Dream on: where do our minds go when we fall asleep?

Row, row, row your boat,
gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
life is but a dream.
– 19th-century nursery rhyme

I'm in prison, and I’m pissing. I don’t know where the prison is, or why I’m here, but the piss is an absolute ripper. It begins on a wall, gathers pace against a tree, a hedge and a boulder, then blasts from an embankment with the sort of range and volume that might have saved Notre-Dame.

“Holy shit!” I hear someone cry. “That guy can really piss!”

I move from place to place without knowing how, and without affecting the flow. It’s the most copious and rewarding piss ever, a piss that seems to offer amends for all the nocturnal malfunctions of growing old. I know I’m a prisoner (I can recognise a friend waiting under a “Prison Visitors” sign inside a fenced enclosure), yet my mood is ecstatic, triumphant, as though publicly voiding like a fire-truck inside a slammer could be the achievement of my life.

Philosopher Dr Jennifer Windt, a lecturer at Melbourne’s Monash University: “Dreaming isn’t a totally disembodied, brain-in-a-vat-type experience.”Credit:Getty Images

Even after I wake, a bawdy euphoria lingers. I laugh aloud at the intensity and absurdity of the dream, then lie still (as several experts have advised) to let fragments of it lodge in my conscious memory. This process is interrupted by the realisation that what I really need is a piss. Hot on its heels comes a fear that I may have already … but no, amazingly, given the exquisite sense of physical relief in the dream, the spare bed is as spruce as it was when I was exiled here for snoring a few hours ago.

In the toilet, it occurs to me that I haven’t wet the bed since infanthood, and that what I’ve just been through must be the ultimate test of subconscious bladder control. Yet there’s no way my subconscious self was holding back in the dream, every moment of which felt mentally and bodily real. So it must have been the conscious me (even though I was asleep and dreaming) somehow overseeing the action.

Before returning to bed I scribble all this down, then flick back through the dream records I’ve been keeping for several months. Like most people, I usually dream sporadically. Apart from the odd existential epic, they tend to be fragmented, inconclusive and barely worth the effort of trying to remember.

But something is changing. Strangely, almost from the time I began researching dreams and keeping a journal, my dreams have sharpened into compelling (as least for me), sometimes vivid entertainments. Diverse of theme, with beginnings and endings, they have pace, purpose and snatches of dialogue so good that if I read them in a book I would resent the author’s flair. It’s as if the dreams know I’m checking them out, and are showing off.

A few days after the prison saga, I describe this uncanny transformation to Jungian psychoanalyst and author Robert Bosnak, who has spent most of his life trying to figure out where dreams come from and what they mean.

“I [still] don’t know what they are,” Bosnak admits. “ … [But] if you believe dreams are meaningless garbage of the mind, then you will get dreams that are chaotic and feel entirely without substance. But if you approach dreams as material that you can do something with, I think your dreams become more substantive.”

Is this a known pattern? “Yes. It seems to me as if dreams like to play. If you dance with them, they’ll dance with you.”

We slip blithely into this bewildering fandango every night, with no idea where it will take us. And each morning – despite experiencing the joys, terrors, insights and banalities that present themselves, in Bosnak’s words, as “entirely real worlds” – most of us are none the wiser, our memories of all but a rare few dreams having evaporated soon after awakening.

There are apparent exceptions, where dreams have been credited with triggering scientific breakthroughs (Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity), or presaging notorious crimes (Abe Lincoln’s precognitive view of his own assassination), or inspiring enduring creative works: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Salvador Dalí’s Persistence of Memory; Paul McCartney’s melody for Yesterday, to name a few.

Yet the mystery of dreaming remains as impenetrable as the purpose of life itself. Early civilisations believed dreams were messages from the gods, or prophesies whose meanings could only be revealed by designated dream “interpreters”; classical scholars like Plato and Aristotle saw them as expressions of what were later recognised as unconscious desires, an approach examined further in the 19th and 20th centuries by psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Jung’s theories, in particular, still inform psychological research into dreams.

It wasn’t until the 1950s, when technology gave neuroscientists visual access to the
mechanics of sleeping brains, that the debate went beyond psychological interpretations of reports taken from dreamers themselves. Using electroencephalography (EEG) scans, scientists were able to identify the different stages of sleep, including REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when most dreaming occurs. By measuring the electrical impulses within cells the brain uses to communicate, researchers have found which areas and networks of the brain were involved with dreaming.

But instead of solving the mystery, EEG and other brain imaging tools enlarged it, spawning ever more theories about why and how we dream. A popular research theme is that dreams are actually an extension of waking consciousness, allowing us to rehearse potentially threatening or difficult situations that occur in our waking lives. Other types of brain imaging (in conjunction with dream
reports from volunteers in laboratories) are being used to study the role of dreams in forging memories or processing emotions.

