Have you ever had a dream that was felt so real, you still remember it? Maybe a scene, maybe a moment, maybe just an image. But something that your mind has created, which proved to be so vivid, so memorable, that you can recreate it in your imagination at any time, even if years have passed.
I’ve had a dozen or so of those. Over the years, they have accumulated, just like real memories — or rather just like memories of something real. It’s an odd mix of moments, some of which are more surreal than Dali’s paintings, while others could be easily mistaken for a scene from my real life. They range in length, place, characters, intensity, and believability. But they all have one thing in common: a strong emotional impact.
Some of these dreams were so intense, they woke me up, while others made me recall them throughout the day. Whether nightmarish fear or exhilaration, emotions triggered by these dream moments were more powerful than anything I experience on a typical day. And they are a wild mix.
A moment of fighting — and losing — a fierce sword fight against an enormous warrior. A moment of walking down a familiar street at night — and realizing, with bone-chilling certainty, that I’m being followed. Flying. Falling. Trying to fly again. Drowning. Talking to people I will never meet. Being chased — and escaping. Listening to a powerful symphony — which somehow I know, was not a symphony anyone has ever heard. The list goes on.
And the question that list prompts, is why? For what purpose does my mind diligently keeps creating those fully immersive experiences for me to live through? Does it try to tell me something? And if it does, should I be listening?
There are many scientific theories on why we dream — and why we dream what we dream. Explanations range from emotions processing and memory consolidation to unleashing hidden desires and serving as a safe training ground for real-world dangers. Some researchers think that dreaming helps us to get rid of unnecessary memories, while others want to prove that the only purpose of dreaming is to keep the brain active during sleep. Despite some theories being more plausible than others none of them, at the moment, is fully broadly accepted. The role of one of the most common human experiences is still to a large degree a mystery for science.
But I’m not writing this article to re-tell in my own words what can be found in 5 minutes googling up “why do we dream?” I’m here to talk about two things that I find incredibly fascinating about dreaming. Not as a researcher (because I’m certainly not one) and not as an armchair psychologist, but as someone who has been experiencing dreaming and likes making some sense of his experiences.
My Take on Dreaming
One, I do have a theory of my own — purely based on my own experiences. And that theory is this:
Dreams are our windows into who we really are.
Now let’s untangle this a bit. Regardless of their root causes, dreams are certainly subconscious experiences (apart from lucid dreams, which are a great topic for another post). In other words, when I dream, I don’t run my impulses through all the filters they go through when I act in my waking life. Whatever I do in the dream world, those actions represent the pure me — whether good, bad, or ugly.
Not only that, but the dream world itself, including its every single detail and every single character who I share it with, manifests something that has some significance for me. Whether that significance is a concern or amazement, it certainly matters to my subconscious. I may dream of weird things, but I’m yet to have a dull dream.
And what I can tell after years of dreaming is that my dreams in some ways serve as tests. They show me what I think I would do in certain situations. What I would really do is a different matter — we learn what we’re truly made of only when we face a real-life challenge. But a dream does represent what course of action I consider right.
I can dream of fear — but I do try to overcome it. I can dream of losing — but I don’t go down without a fight, even if I know that I’m very likely to lose. I can dream of deeply frustrating moments and strange problems — but while in a dream, I keep looking for a solution. I feel very much myself while roaming the dreamland, even though the conscious part of me gives the wheel to its subconscious counterpart. My dreamworld definitions of good and worthy do not seem to deviate from their waking life equivalents.
And so my dreams serve as a unique channel of observing my true self. In fact, when I think about it, it almost feels like my conscious rides shotgun intentionally, almost like a driving instructor, in order to observe the behavior of subconscious and course-correct if needed. And in that model, the entire dreamland becomes a closed course, where the subconscious driver can take the car in any direction — and still be fine.
The Power of the Mind
The second thing I’ve come to realize about dreaming is that it’s a source of endless fascination with the power of a human brain.
How about a small experiment? Read this paragraph — then close your eyes and try to imagine yourself standing in the middle of a forest on a sunny morning. Try to make it feel as real as possible. Spend there 10 seconds or so, then open your eyes. Here, I’ll even add a photo to make it easier.
Welcome back. It didn’t feel quite real, did it? You might have imagined trees, a patch of a blue sky, maybe some birds flying around. But could you feel the softness of the moss-covered ground under your feet? Could you hear the birds chirp as they flew around? Could you see the dust dancing in the rays of sun shining through the leaves about your head, and sense the morning freshness of the air? In short, would you mistake that experience for actually being in a forest? No. You wouldn’t. And neither would I.
Yet, in a dream, we are convinced that the world surrounding us is real — despite all the oddities most dreamscapes include. When you are in a dream forest, you don’t doubt the solid reality of the trees around you. True, you may not hear birds singing, but the same happens in waking life when you automatically tune out white noise. But whatever you see, hear, and sense in a dream is enough to make it feel real.
And all of it is created in real-time by your mind.
Just think about it! As you dream, your mind continuously creates a believable world around you, inhabits it with people, and makes those people interact with you. And not only it does all of that in a way you find believable, but it keeps the protagonist — you — thinking and acting and experiencing emotions. How enormously powerful the mind should be to do something like that?
And that’s why I find dreams endlessly fascinating. Because they are a regular reminder of the immense power we’re lucky to have. A power that makes it all possible, even though it is so easy to ignore or to keep busy with things that don’t matter. A power that is called mind.