A heavy fog moved ashore last night, leaving the world mist-shrouded and opaque for my walk this morning. As I walked down Main Street toward the center of town, this scene seemed hauntingly familiar. It reminded me of a vista from a dream, where everything lacks sharp edges and seems somehow unfinished.
My theory about dreams is straightforward: while your conscious brain is sleeping, your subconscious brain is still at work, sifting through what you’ve read or heard or seen or otherwise experienced recently and trying to organize it into some kind of story — because our brains crave order and are hard-wired to try to put things into patterns. Dreams are strange and disconnected because it’s hard to turn random incidents into a coherent story, but the subconscious brain does its best.
I think the operative plot elements of your dreams all come from the recent brain input, but ancillary characters, background settings, and other details that fill in the inevitable, yawning gaps in the story line are drawn from your vast repository of memories. That’s why you might see a former work colleague who has been dead for years suddenly turn up, sharply etched from memory, as the boatyard attendant in a dream that involves some weird effort to take a boat to meet a friend. And because the settings seem to be based on decades of collective memories, they tend to involve, in some murky, dream-like sense, the world of the past.
That’s why it’s interesting to me that, four months after the coronavirus hit and the world tilted on its axis, I’m starting to have dreams that have some kind of COVID-19 element. Last night I had a dream in which one of the people in the background was wearing a blue paper coronavirus mask — certainly something that would not have been part of any dream I would have before March 2020 — and I’ve also had a dream where my dream self was troubled to see that there were discarded coronavirus masks on a roadway as I walked past.
So far, at least, I haven’t had any coronavirus embarrassment or anxiety-type dreams, where I’ve humiliatingly shown up for some important event without a mask, or in my dream I’m horribly late for something because I stupidly put off getting a mask and now I can’t find one anywhere. I imagine it’s just a matter of time before those kinds of dreams get worked into the nightly mix.
And that’s probably the most disturbing part of all of this. The coronavirus period has gone on long enough to work its way into our subconscious brains. If, like me, you still have dreams from time to time about missing an important exam — decades after your last exam ever occurred — you have to wonder: are we going to be haunted by periodic COVID-19 dreams for the rest of our lives? We may sincerely hope that a successful vaccine is developed, “herd immunity” is achieved, and the world returns to “normal” — but come night-time our subconscious brains may continue to give us a dose of the topsy-turvy coronavirus world of 2020 whether we like it or not.
Dreams, and nightmares, are among the most private things we experience in life. No matter how close your relationship might be with your spouse, your family members, or your friends, no one can actually share the dream with you. And if you’ve ever tried to describe a disturbing nightmare to someone, you realize you can’t really capture the way you experience it — if you can even recall the rapidly vanishing fragments of the nightmare at all. At best, you’re providing a pale reflection of an intense experience.
Still, wouldn’t you like to know whether other people have the same kind of nightmares that from time to time haunt your dreams?
One company did a survey of 2,000 respondents to find out about their nightmares and see which nightmare scenarios were the most common. The survey found some interesting results — including that the commonness of certain nightmares varies between men and women. Women, for example, are far more likely to have a nightmare about a loved one dying or their house burning down, whereas men are much more likely to have a dream about killing someone. (Curiously, women are slightly more likely than men to have a nightmare about going bald.) The survey also showed that the frequency of certain dreams may be tied to the respondents’ specific circumstances. Married couples are much more likely to have nightmares about abandonment by a partner or a partner’s infidelity than single people.
The top 10 most frequent nightmare scenarios, as determined by the survey, are:
- Being chased
- Feeling lost
- Feeling trapped
- Being attacked
- Missing an important event
- Waking up late
- Loved one dying
Farther down the list are other common scenarios, like being unprepared for an exam or being naked in a public place, and some weirdly specific nightmares, like your teeth falling out, being covered by bugs, or having car trouble.
Reading the list may cause you to realize that many of us have the same kinds of dreams, but also that there are other bad dreams that you luckily don’t have. I’ve never had a nightmare about killing someone, fortunately. And a word of caution — if you’re like me, looking at the list might cause you to remember a nightmare that you had otherwise forgotten.
Now, I can only hope that seeing some of the common nightmare scenarios other people have won’t cause my subconscious brain to add those to the nightly dream mix.
It’s been more than a quarter century since I quit smoking. I gave up the nasty habit back in in the early ’90s, when the kids were little, and I haven’t had a cigarette since.