Italian scientists have shown we’re more likely to remember dreams when woken directly after REM sleep while the brain’s frontal lobes show increased theta waves – a finding that supports suggestions that the same mechanisms used for forging and recalling dreams also construct and retrieve waking memories.

Another still-pervasive neurobiological position is that dreams don’t actually mean anything, but are just random leftovers from our waking memories, a sort of white noise generated by the brain stem as we sleep. Almost everything about dreaming remains an open case, still under investigation by psychologists, psychoanalysts, neuroscientists, philosophers, religious scholars and countless dreamers who contribute their nightly narratives to web-based dream banks for analysis by fellow dreamers.

The internet offers seemingly endless dream theories, symbols, metaphors and “interpretations”, some ancient, some insightful, some silly and many deeply soporific. There are dream workshops, dream conferences and dream entrepreneurs peddling books, courses and videos on the “meaning” of almost every conceivable dream.

“There’s serious research, and other stuff that falls into the batshit crazy category,” one researcher tells me. “In fact, there are so many shades of craziness it’s sometimes really hard to discern what the serious stuff is.”

For newcomers to Dream Land, much of the study involving dreams comes across as a bit wispy, and, well, dreamlike. Who would have thought, for example, that there are secular and religious institutions around the world where, after a year or two of training, people become “Certified Dreamworkers”, helping others understand the significance of their dreams?

Or that these workers are guided by a “code of dreamwork ethics”, set by something called the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD), whose popular annual conferences – featuring dream telepathy contests and dream-themed fancy dress balls – are attended by some of the world’s foremost scientific, psychological and academic authorities on dreams and dreaming?

Under the IASD’s ethical guidelines, dreams are no longer “interpreted” via symbols or metaphors as having specific meanings (as in earlier times), but “democratically shared” to aid understanding. “[This] is to help the dreamer move through the various processes of what they’re making out of the dream, rather than applying an interpretation … that may be more true for me than the dreamer,” explains Dr Susan Benson, a Sydney-based transpersonal (or spiritual) counsellor.

Benson is a board member and former president of the IASD, and founding president of the now-defunct Dream Network Australia, established in 2011 as a forum for awareness and discussion. She says dreaming has been long devalued in Western culture, but that a lot more is known about dream states since the 1960s due to renewed studies of consciousness and its neurobiological functions. Benson keeps a journal of her own dreams, and sometimes uses recurring patterns or themes to make changes in her life. “If a [dream] theme is significant, it’ll keep reoccurring,” she says. “In other words, it wants my attention. Something there is unresolved.”

I describe one of my own nastier dreams: I’m searching for people close to me but can’t find them. There are ever more obstacles (can’t find a taxi; can’t get through a door; can’t remember an address). As I wrestle with these distractions, my mouth fills with small, silver nails, which, no matter how often I remove them, instantly replenish. I’ve had several variations of the dream; during the last one, suddenly aware I was dreaming, I managed to force myself awake.

Predictably enough, Benson talks of a sense of “problem solving” conveyed by my dream, and of a feeling of urgency over a problem unable to be resolved. Something deeply troubling has “engaged me”, and despite the relief of waking myself up, “it doesn’t mean that you actually woke up in the dream and changed anything”.

The ability to “wake up” within a dream, and effect changes to the course it follows, is a hot theme in dream research. Known as lucid dreaming, it’s a fascinating apparent fusion of conscious and unconscious states, possessed naturally by a small number of us, and cultivated through training and practice by others.

“There’s a spectrum [of lucidity],” says Benson. “You can have what’s called situated awareness in a dream. It connects you to your waking life … meaning there’s a level of cognitive awareness in the dream … it’s not just random firing, with the dreamer being passive and the dream ‘happening’ to them.”

The highest level of lucidity means “you can get to the point of [choosing] to ‘wake up’ within a dream, and recognise that you’re in the dream, and take a different [course through the circumstances presented] in the dream. Debate is ongoing over what part of the dreaming mind is actually making that choice.”

In individual consultations at her private practice, Benson also explores dream themes seemingly linked to world events: “There are now more instances of people reporting anxiety, or seeking help, over dreams involving climate change.” Benson thinks there’s a potential social function to such dream themes. She cites a 1968 book by the late journalist Charlotte Beradt, The Third Reich of Dreams: The Nightmares of a Nation 1933-1939, which examines fearful and disturbing dreams, mostly by Jews, in Adolf Hitler’s Germany.

