Dream Catcher

The neuroscience of our night life

There Are Lots of Dreams on Those Pillows

What is the source of dreams?

When my 4 year old daughter, Ina, awoke this morning (July 6 2011) she began telling me a couple of dreams that she had had during the night. She began her ‘reports' however by saying 'Papa I dreamed of..." In other words she clearly knows what dreams are and that they are something separate from what happens in ‘real life'. This is a remarkable accomplishment. I remember when she first demonstrated awareness that dreams were a special category of consciousness. About a year ago she woke up one morning and looked at me with some distress and said something like ‘Papa ... the ghost in the forest after me...' When I replied ‘oh that was just a bad dream' she very quickly brightened up and with some relief said ‘Oh yeah it was just a dream!' and walked away with the 3-year old equivalent of a swagger.

Most children begin to understand what dreams are between the ages of 2 and 5. Think now what a remarkable accomplishment this is! They have to realize that there is this sphere of consciousness or this other ‘world' that they go into each night and that is replete with intense emotion and with vivid characters. People from their waking life may and frequently do appear in this other world but there may also be less familiar characters and sometimes very scary characters. Animals very frequently populate children's dreams and all kinds of supernatural beings as well. At some point children learn that this other world may not carry the same ‘ontological' weight as their waking life and then they may de-value dreams a little. But most children do not completely dismiss dreams as unimportant or a forgettable feature of their lives. How could they when dreams are such emotionally compelling experiences? Children learn that dreams have less weight than waking life from their own daily experiences and from the comments of adults around them. When I said to Ina "look it was only a dream' I was teaching her that dreams are in some sense un-real.

Why do we accord less reality to dreams than to our waking lives? Well, for many reasons. Fundamentally in dreams you cannot ‘really' get physically hurt-though dream images can sometimes cause heart attacks or other somatic symptoms. But if somebody stabs you in a dream you will nevertheless still wake up the next day. No matter how real or compelling dreams might be most of their physical effects on subsequent waking life are small to non-existent. Conversely, physical events of waking life do not automatically affect dream life either. For example, people who become blind can still see in their dreams and people who become paralyzed through trauma will nevertheless still be able to walk in their dreams. Over many years, however, dream life begins to adjust to waking life and not vice versa-so the blind gradually lose the ability to see in their dreams and the paralyzed gradually lose the ability to walk in their dreams.

Nevertheless, dreams seem to carry greater ontological weight than waking experiences in some mental domains. When beloved friends or relatives who have died suddenly re-appear in a dream it is difficult for even the most die-hard dogmatic mechanical materialist to believe that the dream presence was nothing but an image. Instead most people who have experienced these reappearances of lost beloved feel that the presence in the dream was real and that there was a communication between the beloved and the dreamer. In many non-Western cultures dreams are ascribed an objective reality that is equal in many respects to waking life. In these non-modern tribal cultures dreams are not considered to be merely subjective events. Instead, they are thought to come from some external source and the information they carry is considered to be just as valuable, if not more valuable, as information received in waking life.

Many early anthropologists studying tribal cultures claimed that tribal peoples could not distinguish between fantasy and reality. But it soon emerged that that was not the case. Tribal peoples understand what dreams are but they choose to give dreams more ontological weight than we ‘advanced' westerners do. Take for example, the development of dream concepts among the children of Hausa tribal peoples in Africa. Hausa ten-year-olds, like Western adults, adopt a mechanical materialist view of dreaming, claiming that dreams are unreal and internal in origin. Hausa adults, expect to find this error in their children and meet the error with patient education and ritual initiation rites. Hausa children are taught that dreams are a kind of spiritual seeing with special faculties that allows Hausa people to gain access to an external, objective realm of the wandering soul.

In short Hausa children adopt the mechanical materialist (modern Western) views of dreams as "nothing but...'' illusory images. The adult Hausa deal with the erroneous view on dreams during initiation and education ceremonies. The rites entail rejection of subjectivist views of dreaming and adoption of a view that sees dreams as emanating from outside the Mind of the dreamer-from a counterfactual spiritual world that influences and controls key aspects of the waking world. Dreams yield special knowledge and only fools see them as illusory or internal.

When my daughter Ina awoke this morning and told me her dreams she suddenly realized that she had mentioned several dreams or dream images so she finished her report by commenting on the external source of her dreams: "There are lots of dreams on those pillows huh!"

Patrick McNamara, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and the author of numerous books and articles on the science of dreams.

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