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Why Dream—and What Are They For? Poets Answer Scientists

Aphoristic quotes to help you think about the surprising facets of your dreams.

Source: E. A. Wallis Budge/Wikimedia Commons
Nut (Heaven) and Gab (Earth), ancient Egyptian gods of dreaming.
Source: E. A. Wallis Budge/Wikimedia Commons

This is a guest post by Harry Whitaker, retired university professor and founding editor of the journals Brain and Language and Brain and Cognition.

Source: Harry Whitaker
Professor Harry Whitaker.
Source: Harry Whitaker

“I’ve always remembered my dream when I wake up in the morning; imagine my astonishment when I learned that I have actually had seven or eight dreams each night, all completely unrecalled.”

Why Do We Dream?

  • Some people think that dreams "work" to consolidate memories or help you adapt to stressful events.
  • A few think that dreams reveal something hidden about the dreamer.
  • Some think that dreams regulate mood and emotions.
  • Still others believe that dreams are merely built from the "residue" of previous daytime experiences.
    Source: Belle Tuckerman, used with permission
    Jaylene's Melancholia.
    Source: Belle Tuckerman, used with permission

    What notable thinkers have thought about their dreams

    Some people see things that are and ask, Why?
    Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not?
    Some people have to go to work and don't have time for all that.
    —George Carlin

    Time in dreams is frozen. You can never get away from where you've been.
    —Margaret Atwood

    It's such a sad old feeling
    the fields are soft and green;
    it's memories that I'm stealing
    but you're innocent when you dream.
    —Tom Waits

    Here we are all, by day; by night we're hurl'd
    By dreams, each one into a several world.
    —Robert Herrick

    Of the many things I cannot do,
    I can never have your dream for you.

    Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.
    —Edgar Allan Poe

    Hold fast to dreams,
    For if dreams die
    Life is a broken-winged bird,
    That cannot fly.
    —Langston Hughes

    Source: Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons
    "Okiku's Ghost" by Hokusai.
    Source: Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

    I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind. And this is one: I'm going to tell it - but take care not to smile at any part of it.
    —Emily Brontë

    But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
    I have spread my dreams under your feet;
    Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
    —William Butler Yeats

    I dreamed a dream that made me sad,
    Concerning myself and the first few friends I had.
    —Bob Dylan

    What happens to a dream deferred?
    Does it dry up
    like a raisin in the sun?
    Or fester like a sore—
    And then run?
    Does it stink like rotten meat?
    Or crust and sugar over—
    like a syrupy sweet?
    Maybe it just sags
    like a heavy load.
    Or does it explode?
    —Langston Hughes

    I love the silent hour of night,
    for blissful dreams may then arise,
    revealing to my charmed sight
    what may not bless my waking eyes.
    —Anne Brontë

    Source: Isabella Tuckerman, used with permission
    Aailyah's Daydreams.
    Source: Isabella Tuckerman, used with permission

    Crazy Horse dreamed and went into the world where there is nothing but the spirits of all things. That is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that one.
    —Black Elk, a Medicine Man of the Oglala (Lakota) Sioux

    Come to me in my dreams, and then
    By day I shall be well again.
    For then the night will more than pay
    The hopeless longing of the day.
    —Matthew Arnold

    We are more curious about the meaning of dreams than about things we see when awake.

    I close my eyes, then I drift away,
    into the magic night I softly say
    a silent prayer, like dreamers do,
    then I fall asleep to dream my dreams of you.
    —Roy Orbison

    You know, I'm sick of following my dreams, man. I'm just going to ask where they're going and hook up with 'em later.
    —Mitch Hedberg

    Oft do I dream this strange and penetrating dream:
    An unknown woman, whom I love, who loves me well,
    Who does not every time quite change, nor yet quite dwell
    The same—and loves me well, and knows me as I am.
    —Paul Verlaine

    What if you slept
    And what if
    In your sleep
    You dreamed
    And what if
    In your dream
    You went to heaven
    And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
    And what if
    When you awoke
    You had that flower in your hand
    Ah, what then?
    —Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    Dreams: the original renewable resource.

    But time grew old and deaf. And you, the loud one,
    Quite suddenly were still. This broke a spell.
    The dreaming ceased at once, as though in answer
    To an abruptly silenced bell.
    —Boris Pasternak

    This is my dream,
    It is my own dream,
    I dreamt it.
    I dreamt that my hair was kempt.
    Then I dreamt that my true love unkempt it.
    —Ogden Nash

    Rien n'est plus beau que le rêve bien fait.
    "Nothing is so beautiful that a dream cannot improve."

    All books are either dreams or swords,
    You can cut, or you can drug, with words.
    —Amy Lowell

    When chivalric glory perished
    Like the pageant of a dream,
    Love in vain its memory cherished,
    Fired in vain the minstrel's theme.
    —Thomas Love Peacock

    Source: Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons
    Nut—The Night Sky.
    Source: Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

    All that we see or seem
    Is but a dream within a dream.
    —Edgar Allan Poe

    Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons
    Ra, the sun god.
    Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

    Khonsu begins his nightly race,
    When Ra first hides his shining face;
    Nūt stretches o’er all heaven’s space
    And gives each dream a starry place.

    I had a dream about you last night. We stopped telling each other about our dreams when we realized we were still inside them.
    —Michael Summers

    You know that place between sleeping and awake, that place where you can still remember dreaming? That's where I'll always think of you.
    —J.M. Barrie

    I’ll let you be in my dreams,
    If I can be in yours
    —Bob Dylan

    The invention of writing at first helped us remember. But soon we realized that writing lets us share our dreams with others.

    • Some dreams are impossible but imaginable—time travel or growing younger.

    • Some dreams are imaginable but improbable—writing down a memory to retain it as it might have been.
    • Some dreams are improbable but possible—recreating a well-loved rendezvous, but in another time and place.
    • Much of our life just happens. What good fortune if someday—aliquando—we could choose what to dream about?

    Happy dreaming! May yours be sweet and memorable.

    Please email questions and comments via the Author Profile link below,
    where they will be forwarded to Professor Whitaker for reply.