“What struck me while reading it,” says Benson, “is what might have happened if more people back then had shared their dreams and had more awareness of the increasing level of anxiety and fear. Would it have caused a difference?”

The most common dreams involve distraction themes like missed buses, searches for toilets, falls, losing teeth, appearing naked in public, or being chased. The horrible inability to run or effectively defend ourselves in flight-or-fight dreams has a common cause: during REM sleep, our muscles are effectively paralysed.

The chronological retelling of ordinary dreams typically induces unique levels of boredom in audiences. Yet even the most boring dreamers occasionally experience what Jung called “big dreams”: vivid, visceral, full of meaning and existential angst. Sometimes they’re precognitive dreams involving the death of loved ones, or other troubling portents.

For religious dreamers like Luciano “Lucky” Morselli, these subconscious messages aren’t warnings or omens but the immutable word of God. A tiny man with a big nose and mischievous brown eyes, Morselli, 83, has filing cabinets overflowing with records of the 10,000-odd dreams he says guided the course of his adult life. In the townhouse he shares with his second wife, Connie, at Margate on Brisbane’s northern fringe, Morselli recalls a dream he believes predicted the death of his first wife, Adela, in 1990.

The most common dreams involve distraction themes like missed buses, searches for toilets, falls, losing teeth, appearing naked in public, or being chased.Credit:Getty Images

“God’s [voice] came through some bricks into the kitchen. And He said, ‘Somebody in your family must die.’ I said, ‘Please, no, no! I’ll say more rosary; I’ll pray good; I’ll implore Jesus.’ And He said, ‘You can do what you want, but that’s it.’ ”

Morselli related the dream to Adela, his partner of 27 years, who wasn’t happy, crying, “Oh, you and your dreams!” Three weeks after that, Adela was rushed to hospital with a massive brain aneurysm. She died several days later.

“God doesn’t make mistakes,” says Morselli. “You dream what will happen at night, and
tomorrow what you dream is real. Finito.” Research suggests that about half of us
experience precognitive dreams, and then only rarely, but Morselli, a retired restaurateur who migrated here from Italy 50 years ago, insists he’s had many dreams about people he knows dying. The most recent, a few weeks before my visit, involved a fellow worshipper from the Catholic church where he attends daily Mass.

“[In the dream] she is with a parachute, descending,” he says, with hand gestures.

“But she cannot stop! So – phht – she dies.”

“Oh, no!” I say, spilling my coffee.

“The day after my dream,” continues Morselli, “when we finish prayer, I go to her. I said,
‘I dream about you last night. You died.’ ”

“Oh, Jesus!” I cry, forgetting myself. Morselli gives me a stern look.

“But then I said to her, ‘But you don’t [really] die.’ ” He explains how he assured the unsettled woman that a window which broke then reassembled itself in his dream about her parachute malfunction signified (according to a much-thumbed book of religious dream symbols on the table between us) that God, her “insurer”, had averted her actual demise.

Morselli still has sexual dreams, and – “at least once a month” – dreams about confronting the devil: “The devil can look like anybody. But I know it’s the devil – oh yes, I have goose pimples! Next morning I have to go to confession, then I’m such a clean person the devil can’t fight me any more.”

Years ago, Morselli joined the International Association for the Study of Dreams, curious to know what others might make of his theological dream library. He was peeved to discover that the real interest these days is in lucid dreamers controlling their subconscious “narratives”, and even changing the course of their dreams. “That is bullshit,” he snaps. “What I dream is the reality of God, and you cannot change that.”

Robert Bosnak credits one of his early lucid dreams with inspiring his life’s work. “I’m walking on a bridge,” he says of the dream he had as a student in his native Netherlands, “and suddenly I know that everything around me is a dream. At the same time, I know it’s very real! I get very excited … and I have to tell somebody. I see a New York taxi driving towards me. I say, ‘Stop, stop, stop!’

“The driver rolls down his window, and I say, ‘I’m dreaming! You’re part of my dream!’ The taxi driver looks at me as if I’m totally crazy; he rolls up his window and drives off. At that moment I realise that, for the taxi driver, this is his world!” Bosnak’s voice rises over the phone from California, where I imagine the slim, balding Jungian analyst pacing distractedly in his executive director’s office at the Santa Barbara Healing Sanctuary.

“It’s his world!” he repeats. “He actually lives there! He exists there as a presence! What kind of presence, I have no idea … but from that moment on I began to respect these presences much more. They have their own lives and they’re not part of my dream; we are in the same dream together.”

Bosnak, one of the world’s best-known dreamworkers/authors, believes dreams stem from a limitless internal ecosystem of the imagination where our “many disassociated selves” – none of whom has a monopoly on so-called reality – “live together in a particular kind of organisation”. He talks passionately of these themes – explored exhaustively in the books, videos, lectures and group discussions he promotes and sells online – yet cheerfully confesses he hasn’t the “faintest idea” what dreams are or what they mean.

