Carl Jung said, “the dream shows the inner truth, and reality [...] not as he/she would like it to be, but as it is”. Dreams are packed with insights and rich imagery - they are a window into our unconscious mind. Recording our dreams is one of the most accessible ways to pay attention to this “art of the mind” and perhaps even draw meaning from, our dreams.
Dream caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate a second before waking - Salvador Dali, 1944
Why do we dream?
For thousands of years, humans have seen dreams as mystical, or as some kind of window into our deeper selves. They’ve reportedly inspired great literature and art or even, scientific breakthroughs. Do our dreams have any meaning or serve any purpose? Why do we dream? Our dreams are constructed entirely from our memories. In this Salvador Dali masterpiece, a woman is woken by a passing bee, and her brain makes up an elaborate dream to explain the buzz and the sting: roaring tigers and the stab of a bayonet. Dali loved dreams. He said his best ideas came from them.
Before we fall asleep, our brains are a mess of chattering neurons. And all that electrical activity creates chaotic electromagnetic waves. Gina Poe, a neuroscientist, says about this moment: “Kind of like there’s wind on the surface of the water, a lot of little white caps. As we fall asleep and as we lose consciousness, it’s like the wind had quieted down. And you see the undulating waves beneath it. If you wake people out of this state and ask them what they were thinking, they’ll say, “Nothing, let me go back to sleep.” Our brain waves look exactly like we’re awake. Neurons are talking to each other, sending out signals to move and speak and jump.” But a tiny area of our brains called the pons stops us from actually moving around. Our bodies are temporarily paralyzed, except for our eyes, that’s called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. We don’t make up our dreams the moment we awake, we experience them as we sleep.
The meaning of dreams
The brain in REM sleep looks uniquely different from any other time in our day or night. One area of the brain that’s off is the logical judgment filter. So that’s probably why our dreams are so bizarre and don’t make any sense. And the entire emotional (hippocampus, amygdala) part of the brain lights up like fire even more active than during waking. So it looks when we’re in REM sleep, the emotional brain is cranked up and the reasoning brain is cranked down, and that’s certainly how our dreams tend to feel. There was a sort of unanimous agreement that dreams were messages from the gods. They were portents, they were warnings, they were instructions. Many ancient civilizations created huge manuals to decipher them. The belief dreams had meaning held for hundreds of years.
One of Freud’s earliest supporters, Carl Jung, also believed dreams were messages from the subconscious. Contrarily to what Freud thought, Jung believed our dreams weren’t all about sex. Instead, they contained characters that represented aspects of our inner lives: trickster = anxiety, maiden = purity, wise old person = wisdom. Researchers have meticulously compiled thousands and thousands of dreams in dozens of countries, and they noticed some patterns. Dreams of being chased, of having sex, and of falling, are some of the most popular. In fact, most dreams come from memories of people’s waking lives.
Lucid dreaming is a skill like any other skill. First, you have to practice remembering your dreams. You also have to recognize when you are inside a dream and it helps to question reality. And once you realize you are in a dream, you can influence it. Some scientists think dreams can play a critical role in creativity and learning. Dreaming about the task is part of the process of enhancing and improving the memory while we sleep. Forgetting is a part of learning and it seems like REM sleep is really important for erasing things that our brain needs to erase, that it does not need to store so that you can incorporate new pieces of information. This selective forgetfulness might help people work through emotional memories.
Keeping track of your dreams as a source of insight and creativity
When we’re in that hazy dream state, unbound by reason or consequences, it might be the perfect time to lay the groundwork for insights and breakthroughs. In REM sleep, the brain is creating dreams that are not designed to settle on a single answer, but to help us realize all the possible answers that are out there. It might be that part of the function of REM sleep is to identify sort of wacky associations, connections that we would never discover while we’re awake. Creativity is nothing more than taking the information we already have and seeing how it fits together in a new and exciting way. Recording track of our dreams can then become a way to access new perspectives and boost creativity.
Before going to bed, set an intention to remember and explore your dreams. You might choose to keep a notebook and pen near your bed table or even a voice recorder. When waking up, try to remain as still as possible in your body and let your dreams come to the surface while still half-asleep. Try to recall your dreams by reenacting them in your head. You might find that sharing your dreams with friends can also spur new perspectives can sometimes lead to insights that you may have not thought of while writing.