about the embodied ideas before.

    Something that caught my attention when reading this: “Surely, things were not always like this?” I’ve often thought that about the world we now live in, then reflect that maybe it has been. HIV/AIDS affected a smaller but distinct population and now feels like a practice run for the entire population. In politics, armed conflict, environment destruction, and more, I believe we may have long been hypnotized (in a dream state or whatever).

    Maybe with eight thousand million individuals on the planet, we’ve sunk into a deeper state.

    Lucid dreaming has been a fascinating and fun experience for me even though I rarely do it now.

    Thought provoking essay, thanks.

  10. Xihuitl

    Dreams are poetic messages from our subconscious, telling us in metaphorical images things that we are avoiding or need to know or decide about something happening in our lives. They can be highly useful, particularly during times of personal uncertainty or transition. Although some dreams may be random brain firing, significant dreams stand out, even if they are short and seemingly banal or incomprehensible. In these dreams, every single detail matters: the color of the car, are you driving or a passenger. What are the associations with that color? Yellow, for instance. What does it mean to be a driver or merely a passenger? Is the car going too fast? How does that relate to issues in our lives?

    I recommend Inner Work, by Robert Johnson.

    1. Bsn

      Yes, those flying dreams, top notch. One of my favorites (I remember them quite often) was in the San Fran. bay area. While living there I had a dream that I was in a hot air balloon floating above the bay. I was playing a wind instrument and when I would stop, to look out over the horizon, the balloon would descend. If I started playing again I would ascend. I got to about 30,000 feet (airplane height) and could see about 300 miles in each direction. The more I played the higher I got. What fun!!

    2. Laughingsong

      I’ve been able to fly in my dreams my whole life, so much so, that it no longer surprises anyone in any of my dreams. It’s just known.

      I also have always had psychokinetic ability (usually just “calling” remote items to my hand), can breathe under water, and snow is always warm.

      Why? Dunno. But these little weirdities are such a constant, I’ve started to think of my dreams as a destination, another world that I live in for a while.

  11. bdy

    Lately I imagine sleep is my consciousness’ regular, necessary release from the limits imposed by 3D space, and the time construct I use to negotiate them. My body stops feeling things (cold or pain doesn’t bother me until I wake up) and time stops being a factor in experience (long narratives are dreamt in tiny snippets of “real” time). Because any kind of extra-dimensional experience can’t be understood in 3D spatial terms, I layer a narrative of the familiar over the remembered dream experience when I wake up. The fantastic, impossible to describe Mysterion gets the banal staging of whatever crazy shit my dreams look like, whether it’s stuff I’m preoccupied with, old friends or scary monsters.

    I imagine the 90ish percent of the universe currently called “dark matter” may just be the 4th, 5th, 7th (and so on) dimensional stuff of the cosmos working gravity on its 3D manifestation. If 90% of the universe is invisible to me, why wouldn’t 90% of me be invisible as well?

    Whatever. If dreams are, as I suspect and wish, the daily experience of my extra-dimensional self, then they are me operating outside the constraints of time and space. And they are quite real. So when I see an old friend in a dream I wake up feeling grateful that they gave me a little attention in the wherever. I have more control over the dream narrative than the “real”, awake world — although my most lucid states are rare and barely halfway there. I’ve taken the handful of encounters with Specials — Gods, Goddesses, former loves and so on — seriously, with gravity; gratitude and respect. Is that Jungian? I confess that I’m not too familiar with that stuff, but writing it down it seems like it may share some important elements.

    Whatever. In the couple years I’ve looked at sleep this way, I’ve slept and lived a lot better. And the fears, joys, conflicts and resolutions of my dreaming play themselves out in surprising analog when I’m awake. Maybe that’s just my better dreamed behavior rubbing off on my real habits and relationships. Or maybe it’s really my higher spiritual self acting out free will in a way that’s impossible here where I walk and talk. Whatever, as a practice it’s been more helpful to my habits and state of mind than any treatment, medicine or practice — except for maybe the meditation I’ve been doing at the same time.

  12. Hank Linderman

    Fascinating. More please!

    I used to have a few different recurring dreams, I can barely remember them now but they were deeply familiar each time they occurred. One involved an entirely separate life. I can’t remember who called dreams “mental flatulence” but they seem much more important than that to me. For long periods of time I have thought I didn’t dream, lately I am remembering them as I wake. I should keep a dream diary.