Last night, however, I had a very vivid dream about smoking. I was sitting somewhere, among a group of people, lighting a cigarette and taking a deep puff. I felt the familiar leaden sensation in my chest as I did so and the harsh, acrid taste in my mouth and throat. Wherever I was, it was clear that I had been chain-smoking cigarette after cigarette. My dream self was sadly aware that I had previously successfully quit smoking for a long period of time but had started up again for some reason and was now hooked once more. As I puffed away, I felt tremendous feelings of regret and guilt and shame and embarrassment that I had been so weak and stupid to retreat and would now have to try to quit all over again. It was an incredibly realistic, powerful dream that startled me awake in the middle of the night.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a prior dream about smoking — at least, not one that I remember. I have no idea why I would have such a dream now, as I have zero interest in taking up smoking again. It’s pretty amazing that a habit I ditched more than 25 years could still call up such vivid images. I suppose it shows that the smoking memories and my prior smoking self are still in my consciousness somewhere, lurking deep below the surface, ready to be tapped during an unconscious moment.
I was very grateful when I awoke and realized it was all a dream and that I remained contentedly smoke-free. In fact, I can’t think of a recent dream where I’ve been happier and more relieved to find it was only a dream. If my subconscious, just to be on the safe side, was trying to send me a message that there should be no backsliding, the message was received.
Last night I slept very soundly, with lots of dreaming to keep my brain occupied while my body recharged. I don’t remember what my dreams were — I almost never do — but I do remember thinking, as I was dreaming, that these dreams were very entertaining.
When I awoke, I thought about what a marvelous thing dreams are. One second you are observing and participating in a curious, often inexplicable place where anything can happen at any moment and storylines can casually shift and twist and morph without it seeming at all unusual. Then, after you awaken, your experiences in dreamland vanish in the blink of an eye and you’re back in the actual world where the laws of physics and basic linear reality once again hold sway. Sure, you can have terrifying nightmares that give you the creeps even after you awake, but for the most part dreams are pleasant enough — nonsensical and crazy, to be sure, but non-threatening.
I found myself wondering whether my parents ever explained the process of dreaming to me. I don’t remember whether they ever did, and I don’t remember explaining dreams to our kids, either. Every mammal seems to dream — anybody who’s seen dogs run in their sleep knows that — and I remember watching our newborn boys’ eye movements as they slept in their cribs, knowing that they were dreaming and wondering what in the world infants could possibly be dreaming about. By the time they were old enough to have developed the language skills needed to have a meaningful conversation about it, they had been sleeping and dreaming for years and had long since grasped the difference between dreamland and real life. I suppose that’s why we never had a talk about the process of dreaming, as opposed to trying to interpret individual dreams. Perhaps dreaming is so basic and reflexive for mammals, and humans, that it is understood on an intuitive level, with no explanation required.
I woke up at 3 a.m. to go to the bathroom. (Hey, I’m a guy in his late 50s. It happens.) When I came back to bed I knew the next few moments would be the acid test — either I would promptly drift back into blissful sleep, or I’d start thinking about something and deal with an unwanted period of tossing and turning.
Unfortunately, it was the latter. For me, the wakefulness always seems to start with a single concrete thought — whether it be about work, or a family issue, or something else — that acts to drive away the possibility of sleep. Just as I feel as if I am on the edge of slumber, another point will arise, and suddenly I’m getting up because I remember something and need to leave myself a reminder for when I will get up for good.
The experts will tell you that sleep occurs when the conscious mind goes dormant and the unconscious mind takes over. But how do you encourage that hard-working conscious mind that you needed to help you stumble to the bathroom in the dark to let go, already?
This morning, I really felt the battle between the two parts of the brain, with the conscious mind and its structured ideas trying to remain in control and the subconscious mind always lurking beneath, ready to pounce as soon as the conscious mind lets its guard down. It’s an interesting, if frustrating, phenomenon, and when it happens I try to slow my breathing, gradually clear my mind of everything, and let those dreamlike notions that are cavorting out on the periphery to come on down to center stage. Sometimes, if the conscious mind is really persistent, I’ll try to think of some obviously surreal situation that is like a dream. If it works, as it did this time, the effect is instantaneous, and the next thing I know it’s 5:30 and time to begin the morning.
I’d prefer to sleep like a log every night, but I’m convinced that it’s just not possible for people with busy lives. When those wakeful nights hit, you have to have a technique for dealing with it and letting you get back to the shuteye that we all need.
Many of us went out to buy a Powerball ticket over the last few days. Why not? Even a tiny, ridiculously remote chance to win a $1.5 billion jackpot is still . . . a chance to win a $1.5 billion jackpot! How often does the average Jane or Joe have a chance at such enormous sums of money? It’s an irresistible temptation.
