Friday, November 14, 2008

The mechanics and mysteries of dreams revealed

Someone once told me, or I read it somewhere: “your dreams are only interesting to you.” I generally agree. Once in awhile though I get a peculiar dream that I feel compelled to share. As you read about it later, don’t get all grossed out or go all puritanical , it’s not going where you think it is.
Some folks believe dreams can give us a glimpse of the future. I am not in that camp. Some say dreams, properly interpreted can give us insight and understanding into our joys and woes. I don’t really buy that either. If you have such lofty, mystical ideas about dreams, then that’s fine, I don’t think any less of you, I’m just saying that I’ve given the matter considerable thought and study, and have completely discarded all such crackpot notions.
I am no dream expert, and from what I can find the real credentialed experts still use lots of words like ‘might’, ‘maybe’ and ‘we think’. Which is just academic expert-speak for “we really don’t know”. But here’s how I’ve got it figured. Remember, I’m a computer guy and tend to think of things from that perspective.
When you are in that essential state of sleep called R.E.M., deep in the basement of your brain, utility functions start up and the cleaning crew gets deployed to do those things your brain needs to do but is too busy to do during the day, what with all that thinking and moving around and seeing/hearing/smelling stuff. One of the things that happens is that all that stuff you saw/tasted/smelled/heard needs to be sorted and filed away; moved from the short term in/out box in your brain’s front office, to longer term filing cabinets in the attic.
Now the mechanism for this is rather ancient and crude, based on a simpler time when man’s needs were few and solutions were pretty straightforward. This utility was hard coded long before complex things like driving, filing tax returns and ‘sharing your feelings’ were invented. So what we have is a simple crude machine struggling to deal with increasingly more complex tasks. Much like using an abacus to solve algebraic equations; it can be done, but it is terribly inefficient and the results can sometimes be a bit unreliable.
So in the middle of the night, your body turns down alert thresholds on your senses, and you sleep. Your universe is now almost entirely within your own brain. Certain physical laws and rules no longer apply in this universe. In this universe there is sight and sound, but very little smell, taste, or feel. The parts of your brain that manage those missing senses has significantly dimmed them to allow for physical rest.
Now the utility rifles through the in/out box like a tall pile of mail. Sorting, discarding, saving based on whatever rules set you happen to have within you. Some things deemed important and worthy of long term storage are tagged and filed among similar things, with crosslinks to aid retrieval. These links may not seem logical, but remember, the mechanism is very, very primitive, and can result in some odd links. For example, the smell of pot roast may cause you, through this primitive and faulty linking, to think NOT of your mother’s warm kitchen like you might imagine it should, but of a Dean Martin comedy show featuring the Friar’s Club. Which are indeed roasts, but of a completely different kind. Like I said, this system is far from perfect.
In my own memory for example, bad things happen on cloudy, rainy, cold days. I am pretty sure that this is not actually true. But my brain filer tends to put bad things, job loss, divorces, dead cats in or near the file cabinet labeled ‘cloudy days’. Of course those of you that happen to be psychologists know what this eventually leads to. That’s right, if it is cloudy and damp out I am probably depressed and likely flooded with fear and doubt.

What you are experiencing in your dreams is this primitive filing system at work; connections being made from new memories and sensations to old ones. Multiple cross linking threads stretching out to connect seemingly ridiculous and illogical notions. Kind of like that episode of “Gomer Pyle USMC,” where Gomer was put in charge of the supply room. He was baffled by the existing sorting system and went about sorting things in a way he understood. He classified everything by animal, vegetable or mineral. Uniforms, canteens, ammunition, tires, everything sorted only by what it was made of, not it’s actual function. Sure it worked, for him… but if you recall, he was an idiot. Basic, primitive, simple; too simple for the complex task.
So now you know how brains work and why sometimes dreams can be very odd, and in many cases simply ridiculous. Our higher, more evolved brain parts can handle complex, sophisticated things like PIN numbers, microwave defrosting times, and video games. However when shut down for the night, the whole thing is tended to, cleaned and rearranged by the more primitive, less literate, non-English speaking maintenance crew. Your dreams are merely a window into that bizarre process.

Here’s the dream.

Angel is sitting in her favorite chair in the living room. I approach her from another room. She is talking, I can hear her pleasant voice, but I can not make out the individual words. I look into her face for clues, but still the words have no meaning. Syllables, consonants, sentences all seem the same, yet in her face I seem to see no stress or fear, just slight joy. Whatever she is saying is not out of anger, she seems to be happy.
I step closer to see if her mood changes, it does not. In fact she seems a little happier. She is looking directly at me, so I know she is trying to convey something to me, I just can’t figure out exactly what it is. I step cautiously even closer. As I do I am no longer looking down at her from a standing position. Every step I take I am lower and lower as if descending a stairway or hill. Her eyes stay focused on mine, she continues to talk, pleasant sounds, but I still cannot comprehend the message. Soon I am at and level with her bare feet. She continues to talk, continues to make that facial expression that conveys love and trust. This warms me. It doesn’t matter what she is saying, I can see the message in her face and body language, and I like it. I try to say something, to make noises with my mouth, but there is nothing but a spit and a whimper, it makes no sense even to me, so I just continue to listen and look into her eyes, yearning to know what it is she wants from me, though she does not seem to demand anything.
Then I decide to kiss her foot. (This is the part I warned you about earlier)
She makes a pleasant noise, she approves, so I kiss her foot again… actually I’m not kissing it, I am now licking it. Much to my delight, she reaches down and pats my head approvingly.
I relish the attention, the approval, I myself am now confident, happy and warm with the pureness of simple love.

Quite simply, In my dream I had become my dog.

What does this mean? Nothing. It means nothing at all. I have a dog, I love my dog, my dog loves me. He’s not complicated, sophisticated or even a charming conversationalist. I love Angel, that’s not complicated either, I love her and seek her approval, and I sense that she loves me.
See there? It’s not rocket science. The night crew simply took warm fuzzy feelings and bunched them together. No premonitions , no omens, no cosmic messages from beyond our physical universe.
Of course other dreams I have don’t interpret so neatly, like this one:
Driving around a steep cliff, I struggle to stay on the road, fearful of the sheer granite wall on one side, the long jagged drop to the raging river on the other. Around another tight curve, the terrain suddenly opens up wide. I straighten the wheel and relax, only to be immediately terrified by the appearance of an angry, fifty foot tall chicken. . .
I’ve been trying to figure out that one for about fifteen years. Ideas?