Dreams: do they mean something, or not? And if they mean something, is that purely a psychological phenomenon, or does it go beyond that?
There are shelves full of books out there about dream interpretation, and it isn’t just a modern fad. People around the world and going back to ancient times have believed there must be some kind of deeper meaning in the stories that play out in our minds during sleep. Whether that’s true or not in a fictional world is entirely up to the author; what we’re going to talk about here are considerations to keep in mind.
Once again, let’s start with the biology. The vast majority of dreams occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, during which your brain acts somewhat like it’s awake but your body generally gets paralyzed apart from some small-scale twitching. We don’t really know why REM happens, though we have a variety of theories. We do, however, know that during a given night you generally have four or five periods of it, getting slightly longer as the night goes along. That varies by age — babies spend about four times as much of their sleep time in REM as adults do — and it’s common to wake up very briefly after a period of REM, because it’s relatively shallow sleep.
That last detail is pertinent because you’re much more likely to remember your dreams if you’re woken during REM. Also, dreams during that phase of sleep are usually the most vivid and narratively structured, compared to ones that occur during deeper sleep. I mentioned biphasic sleep before, the pattern where humans will wake for an hour or two in the depths of the night; apparently one of the common activities during that gap was to contemplate one’s dreams and what they might signify.
But why do we dream? Is it just a side effect of the processes that go on during sleep, random visions produced by our neurons firing during memory consolidation? A psychologist might tell you that our dreams reflect our repressed desires or unresolved anxieties — and as the surge in pandemic-related dreams and nightmares attests, there’s clearly some truth to that. It’s possible we’ve developed the ability to dream as a way of dealing with those problems, letting our brains work through things in a less conscious fashion.
When viewed from that angle, it isn’t surprising that dreams often seem to be culturally (and situationally) specific. I never had nightmares about going to the grocery store and realizing I’d forgotten my mask until this year; I imagine a sixteenth-century farmwife wasn’t prone to dreaming that she’d forgotten to attend a particular class all semester long and now it’s time for the final exam. (Why, brain? Why do I still have that one, more than twenty years after I last attended high school?)
This specificity makes the practice of dream interpretation kind of fascinating, because the raw material is so varied it defies any universal framework. We’ve got cuneiform tablets telling us how ancient Mesopotamians would interpret their dreams — but apparently they dreamt about very different things. One tablet describing dreams about urine says that if a man sees himself stepping in his own urine, his eldest son will die; if he sprinkles himself with it, he’ll have more sheep; if he sprinkles but then wipes himself clean, he’ll catch a disease; if he urinates toward the sky, he’ll soon beget a son who will do important things but die young; if he pours his urine into the river, he’ll have a good harvest; and if he drinks his wife’s urine, he’ll have abundance.
As you can see from those examples, dream interpretation isn’t simply a matter of asking what this reveals about the dreamer. People have often considered their dreams to be omens — and still do; respondents in one American study said they’d be more likely to deliberately miss their flight if they dreamt about it crashing the night before. Even if not all of them would follow through on that in reality, the evidence remains that a dream of that sort would give many of us pause. And going back to our ancient Mesopotamians for a moment, they regularly sought out purification and protective charms after ominous dreams, to turn aside the ill-fortune those portend.
If you look at history, you’ll find many examples of people acting on their dreams . . . maybe. There’s a suspicious abundance of important historical figures who were visited in their sleep by gods or angels who told them very straightforwardly that they were destined for greatness, without any of the weirdly disjointed dream logic we’ve probably all encountered. One suspects after-the-fact editing at the very least, if not outright fabrication. In fact, given the existence of lucid dreaming — the ability to realize you’re dreaming, and sometimes to control it — maybe the editing was done in medias res.
So what does this mean for dreams in stories? They’re kind of a tricky tool to deploy. That weirdly disjointed dream logic can seem really compelling when you’re in the middle of it, but recounted later, it tends to turn into pointless surrealism, which rarely makes for good storytelling. Our impulse as writers is usually to make the dreams far more coherent, and also directly relevant to the plot . . . which often winds up being excessively convenient, as reliable omens and revelations about the bad guys’ plans drop into the characters’ heads as soon as they close their eyes.
Dreams often work best when they’re described after the fact and in vague terms — which happens to be how many of us remember them in real life. Don’t give the reader a play-by-play as the vision unfolds; instead have the character struggle to remember it the next morning, grappling with scattered images and a vague sense of unease. And consider: do they come from a society where this kind of thing is considered relevant? Are there books or traditions that will tell them how to interpret those images? Would they make some kind of spiritual response to turn bad luck away, or to make sure the good future they glimpsed will come to pass? Embedding the dream in a cultural framework can assist enormously with making it feel like something other than author ex machina.