Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
–Edgar Allen Poe
In 1849, Poe wrote, “It is by no means an irrational fancy that, in a future existence, we shall look upon what we think our present existence, as a dream.” Dreams, in other words, could be viewed as endless echoing of stories, our own stories. Rippling through time, like waves breaking, again and again. The same waves, the same stories, but different each time.
I love (and yet find a bit creepy) the idea of my present life surfacing as a dream in a future life. I wonder sometimes whose reality I’m channeling in dreams. It doesn’t always seem to be my own.
A few weeks ago, I reclined on a chaise in a once grand Parisian apartment, as a young woman arranged her tools, preparing to tattoo the soles of my feet, which worried me a bit, but apparently I’d agreed to let her practice on me, and it seemed unfair to weasel out.
But the apartment, wow—that’s what I was focused on, with its two-story-high windows thrown open, sheer curtains blowing in the breeze; raised-panel walls, battered, yet elegant; deep coffered ceilings, and, best of all— a postcard-worthy cerulean view of the sea from those huge windows (Yes. I know. Paris is not on the ocean. It was a dream.) The apartment rambled on endlessly, one cavernous room to the next. One room differed markedly from the others. It was paneled in mahogany and lined with built-in curio cabinets, each cubby displaying a different specimen of sea sponge. I hated to leave.
Every night I hope to dip back into that grand dreamscape, minus the tattoo needles aimed at my feet. Maybe in a past, unknowable life, I once lived in Paris, or by the sea. Is dreaming just a crazy nocturnal adventure? Or does it serve a purpose?
The question of what purpose dreams serve is as old as time. What I keep coming back to is the notion that dreams are the stories that we create ourselves, night after night.
There are scientists who believe dreams are a meaningless side effect of sleep. A sunset is just a side effect of the angle of light through atmosphere and dust; also ‘meaningless’ to humans except for the immeasurable joy and beauty sunsets bring, and the thousands of years when sunsets helped forecast weather and trigger an end to the day’s tasks. If dreams are side effects, they certainly aren’t ‘meaningless,’ as anyone who has collected and analyzed dreams can tell you. Just as the light at sunset renders the world a glowy, more beautiful place, perhaps dreams also filter reality into a more fantastical form.
If we reflect on the dreamworld, if we study our dreams and record them, does that shed a bright light on our hidden thoughts and desires? In science, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation makes on a phenomenon being observed. When observer cameras were added to an experiment using electrons, the electrons acted as particles. When the camera was absent, the electrons acted as both wave and particle simultaneously. Does the practice of recording our dreams have a similar effect on our dreams? Do my dreams play out differently when they ‘know’ I am recording them? I wonder, sometimes.
Carl Jung was convinced of the importance of dreams to mental health and growth; that the unconscious mind speaks directly to the conscious mind through the medium of dreams, using symbols to communicate important information that the dreamer is not yet consciously aware of, but needs to know to foster healthy growth. He believed in the collective unconscious, too, meaning that he felt a dreamer has access to a great pool of knowledge and wisdom, which could explain how sometimes, great ideas come to people as they sleep.
The amazing-idea-in-your-sleep is the dream equivalent of winning the lottery, but we all dream.
Whether we remember our dreams or not, science reveals that everyone weaves stories in the night. Since dreaming survived evolution, I’m pretty sure it’s an indicator that people require dreams as much as they require food and love.
Maybe dreams do for our souls what air does for our lungs?