Saturday, 7 January 2012

Had any insane dreams lately?

The other night I had a strange dream. I was in a house of some kind, which was ordinary enough, but it had a flat roof. I only discovered the flat roof when I found myself on it for some reason, checking out all the water purification gear parked there.

I’m familiar with water purification, so I knew what it was, although my dreaming self did think it a little odd to find loads and loads of it on my roof. In fact the water purification gear turned out to be a complex, rambling plant stretching from my house over to nearby buildings. It had walkways, tanks, control panels and became more and more intricate the more I explored it. Then I woke up.

So it was a pretty mundane kind of dream, if a little mixed-up and ridiculous. But what’s going on when we dream? Why are dreams so often weirdly mixed-up? Lots of people have had their say on dreams, so here’s my offering.

I think dreams are more than weird, I think they are a hint of what keeps us sane.

In a dreaming state we barely respond at all to external stimuli, but they are where our sanity comes from. Reality moulds us. When we are asleep it can't do its job properly and we tend to respond to mysterious internal states not directly controlled by current reality.

Reality imposes itself on us every waking second and the competence of our responses are what our sanity really is. Sanity is a competent response to reality, leaving aside the rather big questions of what competent and reality may be.

So while we sleep, the real world is not imposing itself on our repertoire of behaviours and they are free to  mingle and interact in ways which do not need to make sense and may even be physically impossible such as dreams of flying.

When we wake up after a dream we catch a brief glimpse of our absolute dependence on reality, because that’s what keeps us sane. We are all, every one of us, much closer to insanity than we care to admit.

Of course this idea adds a much darker hue to claims such as those made by climate fanatics who say millions will die because of CO2 emissions. Theirs is an incompetent, mixed-up response to reality and much closer to dreaming than they probably realise. Or is it closer to insanity?

Maybe it amounts to the same thing.


Mark Wadsworth said...


Dreams are when your minds goes through all the things you have thought about during the day.

The sensible ones go straight into long term memory for further reference.

Now, you will of course have had silly thought, for example, you must have been thinking about flat roofs and/or water purification in a way which didn't make sense, i.e. maybe you asked yourself "Would I be able to fit enough WP equipment on my garage to provide fresh water for the whole town where I live?"

But before your sensible mind had replied "No of course not" maybe the door bell rang or something, so you never finished it the thought, so your brain put it into medium term storage to be sifted through later on.

What you call "dream" is actually your brain doing the sifting, it is not sure whether you meant it seriously about purifying water for the whole town so it gives you an example of how impractical this would be, and now you know.

A K Haart said...

MW – Nope.

You have invented an unconscious rational sifting process and at least two memory processes without evidence or controlling causes.

That wouldn’t matter if dreams made sense, but the fact that they frequently don’t is evidence of a controlling process that lapses when you fall asleep, not evidence of a series of rational but unconscious brain processes coming in to tidy up.

Mark Wadsworth said...

AKH: "That wouldn’t matter if dreams made sense..."

Well there's the rub. My own theory is based on the least-irrational explanation I've come up with over the decades. And that is why dreams don't make sense.

Let's imagine you think "I should pop to the newsagents to buy the daily paper" and you go and buy it, well you probably wouldn't dream about it later on. And maybe you forget to buy it, but your subconscious remembers that you forgot and you dream about buying the paper.

Now, maybe when you are walking to the shop, you get to the traffic lights and the little green man has just gone red, you glance up the road and see that a car is speeding towards you, for a split second, you think about sprinting across, but then self-preservation kicks in and you stay put and wait for the next green man. But you then forget all about it.

It is quite possible that you'll dream about dodging traffic, nearly being killed, because you had an irrational thought for a split second which provoked a strong emotional response (fear of being killed) and which you forgot.

While you're asleep, the inner Tufty Club comes along and gives you a road safety lesson you'll never forget, i.e. the sensation of being surrounded by cars whizzing towards you.

And so on. It is quite possible that my theory is complete bunkum, of course...

A K Haart said...

MW - as far as I can see, that works but doesn't really address the problem of control - ie why these event pop up as dreams if they didn't actually happen.

My view doesn't address this either, or only in the negative sense that I see dreaming as a relaxation of rational control.

I'm not totally convinced that you are saying something different to me here, rather than emphasising different aspects. Maybe, maybe not.