Part of what you are buying when you purchase a Powerball ticket under these circumstances is a chance to dream. What would you do with hundreds of millions of dollars? Would you quit your job, move to your dream location, buy a professional sports team, make each of your relatives a millionaire, stay in the President’s suite at the Ritz and take a champagne bubble bath, buy a Ferrari . . . or something else? If you literally had more money than you knew what to do with, even the wildest dreams are possible. I’m guessing that 99.9% of the people who are in the Powerball drawing — even people, like Kish and me, who never play it — have thought something like this at an idle moment: “I know it’s unlikely that we might win, but what if we did?” And then the enjoyable dreams begin.
The passing dreams of millions will come crashing to the ground tonight, when the drawing occurs and, presumably, somebody else will win. It won’t hurt too much, because no one really expected to win, of course, and in any case the opportunity to dream a little about a life-changing cash payout isn’t a bad thing even if the fickle finger of fate passes us by.
Oh, and then there’s the issue of taxes — which are going to take a pretty big bite out of any jackpot. The cash payout amount will be $930 million ($930 million!) and unless you live in a state where there are no state or local income taxes, or lottery winnings are exempt from such taxes, you’re going to pay federal, state, and local income taxes on that staggering sum. In New York City, a single winner of the payout would walk away with $579.4 million, and then would pay another $100 million or so in initial federal taxes.
So that $1.5 billion in the headlines would be reduced to $475 million or so. I guess we could live on that if we had to.
Last night I had one of those vivid dreams where every element and action seems to be etched in exceptional clarity. It was so realistic that I woke up feeling guilty and shaken about my dreamland activities.
In the dream, I was eating a gigantic, heaping bowl of Froot Loops. I was relishing each sweet, crunchy mouthful of the multicolored morsels, but was wracked with regret at the same time. I recognized with horror that, on a low-carb diet, a colossal serving of Froot Loops and milk was absolutely verboten. And yet, confronted with a bowlful of diet-destroying deliciousness, my dream self could not resist temptation and dug in anyway.
So, I’ve reached the point where my anxiety dreams no longer are about the young me being chased by monsters, or the teenage me being exposed to terrible humiliation, or the young adult me forgetting about a crucial law school test until the very day of the exam. Now my subconscious has exposed a new vein of concerns that, having lost some weight, I’ll promptly backslide and end up right back where I started.
It’s kind of pathetic that Froot Loops would be my forbidden fruit, but I think my subconscious got this one right. Ever since my grandparents took UJ and me to Battle Creek, Michigan for a tour of the Kellogg’s factory that ended with a Froot Loops sundae, I’ve been a fan of Toucan Sam. We haven’t had a box of any breakfast cereal — much less Froot Loops or, even worse, Frosted Flakes — in our house since I started a low-carb regimen in August precisely because I don’t think I can trust myself around it.
I have to say, though — that big bowl of Froot Loops sure looked good.
Every human is deeply interested in their dreams. Whether they are abhorrent or enticing, embarrassing or terrifying, dreams have their own unique fascination. We fall asleep and suddenly images start playing in our brains, and we can’t help but wonder whether the dreams are sending us some kind of important message.
But there are two problems with dreams: we can’t remember most of them, and we can’t control what we are dreaming. When we have bad dreams we remain trapped in their frightening context until we wake up with a jolt, pulses pounding. And good dreams inevitably end far too soon.
But what if we could control our dreams? A recent study indicates that applying a low-frequency electrical current during sleep can generate “lucid dreams” — that typically all-too-rare state where the dreamer is aware she is dreaming and has control over the dream. Study participants who received currents in the correct frequency range reported being able to change the plot of their dreams to avoid, for example, ugly encounters with a group of angry people. The researchers hope to be able to use the process to treat mental illness or help people with post-traumatic stress disorder recover, by placing them in control of dream story lines that have happier endings than their actual experiences did.
It’s also easy to see how such a device could be used in other ways. People who are afraid of public speaking, for example, could experience dreams where they confidently give a presentation that is well-received. People who are struggling with the devastating loss of a loved one could consciously revisit that person as they sleep and realize that they are at peace. And, because crass commercialization is the order of the day, no doubt people would gladly purchase dream-current products that allow them to experience close encounters with Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, be the quarterback that wins the Super Bowl, or enter the world of Wuthering Heights.
