Tag: dreams

Thoughts on When Brains Dream by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold

Recently, I asked about good science-based books on dreaming. In my initial exploration, I’d come across two books, and picked one of them, When Brains Dream by Anthonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold to see if it fit the bill. It turns out I made a good choice. Zadra and Stickgold’s book is a survey of the history of dreams, dream research and what we know about why we dream. Part lit-review, part explanation of the science involved in sleep and dreams, I found the book to be a good introduction to something which I know very little about in scientific terms. People have all kinds of notions about dreams, but I was looking for a book that was grounded in science and this one fit the bill.

I was introduced to Freud’s theory of dreaming in high school. Even then, I found it to be something less than scientific and more like a fad diet. The scientific study of dreams is somewhat sparse before Freud, it seems, but Freud borrowed liberally from those who did study before him. I think my notion that Freud’s theories were mostly unscientific were confirmed in the review of the science of dreams up to and through Freud’s tenure.

That said, I fell into the camp of believing that dreams were mostly meaningless, a side-effect of memory processing. But as Zadra and Stickgold write:

Some believe that science has already shown that dreams are merely the meaningless reflections of the random firing of neurons in the sleeping brain. Nothing, we believe, could be further from the truth, and we argue almost the exact opposite of each of these claims.

Zadra and Stickgold’s research centers around a framework they’ve developed called NEXTUP: network exploration to understand possibilities. Briefly, NEXTUP,

proposes that dreaming is a unique form of sleep-dependent memory processing that extracts new knowledge from existing memories through the discovery and strengthening go previously unexplored weak associations.

If I understand what I read correctly, these weak associations account for why we dream of things that may be tangentially related to events of the day, but not directly related. These weak associations can also account, in part, for why dreams sometimes seem so bizarre.

The book details the standard set of dreams that people have, which is alway surprising, but their NEXTUP model explains this neatly. I’ve always thought it strange that we have common dreams like forgetting an exam, and I’ve often wondered what people six thousand years ago (before exams) dreamed about in their place. Possibly, they didn’t. When I read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, what I gleaned from it (it was a very challenging read) was that our idea of consciousness emerged only recently, with the birth of civilization, and that prior to civilization, humans awareness was not what we call consciousness today. Maybe they didn’t dream the same way we do?

Another one of these dreams is losing control of a vehicle. I’ve occasionally had a dream where I am backing up a car, and the brake doesn’t seem to work, or the car goes spinning out of my control. Apparently I am not alone.

The book goes into all aspects of dreaming, including nightmare (and how they differ from night terrors), and even lucid dreaming. The book is heavily footnoted, and frequently refers to the studies and experiments used to tease out what we know about dreams today.

I wanted to learn more about dreaming because I’ve been going through a spell of dreams that have me waking up feeling exhausted each morning, no matter how well I sleep otherwise. These dreams are vague, but busy, always busy, and when I wake up from one in the middle of the night and finally get back to sleep, another one starts up. I awake feeling wiped out. This has been going on for a while now, and part of my reason for reading about dreams was to learn if there was any way to tune down this noise so that I wake feeling refreshed, and not like I just ran marathon. So I was surprised and delighted when I discovered the following passage in a section describing types of dreams:

Imagine that every time you woke up, you felt exhausted, not because you slept poorly but because your nights were filled with long, tedious dreams of incessant physical activity such as repetitive housework or endlessly slogging through snow or mud. If this describes your nightly dreaming and ensuing daytime fatigue, you may suffer from epic dreaming.

Right there on the page was the perfect description of what I have been going through. Epic dreams. Even the name sounds cool. Or as my kids might say, “Epic.” How lucky was I to find just what I was looking for on my first try! I felt elated. And then I read on:

Not much is known about this pattern of excessive dreaming other than that it affects women more than men. Sleep lab assessments usually come up clinically normal; and though the seemingly relentless dreams are followed by feelings of fatigue or exhaustion upon awakening, emotions within epic dreams are usually described as neutral or entirely absent. Even when epic dreaming occurs alongside nightmares, it is the impression of dreaming all night long that pushes these people to seek help. Psychological, behavioral, and pharmacological treatments for epic dreaming have proven largely ineffective. (Bold text mine.)