    And do out of body experiences count as dreams or something else?


    Hope it’s okay to share a song lyric:

    Dream World (Another Dream Another Day)

    Time for me to wake up in Dream World
    Time to push the real world away
    Then it’s off to chase my scheme
    Another dream, another day

    Who knows who I’ll see there in Dream World?
    Who knows what new adventures I’ll play?
    There’s no mistakes to reconsider
    Another dream, another day

    I turn out the lights
    And let the silken darkness settle in
    Then I close my eyes
    And wake up in a better world again

    There’s so much to do here in Dream World
    Each moment is another soiree
    Then it’s gone into the ether
    Like a scene in a ballet

    Will I disappoint you in Dream World?
    If I smile and just walk away?
    We drift apart without lamenting
    Another dream, another day

    I turn out the lights
    And let the silken darkness settle in
    Then I close my eyes
    And wake up in a better world again

    Back out on my own here in Dream World
    Remembering what you used to say
    Can I face our muddled mystery?
    Another dream, another day
    I promise that I’ll love you

    Another dream, another day

    © 2013 by Hank Linderman All Rights Reserved

    1. Xihuitl

      Regarding recurring dreams:

      My late father, who was usually very taciturn, once told me of a recurring dream that was bothering him. The time was the 80s in Houston and he, like a lot of highly leveraged speculators, had been ruined in the collapse of the oil market.

      The dream was based on something that actually happened, an incident while he was serving on a submarine in the East China Sea during World War II. The daring-do commander, who happened to be John McCain’s father, ordered him, a 21-year-old junior lieutenant just a few years out of Annapolis, along with a slightly older chief warrant officer, an enlisted man, to get out and check out an island for enemies. They were both handed loaded handguns while standing in the sub’s control room. Dad did what he had been trained to do during changing of the guard at the naval academy. He released the safety, pointed the gun in the air and prepared to pull the trigger to show that the gun wasn’t loaded. Only the gun was loaded, and he was standing in the control room of a submarine at sea.

      The chief warrant officer quickly put his finger between the hammer and the pin. The gun didn’t fire.

      “I don’t know why I did that,” my father said, wincing now from a different, deeper kind of pain. He’d almost disabled the sub, with a crew of around 80 men, off a remote island in the middle of enemy territory. “I just don’t know why I did that.”

      The recurring dream that was haunting him was this: he’s in the control room of his submarine, he loads the gun, points the gun in the air in front of his famously heroic commander and crew, and pulls the trigger.

      Many years later, sleeping fitfully due to financial troubles that were my own doing, I woke and suddenly understood what my father’s recurring bad dream was about.

      It was about sinking your own ship.

  13. PlutoniumKun

    I’ve often wondered if dreaming has a function in language development – many language learners consider it an important stage when their ‘new’ language appears in dreams. One school of language teaching – ALG – which involves lots of passive input claims that sometimes students improve after a few weeks break from intensive input – possibly because just as with muscles and nerves, the brain takes its time to sort out the new structures. Perhaps dreaming has a role in this.

  14. begob

    Hypothesis: Dream-time is when the brain runs tests on the body’s signalling systems. Dreams are metaphor formations in response to the results: full function generates blissful, fluffy reverie; malfunction, the nightmare that starts us awake – “Someone is in trouble!”

    1. Bsn

      Nice comment. Reminds me that I’ve learned that some animals, when they sleep, one 1/2 of their brain is awake to remain alert to danger as the other half sleeps (and dreams?).

  15. Jeff W

    (1) I’d say that dreams are covert behavior during sleep. (Things like REM are not covert behavior.)

    (2) Maybe, as The Atlantic says, “…REM-phase movements aren’t about dreams at all.” REM and dreams seem to be correlated but are obviously separate things (according to my definition).

    (3) I wouldn’t think dreams are necessarily about one thing, e.g., confronting emotional dramas in your life or facilitating your creative tendencies or helping you store important memories—they could be about a lot of things at different times.

    (4) Personally, I think dreams occasionally present us with some content that we feel anxious or at least have some emotion about à la the dreams of people in the Third Reich. I’ve never thought that dreams help us “confront” these issues or solve them—the content is just there because that’s a concern to us; it’s (almost in a literal sense) “what’s on our minds.”