There’s something intriguing about the concept of controlling your dreams, but also something dangerous. What if the human brain needs to have uncontrolled, often unpleasant dreams to work correctly? After all, our current brains and their dreaming qualities are the product of millions of years of evolution. And how many people might conclude that they prefer living in a rich, completely manipulable dream world to the harsh and uncontrollable world of actual reality, and spend their time dreaming their lives away?
Normally I don’t remember my dreams. Since I’ve started using crutches, however, I’ve started to have vivid nightmares about falling.
If you accept the standard explanation of dreams — that they are a kind of post-day brain dump, when the conscious brain is out of it and the subconscious brain riffles through the images of the day just ended — my falling dreams shouldn’t come as a surprise. I know that I can’t put weight on my left foot, because it would painfully bend the steel pins in my toes and make them harder to extract. So, even something routine, like a short trip to the bathroom, becomes a cause for careful attention and concern about a slip and fall.
But there’s more to it. I scrabble up the stairs on hands and knees, dragging the crutches up the stairs with me, then use a chair at the top of the stairs to rise, balance, and get the crutches under my arms so I can move along. The transfer from chair to crutches is inherently unsteady, and I’m doing it balanced on one foot at the top of the stairs, wondering if a loss of balance will send me tumbling down the steps. The same process occurs when I go down the stairs, of course. And then there’s the silly worry about somehow falling out of bed and landing on my bad foot. I’ve never had that happen before, but now the possibility nags at me.
I don’t ever remember having falling dreams before, but they aren’t very pleasant. They’re not limited to the bed or stair scenarios; just about any falling context will do. I awaken with a lurch, arms flailing and grasping for a hold, heart pounding, hoping that the startling experience doesn’t itself cause me to tumble to the floor.
I hate these dreams. For years after I finished any form of schooling, I still had the occasional “failure to study for an exam that’s happening today” dream, and they never failed to get my pulse pounding. Now I wonder: long after these pins are removed and I’m walking normally again, will I continue to have these scary falling nightmares?
A raccoon, and perhaps a family of raccoons, appears to live in the storm sewers in our neighborhood.
Once, on a morning walk, I saw a hunched shape scrabbling across the street and toward the sewer grate in the pre-dawn darkness. The raccoon plunged into the sewer. When we passed by a few moments later, it was there, wearing its mask, perched just beneath the grate, its beady black eyes glittering with the reflected light from a nearby street lamp. The dogs lunged toward it, and it vanished.
The encounter gave me the creeps. I have no interest in dealing with potentially rabid creatures, and I don’t like the idea of raccoons using the storm sewer as a kind of vagabond superhighway underneath our neighborhood. Now, whenever I pass the sewer, I can’t help but look to see whether those black eyes are there, staring back. Usually they aren’t, and I start to think that perhaps the raccoon is gone. But every once in a while the eyes are there again, following our movements as we quicken the pace to get past the grate, and I shudder anew.
I don’t remember my dreams when I awaken, but I’d be willing to bet that those beady black eyes through the sewer grate have appeared in a nightmare or two.
The BBC reports that scientists now believe they can develop a system to record people’s dreams. Their plan is to electronically visualize brain activity and identify dream themes by mapping activity in individual brain neurons that purportedly are associated with particular individuals, objects, or concepts. The idea seems far-fetched, and the scientists concede they are a long away from actually being able to capture dreams. I really wish they wouldn’t try. We’re all better off, I think, if our dreams splinter into hazy fragments and vanish from our consciousness the moment we awake.
I almost never remember my dreams; I only recall those that are so deeply disturbing that they startle me into wakefulness and survive the forgetting process that accompanies the first instant of awareness. And when you remember your “bad dreams,” you realize that it is not only the topics of the dreams that are troubling, such as being chased by a menacing dark figure or realizing that you are late for a final exam in a class that you have blown off since the semester began months ago. Usually the physical context is equally unsettling, like suddenly finding yourself buck naked and running down a street in some creepy part of town or sitting with a long-dead relative in a cold, dark house where the walls ooze blood and there is a screaming face visible through every dusty window. If every dream is so weird, wouldn’t remembering them all just be psychologically traumatic? And, in a perverse way, wouldn’t it be an embarrassing let down if the vast majority of your dreams instead turned out to be boring downloads of what you did during the day? Who would want to relive a humdrum workday? Maybe we instantly forget our dreams because they are so dull.
I don’t know whether dreams are attempts to communicate with us from the Great Beyond, or extrasensory perceptions of future events, or just the products of random electrical discharges in an exhausted brain that needs to wind down after a tough day — and I don’t need to know. Just let me get some shut-eye, and leave my dream life alone.