Naturally, the one problem I came looking for, I found, and that one problem has no known solution.

Still, the book was a success. It was an engaging read, and it gave me the scientific overview of dreaming that I had been looking for. I learned that what I am experiencing is called epic dreaming, and that there isn’t much I can do about it. That’s something. Anyone who is interesting in the science of dreams, should find this book informative and engaging.

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Two-Time Nebula Award-Winner Jamie Todd Rubin?

When I was twelve years old, I remember wanting a computer so badly, I sometimes dreamed that I got one. It was one of those rare, completely realistic, and completely delightful dreams. It was frustrating, too, because while I got a computer in my dream, there was always something that prevented me from using it, always some task I had to take care of first, so that I could never really use it in my dream. What I remember most, however, was waking up and feeling for a few fleeting seconds, that I had actually gotten the computer. That was followed by the sudden disappointment at the realization that I had been dreaming. I’d have to wait a little longer before I got my computer. (Eventually, I did get one.)

I haven’t had a dream like that in years. Indeed, for the last several months, it seems that my dreams are a jumble of exhausting images that mostly make no sense and even when I sleep well, cause me to wake feeling exhausted. I have grown desperate enough to begin reading about the science of dreaming and sleeping to see if there is anything I can to so lower the volume of my dreams–or mute them completely for a while.

Well, last night, seeing that they were being threatened, my dreams fought back. It was a bad night in terms of sleep. I went to bed at ten thirty and didn’t actually fall asleep until sometime after 3 am. I know slept between 3 am and 4 am because that is when this dream took place. In the dream, I was at a science fiction convention. I was at a table surrounded by people I knew, but no one I could identify. Everyone was laughing and cheering. I had just learned that I had won not one, but two Nebula awards: one for best short story, and the other for best novelette.

I have no idea what the stories were for which I won these awards. What I remember most was the I couldn’t believe that I had won them. Me, just the kid who liked reading science fiction when he was growing up and wanted to try his hand writing it, the kid who tried for 14 years to sell a story before making his first sale, and who went on to sell about a dozen stories to many of the major s.f. magazines before running dry. I had won two Nebula awards in the same night. How was that even possible? I was elated. I remember tears welling in my eyes each time I thought about it, or each time someone at the table congratulated me. From here on forward, I could always think of myself as two-time Nebula award winner Jamie Todd Rubin.

Sometime around 4 am I woke up and it took a little while for me to realize that it had been a dream, that I had not, in fact, won two Nebula awards. And I have to admit, I felt the same sense of disappointment I felt when I awoke from that dream about getting a Commodore Vic-20 when I was twelve. I wished it were true, but knew that it wasn’t.

As I said, I eventually got my Vic-20, but I suspect a Nebula award (or two) is not in the cards for me. Even when I was selling stories to the magazines, I was never an awards candidate, and I knew it. Indeed, I’ve won very few awards in my life. I do good, consistent work, but I’m not sure anything I do is award-worthy. This is not self-deprecation, or false modesty, but what I think is a fair assessment of my abilities. I’m a hard worker, and do my work–whatever it is–well. That is enough for me.

Still, it felt so good in my dream to think, at least for a little while, that I had won those Nebulas.

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Wanted: Good Books on the Science of Dreaming

The emphasis here is on science. My understanding of current theories of why we dream, based on articles I’ve read in science-based publications like Scientific American, is that dreaming helps convert short-term memories to long-term memory. What I am looking for is a book-length treatise on the science of dreaming. It can be a history of the science: what we’ve learned from our first investigations down to the present; or it can be a book describing the current scientific theories on why we dream, and the mechanisms that influence those dream.