  16. DJG, Reality Czar

    Hmmm. I am surprised the the noun form of “dream” didn’t turn up in English till the high middle ages. The Romans and Greeks were preoccupied with dreams. I am thinking of the Latin / Roman ideas of incubus and succubus. I am also thinking of the sleep/dream cures in temples, described by Aelius Aristides.

    As to understanding dreams and their function, I approve of / enjoy the idea of embodiment. Anything that collapses dualism is fine with me. Body, mind, dream = all one thing. The twitching described may be a way of testing, but also may be a way of relaxing the body, much as we give the limbs a good shake when we are in a rest position after exercise or in the corpse position at the end of a yoga session.

    I still hold to Jung’s ideas that dreams are part of a mind that operates at night, not exactly separately. Jung always stressed that what is portrayed in dreams matters as much as our daylight ideas and observations. You can call it tapping into the collective unconscious. You can call it serendipity. I know that my dreams are in vivid colors, have plots, and often rework the outside world into my inner world.

    And as proof (!!!), I’d argue that the tarot cards are very much dreamlike. They are liminal, on the threshold. One uses them in a kind of dream state. Of course, that means that tarot is hardly every a prediction. The cards don’t foretell. Until they do.

    We are such stuff as dreams are made on, eh

    1. DJG, Reality Czar

      Noting Xihuitl’s and bdy’s comments above. I agree with them. There is a poetic side, because poetry is always vatic, prophetic, disruptive. And dreams also can be so.

  17. Victor Sciamarelli

    I think the dream is a natural ability to relate to, and even understand, the world around you.
    Inside the womb and during the first years, with little or no language skills, both the daytime and nightime might be a similar dream experince. Few people have any memories prior to age three. Probably because language takes over and attaches itself to everything.
    Perhaps the dream is a fundamental experience and trying to examine it, like quantum mechanics, makes it elusive. Perhaps the dream is also a innate skill that should be developed during your lifetime.
    I think some forms of art, music, and mathematics bridge the gap between the dream and the language experience. Language connects everybody to their world of today, and maybe the dream connects you to life itself.

  18. Chantelle

    We escape into dream [fantasy] to avoid a deadlock in our real life. But then, what we encounter in the dream is even more horrible, so that at the end we literally escape back into reality. It starts with, “dreams are for those who cannot endure, who are not strong enough for reality”, and ends with “reality is for those who are not strong enough to endure, to confront their dreams.”” – Zizek/Freud

  19. David J.

    A Dream Within a Dream
    E.A. Poe

    Take this kiss upon the brow!
    And, in parting from you now,
    Thus much let me avow:
    You are not wrong who deem
    That my days have been a dream;
    Yet if hope has flown away
    In a night, or in a day,
    In a vision, or in none,
    Is it therefore the less gone?
    All that we see or seem
    Is but a dream within a dream.

    I stand amid the roar
    Of a surf-tormented shore,
    And I hold within my hand
    Grains of the golden sand–
    How few! yet how they creep
    Through my fingers to the deep,
    While I weep–while I weep!
    O God! can I not grasp
    Them with a tighter clasp?
    O God! can I not save
    One from the pitiless wave?
    Is all that we see or seem
    But a dream within a dream?

  20. Watt4Bob

    The moment you experience a ‘lucid’ dream, this topic changes radically.

    The moment you find yourself awake within a dream, and realize that you have the ability to ‘decide’ what to do next, is life-changing.

  21. Dick Swenson

    When I was young, I had a high fever case of measles. My dreams were of flying faster and faster, and falling. I never landed.

    Recently (in the past 5 years of my 86 years) I have begun to dream quite regularly. None of the dreams have been ‘nightmares.’ I have come to love flying but seem to have lost the ability to cause such dreams. In fact that is a common aspect of my dreams now. As soon as I come to the point of enjoying the dreams and, seemingly able to generate them, I lose that ability.

    I dream in color. My wife reports that I move around and sometimes flail about, but no one has reported to me that I speak, at leasr coherently, out loud.

    A catalog of dreams might be interesting.

    1. Watt4Bob

      As soon as I come to the point of enjoying the dreams and, seemingly able to generate them, I lose that ability.

