Dream a little dream

I’ve been experimenting with lucid dreaming by taking supplements last thing at night, including lecithin, choline, huperzine A (an alkaloid found in some plants that’s been investigated for treating Alzheimer’s disease), GPC (l-alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine), and galantamine (found in snowdrops), They’re all available from retailers such as Amazon and pretty harmless in terms of side effects, at least, it seems, for me. All of them in some way or another increase the amount of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. I’ve tried taking them in isolation and in combination, and in combination is the only thing that has had any effect on me. My sleep and dreaming appears to be remarkably robust.

I still haven’t had a proper lucid dream, which as I understand it is an awareness that you are dreaming, and therefore you have an ability to influence your dream. I have though on many occasions had the curious sensation that I can only describe as that I am dreaming that I am having a lucid dream, or dreaming that I know I am dreaming, but lack any ability to influence my dream. These supplements reliably promote this “dreaming of lucid dreaming” state in me.

I also on two occasions have dreamt of what others call “the shadow” – a shadowy hostile figure who lurks threateningly close by (see here and here for examples from others). On both occasions this dream has started with a feeling that someone is in the room or outside, or outside the bedroom window. If I catch a glimpse of them, they are grey and featureless. I’ve had them for years; I remember very clearly being terrified as a young child by a grey shadow figure standing like a statue beside the bed. In my case they are not accompanied by sleep paralysis. Figures of this sort are widely described across time and cultures (in olden times it might have been called an incubus), so clearly are some fundamental, but poorly understood, feature of dreaming.

Most people love to talk about their dreams, and once you tell someone that you’re a psychologist, you’re in trouble. I have always been fascinated by my dreams – those strange images that arise unbidden with sleep, sometimes with frightful clarity, that follow complex and often bizarre storylines, and surely, surely must tell us something important about ourselves? And if you could have a lucid dream, could you not systematically manipulate some of the variables of dreams to find out more?

There are many theories about the origins of dreams, and they are covered in detail in my forthcoming book, The Science of Consciousness, to be published by Cambridge University Press (hopefully next year). Many people are familiar with Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical theory that dreams disguise repressed and unwelcome thoughts so that they do not wake us; hence for Freudian psychoanalysis dream interpretation is a question of interpreting the surface of the dream, particularly its symbolic nature. Hence for psychoanalysts dreams are the most important method of treating mental illness. Other depth psychologists think that dreams serve different functions (e.g. Jung thought they addressed issues to do with individuation and spiritual growth), but all these approaches share the idea that dreams have some meaning, and that interpreting dreams is a means to recovery and growth. Revonsuo views dreams as an evolutionary adaptation to dealing with threat; we can safely rehearse methods of escaping threats in dreams. Many researchers link dreams with creativity, and there are several accounts of ideas being generated and problems being solved in dreams (see here for a discussion of Kekulé’s famous account of dreaming of a worm swallowing its tail seen in flames in a dream). And then there is Allan Hobson’s idea that dreams are essentially random constructed by the cortex from random activation of thoughts and ideas by subcortical input.

I kept a detailed dream diary for a year, and still record as much of my dreams as I can. I don’t think there is any one correct theory of why we dream; I am sure all of the above are true at times. (Another thing I am sure about is that there is little merit in dictionaries of dream symbols.) I never cease to be amazed at the bizarreness, complexity, and creativity shown in my dreams, but I doubt if I am alone in this regard. The activation-synthesis hypothesis has a great deal to commend it, but I don’t think internal activity is random: some memories are stronger than others, some anxieties occupy us more than others; we desire some things more than others; and some threats are more worrying than others. The mind is always bubbling away, and some bubbles sometimes come to the surface. Dreams are the default mode network, the system that generates daydreams, running without control or censorship.

But can we learn from our dreams, and can recording and interpreting dreams help us on the path to spiritual growth and healing mental illness? I was slightly surprised that during my therapy my therapist seemed totally uninterested in my dreams (and this is in the context of that therapy being one of the most useful experiences of my life). If the idea that dream content is the interpretation of randomly generated but largely prominent memories, ideas, and emotionds is correct, you might expect an analysis to be revealing. However, when I analyse the dreams in my collection, I find there is little obvious to learn from them. They show recurring thoughts and concerns, but I am aware of them from everyday life. I dream of death, dying, and nuclear war most nights. We can’t learn much from dreams because we already know most of what they tell us.

The one surprise is how often I dream about my father, when I think about him so little in waking life – or at least did. He left when I was aged ten, and I barely saw him again afterwards. He died, alone, in 2004, 15 years after I had last seen him. This persistent dreaming makes me realise that I wish I had tried to contact him, if only to ask him why he had co up my life.

A warning though: some dreams take on a life of their own. I have for decades dreamed about watching a plane fall out of the sky, I think this idea has just become a very highly activated idea, one likely to bubble to the surface some nights. That’s why we get recurring dreams. So perhaps my dreams of my father are no more than a simple recurring dream, and reveal nothing deeper.

Note that I am giving a talk on the meaning of dreams in London on 4 July 2017. Please come along. I promise to try and answer every question I get.

Stay well, and dream on.


Author: trevorharley

I am Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland. I am the author of several books, including the best selling texts "The psychology of language" (now in its fourth edition) and "Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science". I am currently also writing books on the science of consciousness and on the philosophy of science as applied to psychology (the latter with Richard Wilton), with both due to be published in 2017. Several other books are in the pipeline. My research interests are varied and I have published widely in some of the leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. My interests include language production, how we represent meaning, computer models of the mind, sleep and dreams, consciousness, mental illness, personality and motivation, the effects of brain damage on behaviour, and how the weather influences behaviour. I believe passionately that scientists, particularly those paid from the public purse, have a duty to explain what they do to that public. I also believe that we can reach a wide audience by the use of social media and new ways of explaining what we do. In my spare time I use stand-up comedy to talk about my research; a few years ago I appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe. One of the strangest things about being a comic is that I am often severely depressed (as well as anxious and obsessive). I have been on many types of medication, with varying degrees of success. When depressed I am always struck by how pointless everything seems: nothing seems worthwhile, and those things that I usually enjoy (playing the piano - even if not very well, looking at the natural world, reading, watching movies) no longer entice. My interest in things is a very accurate barometer of how well I am. I have realised that some mental illnesses, particularly severe mood disorders, are in part a loss of purpose and meaning in life. Becoming well involves recovering this purpose. I am also very keen to help remove the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. All of my life I have been puzzled by the question of what is the best way to spend my time. This blog is my search for answer to that question. In it I talk about my life, psychology, mental illness, purpose, living a better life, time management, existential despair, death (making me a death blogger I suppose), being creative, writing, and trying to write when depressed. I try and blog once a week or so; long silences usually mean I'm too depressed to write. For more information about me, see the home page of my website at www.trevorharley.com. I welcome comments on my blog, or if you prefer you can email me at trevor.harley@mac.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @trevharley.

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