When I search for books on “science of dreaming” I get a lot of noise that seems to divide into two major groupings: (1) how to lucid dream; and (2) how to interpret dreams. I could care less about either of these. I’m not trying to become aware that I am dreaming when I am asleep and to take control and start flying around my dreamscape. Nor do I particularly care about how I might interpret what it is I am dreaming about. Given what I have already read about dreams, the latter is more or less meaningless, the brains reaction to firing neurons while committing memories to longer-term storage. What I want to know more about is the research and study that has gone into dreaming.

I am sleeping better than I used to, and I am grateful for that. But despite sleeping well, I wake from most nights feeling worn out from the endless parade of dreams that I’ve been having over the last several months. These are vague dreams, but they seem to be constantly in the background. I wake from them in the middle of the night only to have them resume after I fall asleep. They are not frightening, or particularly exciting, but they are exhausting and they take away from what could be a really good night’s sleep.

I understand (from what reading I’ve done about dreaming) that we all dream, even if we don’t remember what we dream about. What I am looking for is if there have been studies or research done on what external triggers might effect what I will call the “volume” of dreaming. What I’d like the be able to do is turn down that volume for a while. Ideally, I’d like to mute it. The dreams can continue in the background as they always do, but I’d rather not be aware of them for a while. I just want a good night’s sleep. I’d like to do this, of course, without the aid of any pharmaceuticals.

So, I am looking for books on the science of dreaming. Maybe I should be looking for books on consciousness more broadly, but I have a narrow focus here. So far, I have found two possible candidates: a book called When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery of Sleep by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold; and The Secret World of Sleep: The Surprising Science of the Mind at Rest by Penelope A. Lewis.

Does anyone have other recommendations on the science of dreaming? If so, please drop your recommendations into the comments. I’d be grateful.

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My Friend, Winston Churchill

I should finish the Winston Churchill biography today, and once I do, I’ll have some thoughts about it, which I will post in due course. However, I wanted to mention a strange dream that I had last night, and yes, the dream involved Winston Churchill. My dreams rarely seem to have any relation to what goes on during my days, but in this case, it was very closely related. As I approach the end of the book, I am also approaching Churchill’s death. That thought must have stuck with me.

In the dream, I was wandering through the underbelly of London with my friend, Winston Churchill. He was old, and somewhat frail, but was focused on his task. That task, it seemed, was evaluating the superstructure of London from beneath. We walked through broad tunnels, down into which sunlight filtered from the sides somehow, and every now and then, Churchill would stop, tap some object with his case, and say something like, “Struts for the bridge. Needs a new coat of paint, I think.”

This went on for quite some time, until we arrived at a place where stairs led up to the street level to the left and right. From one direction, a phone was ringing, and I picked it up. On the other end of the line was King George VI. “I’m very sorry to report,” he said, “that His Majesty’s Government bears the news that Winston Churchill has passed.”

I started to tell the King (uncertain how to address him) that he was mistaken, that Churchill was here with me, checking out the superstructure of the city. I turned, but Churchill was gone, and I was down there all alone. All at once, I was overcome by a feeling of despair and sadness, certain that HMG was right, that Churchill had died, and here I was all alone.

I began calling friends and family to tell them the news, and they were duly sympathetic. I remember thinking, “My friend, Winston Churchill, is gone.”

After that, the dream faded away and I woke up. The Little Man was calling me from his room, and I got out of bed to see what it was he wanted. But the dream stayed with me, and I still feel some of that sadness lingering this morning.

I Dreamt of the Secret of the Universe

I had an unusual dream last night. It was so unusual that, when I woke from it, I grabbed my iPhone and jotted a note in Evernote so that I would not forget it. I looked at the note this morning and here is what I wrote, just after midnight, typos and all:

Dream Note

don’t recall the context of the dream, or much of the details, but I do remember what that note refers to. It had to do with discovering a way to tweak the “code” of the universe, the way a programmer might modify the code of a program, in such a way that it altered 15 laws of physics. That alteration, in turn, “reversed what light does.” This doesn’t mean make things dark. I think it means that darkness illuminates instead of light. The result was an image of how the universe was created?