      In learning how to handle ‘lucid’ dreaming one must overcome an unusual obstacle, a very strong tendency to be distracted at the exact moment that one realizes that they’ve become awake in their dream.

      This distraction is totally predictable, very powerful, and seems to me to be a reflexive feature of the mind, intended to cushion the intense shock of waking in your dreams.

      In my first experience with a ‘lucid’ dream, as soon as I realized that I was dreaming, I looked around at my surroundings only to discover that I was standing in a store that was selling expensive mechanics hand-tools. Large sets of Snap-On tools that would normally cost thousands of dollars were marked with ridiculously low prices! Being a car-nut, and a hot-rodder at the time, this situation caused me to fall back into a ‘normal’ confusing dream state.

      Once you understand that this sort of powerful distraction will happen every time you find yourself ‘awake’ in a dream, you can learn to to anticipate it, and to control your attention in such way as to avoid lapsing back into the chaos of ‘normal’ dreaming.

      Lucid dreaming is an incredibly powerful experience, and one that IMO can lead a person down a path toward obsession.

      In a popular book, Birdy by William Wharton, the protagonist learns to control his dreams to the point of his becoming a bird in his dreams. He becomes obsessed with his alternative dream-life, to the point where he finds his real-life nearly unbearable.

      Very good book.

      I put a fair amount of time into learning this stuff back in my college days, and then sort of let it go, now days, I never chase the experience, I have a lucid dream once or twice a year and mostly find them reassuring reminders that all is not as it seems.

      …and that’s OK.

  22. Lefty Godot

    The fact that brain waves become highly synchronized during both dreaming (theta wave) and “deep” (delta wave) sleep may be significant. It’s resychronizing the brain network subsystems that get out of sync during our waking moments. Possibly helping us be less “scatterbrained”.

  23. Roxan

    What about precognitive dreams? I’ve had those a few times, mostly involving mundane things such as car problems/accidents–always a warning which I took seriously. As to whether we are all stumbling along in a dream these days, we seem to all be connected and sharing the ‘mindstream’, which is badly polluted with rage, fear, etc. I suspect the internet and too much screen time, induces a sort of hypnosis in many.

    1. Watt4Bob

      I have a friend who was saved a very serious injury by a precognitive dream.

      He avoided a job related injury because he saw it happen in a dream.

  24. Wildsilver

    Hi Lambert.

    Thanks for the thought provoking subject matter.

    It seems there is a possibility in addition to Equilibrium and Embodiment, which would add to their explanation for dreams.
    It resides in a little known part of the whole of our planet called the Noosphere.

    If earth’s Biosphere is everything below us; it’s Atmosphere everything between us and space: then the Noosphere is the planetary sphere of reason where the collective knowledge of all living matter resides.


    More recently, it was named the Global Consciousness Project and created originally in the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab at Princeton University.


    So how would a collective consciousness likely function and explain dreams?

    As an example, I offer an experience by well known physician Gabor Mate.
    He relates the story from his infancy where, on the morning in 1944 when the Nazis marched into Budapest, he was very unsettled and his worried mother called for the doctor.
    When he arrived she explained the symptoms and he replied, ‘Mrs Mate, all my Jewish babies are unsettled today’.

    Today, Gabor Mate asks how could babies have known that & physically reacted to the horrors yet to unfold.

    For myself, I’ve noticed many times that when I’ve a project or some other situation on my mind, and take those thoughts to sleep with me, I tend to awake at some point with an idea or solution that I then remember before nodding off again.

    Invariably that information which was beyond me at the time, proved very effective and my situation resolved itself.

    It seems to me the power of dreams also resides in the collective consciousness, which all life contributes to and can accesses.

    Cordially yours

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > the power of dreams also resides in the collective consciousness

      That’s a narrative. Where’s the mechanism? (I use the word not in the mechanistic sense, but in the biological/epidemiological sense.) If there’s no mechanism, there’s just woo woo. Or phlogiston, or the ether, or virtus dormitiva.

      Excellent information on Maté, however. Do you have a link? I’d like to cite to it.

      1. Wildsilver

        Hope this clip helps.

        Gabor Mate explains the mechanism how we pick up information through external stimuli like trauma.


        While the Princeton experiment details how our collective thoughts on a subject are measurable on a global scale.

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