What was that image? I have very little detail left in my mind. The note says “pictures” and I think that was to remind me that there was an image. I do remember that the image was an “infographic” of the type you see frequently on the Internet. And I’m pretty sure it involved a caterpillar or a turtle. I’d guess the latter as opposed to the former.

I’m pretty sure I know where the dream came from. I was working out some details of the story I’m currently writing earlier in the day yesterday and the dream was probably initiated from those thoughts. But the turtle at the creation of the universe? Well, friends, all I can say is that I recently re-read Stephen King’s It for a third time, and for those who have read It, the turtle will make a lot of sense in this context.

The “My daddy is a science fiction writer” dream

Last night I dreamed that the Little Man was telling his friends that his daddy was a science fiction writer.

His friends grew excited. “What movies did he write?” they asked.

“He didn’t write any movies,” the Little Man said.

“Oh, well, what TV shows did he write?” his friends asked, unperturbed.

“He hasn’t written any TV shows either,” the Little Man said.

Nonplussed, his friends continued, wringing their little hands, “Well, what video games did he write?”

“He didn’t write any video games,” the Little Man said, now rather somber.

“Well then what kind of science fiction does he write? his friends asked.

“Science fiction stories!” the Little Man said, proudly.

“Stories? You mean like in books?””

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“Well who cares about that!” his friends said, after which I woke up in a cold sweat.

The post-Seinfeld, Scott Bakula dream

I don’t ordinarily dream of interacting with fictional characters, but last night I had a strange dream in which I found myself at Elaine’s (from Seinfeld) new apartment. She mentioned that Jerry was going to be moving into her apartment and I was, quite frankly, surprised. It seemed strange that Jerry would be moving into Elaine’s apartment. She gave me some long-winded, Elaine-like explanation for why he was moving in, but it was virtually incomprehensible in my dream and I couldn’t even begin to reproduce it here.

Then we were all in Elaine’s living room and Scott Bakula was there–as himself. I imagine he entered my dream because I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek: Enterprise lately. In any case, I made some reference to “like a rock” and he didn’t seem to get it, at which point I began to do a parody of a typical American car commercial which, in my mind, was funny enough to get me laughing in my sleep. This happens from time-to-time, but last night I laughed hard enough to wake myself up. It would have been interesting to see where things went if the dream continued, but it was still fun hanging out with both the fictional and non-fictional characters for a little while, even if it was only a dream.

Dialog from a dream

Between 6 and 7am this morning, I had a strange dream about a man who dated a series of women, all of whom ended up shooting him at the end of the relationship. This was a strange dream, not just because of the subject matter, but because I felt like I was watching a TV show from the inside. Rather than being a participant in the dream, I was like a disembodied person drifting through it. Scattered throughout the dream were interesting pieces of dialog. The man was describing to a women his history with guns and girls, and told her about the first time he was shot. He was shot through the jaw and the bullet lodged in his head.

His head was wrapped in bandages, but he was alert. As he was pulled onto the ambulance he said to the doctor, in a near panic, “Did you get a picture? Did you get a picture?”

The doctor smiled calmly at him and said, “Yes, but you won’t be around tomorrow to see it.”

I thought this was an insensitive thing to say, but nonetheless true. And yet, the injured man seemed to be hanging in there. His pupils were responding properly to light, and he could answer questions about where he was, what happened to him, and who was president.

I have no idea where this dream came from. Usually, my dreams are triggered by events during the day, but I can think of nothing like this permeating my subconscious. I’d been watching no television. I barely had time to do any reading yesterday, and what reading I did manage was a few more pages from Thoreau’s Walden. But that eerie line uttered by the doctor, “Yes, but you won’t be around tomorrow to see it,” echoed through my head the entire rainy drive into work this morning.

So I thought I’d share it with you.

The return of anxiety dreams

For the first time in quite a while, I had anxiety dreams last night. The were not the ordinary run-of-the-mill anxiety dreams I used to have either. These had one particularly nasty ingredient added to them: they were recursive. Or as the kids today like to say, meta.

I used to have two types of anxiety dreams, all centering around a single theme: a fear of heights. Why I should be afraid of heights in my dreams when I have no such fear in my waking life is beyond my explanation, but there you go. In one set of dreams, I’d find myself up on top of an impossibly tall building with no easy way of getting down. In another of these dreams, I’d find myself in an elevator. The doors would slide shut. Then the lights would go out and the elevator would sink into some sub-basement and stay there. There was actually a third type of anxiety dream I’d have, from time-to-time. In this one, I’d rent an airplane and go flying, after not having been flying in a very long time. I’d take off, and as I was leaving the runway I’d suddenly realize that I forgot to contact the tower and get a clearance.

Last night, it was none of these.

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Fear of heights

I haven’t the slightest fear of heights in real life but in my dreams, I am terrified by them for some reason. The last few nights have been plagued by dreams which involve weird or unusual heights. A few nights ago, I dreamt I had taken a wrong turn on the highway and in order to get to where I was going, I had to take a highway that crossed a river (via a bridge) and before the bridge, the highway arched over a skyscraper. It was not a pleasant experience.

Last night, I dreamt that I left my jacket on an outcropping of a building. In order to get it, I had to step outside a window and walk along a ledge and then reach up for it, all the while, seeing a city sprawled dozens (hundreds?) of stories below me. In that dream I remember thinking how particularly frightened I was and at the same time, I was annoyed by this fear. I rationalized it (in the dream) as having worked for too long out on the ledge so that the heights started getting to me.

I wonder what function this has? I am not one who buys into Freudian theories of dreams. My own understanding of the function of dreams is to help commit short term memories to long-term memories, which is what most studies have shown to be true. Still, I find it odd that while I have not the slightest qualm about heights in real-life, I am unnerved by them in my dreams.

Laughing in my sleep

Last night I had one of my semi-annual funny dreams that woke me up laughing.  It also woke up Kelly, who was not as amused as I was, probably because Zach was sleeping between us.  (He’d woken up hungry at 4:30 am and we brought him into bed, fed him and let him fall asleep there.)

What was so funny this time?  In the dream, my brother, Doug, had a box of coffee, about a cubic foot in size.  The coffee had solidified into a kind of jelly, like gravy does when you refrigerate it.  He was being silly with his daughter, and said, “Hey, watch this!”  He then proceeded to pretend to drink the coffee from the box.  Except the coffee slid out and exploded on the carpet.  And I feel to pieces, laughing.

I still thought it was funny when I woke up this morning, seeing the image of that block of congealed coffee exploding on the carpet.  Kelly’s response this morning probably sums it up best:

“I guess you had to be there,” she said.

Originally published at Jamie’s Blog. Please leave any comments there.

Eight months of dreams just waiting to escape

Now that Zachary is sleeping through the night, I am finally getting more than 3 hours of sleep at a time.  This means that for the first time in nearly 8 months, I’ve started dreaming again.  Boy, have I ever!  It’s as if eight months of nightly dreams were packed in my brain under extremely high pressure and now that there’s an opening, they are blowing through it.  I’m having dozens of dreams a night, most of which I don’t remember.  To be honest, it’s rather exhausting.  I don’t know how Scott Edelman does it.

There is one recent dream which I do recall at least parts of:  I was talking with Stephen King.  We were at his house and talking about writing.   On a small desk off to the side of his office (which in my dream was very art deco) was an old, old typewriter.  I went to look at it and he warned me not to touch it because it was very old.  I told him that I, too, have an old typewriter (mine is a Royal Quiet De Luxe much like this one.)  King then asked me if I’d built my typewriter.  No, I told him, I hadn’t.  It turns out he built his (though how it could be very old is only supported by dream logic).  And when I took a closer look, I saw that it was made entirely out of old Tyco model-train railroad track pieces.

I am enjoying these nights of uninterrupted sleep, but I must admit that I am looking forward to the pressure in my brain becoming equal with the world outside and the volume and pace of dreaming returning to normal.

Originally published at Jamie’s Blog. Please leave any comments there.