He’s convinced, though, that they emanate from “another kind of consciousness”, lost to Western culture when the onset of science led to the excising of imagination as a form of reality. “Until then,” he says, “we saw that there was matter, and there was spirit or mind, and in the middle there was imagination, which was just as true as matter or mind.

“Then, in about the 12th century, we threw out imagination and we only had mind and matter. Which [led to] this whole problem of mind-body connection, because there’s no longer anything in between. Over 800 years, imagination became the opposite of reality.”

Bosnak, another past president of the IASD, co-founded something called the International Society for Embodied Imagination, as well as a uniquely American 24/7 service: the National Nightmare Hotline.

Embodied imagination is a therapeutic and creative method of working with dreams he developed from ideas pioneered by Jung. In groups and individually, people revisit and examine past dreams while in a hypnagogic state: the drowsy condition between waking and sleep that apparently gives access to memories from both realms. Bosnak’s technique is used by trauma sufferers and victims of chronic fatigue syndrome, and as an aid to creativity for writers and artists. As a rehearsal technique for actors, it’s been employed by Sydney’s Bell Shakespeare Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company in England.

“When you go deep into a dream [memory],” he says, “everything presents itself as embodied. These are not thoughts, they are actual experiences of a whole environment.” Like his long-ago taxi driver dream? “Yes. It is imagination as it embodies itself. We are also embodied by imagination … a particular image [may] make us happy, or angry, or sexual, or whatever. And these images have a direct effect on our bodies. [In advertisements] beautiful people embody us so that we buy stuff, because we want to be that beautiful person.”

Bosnak sees dreams as wilful entities, suggesting his own ability to dream lucidly ended because he “abused dreams” by changing their course rather than accepting each dream as “a serious world unto itself … I kept trying and trying, but [until years later], I could never get lucid again. I love the state of lucid dreaming, but it’s not my strength.”

If scrutinising dreams does make them “dance”, as Bosnak suggests, the most obvious changes I’ve noticed involve diversity of mood and perspective. Over the past few months, since starting a dream journal, I’ve been, among other entities, an excited teen at a sleepover party in an abandoned warehouse; an argumentative tradesman in a by-laws dispute with a building inspector; a handsome, witty man exchanging penetrating insights with other young writers in a bar; a grim man of indeterminate age carrying his dying father from restaurant to restaurant in search of a table; and that deliriously happy pissing prisoner.

The nails-in-mouth nasty hasn’t returned, and although (like most people) I’ve never experienced lucid dreaming, I now seem able to summon enough situated awareness to pull out of dreams I don’t care for: a sensation not unlike wrenching a surfboard from the rim of a collapsing wave. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but even this degree of apparent awareness that I am dreaming brings a new sense of control, and somehow lightens the mood.

Philosopher Dr Jennifer Windt, a lecturer at Melbourne’s Monash University, has written of a theory that suggests the reason most of us don’t realise we’re dreaming is because “we simply don’t think about whether we are, and indeed don’t think about much of anything … If we did, we would become lucid.” Windt doesn’t entirely buy this proposition, because even dreamers who wonder if they’re dreaming often don’t reach a conclusion, “or falsely conclude they are now awake”.

I tell Windt of a dream which misled me in this way in the early 1980s, after I’d spent a day drinking whisky with a famous ratbag I was interviewing for a story. Drunker than I’d ever been, I flaked on the marital waterbed minutes after getting home. Around dawn, I made my way to the toilet where everything went well until I was woken by my then-wife’s outraged cry: “Frank! You’re pissing on your f…ing desk!”

I’d dreamt I was awake, then sleepwalked (for the first and only time in my life) to my
office in a room adjoining the bedroom, which my dream treacherously presented as the toilet. (This long-ago mishap, and the recent prison epic, are the only so-called toilet dreams I’ve had, yet both are seared into my memory.)

“I’m really interested in exactly that sort of thing because it shows that dreaming isn’t a totally disembodied, brain-in-a-vat-type experience,” enthuses Windt, who won the Australasian Association of Philosophy Annette Baier Prize in 2018 for an article about physicality in dreaming. Her paper, in the journal Synthese, questioned the popular perception of dreams being “pure hallucination”, with the brain decoupled from the environment and the body.

This idea, championed by Freud, led researchers away from older theories about there being a “meaningful relation between how we experience our bodies and how we dream” – which Windt believes deserve renewed attention. She says being aware of physicality during sleep can shape how people dream, and – on occasions – cause males, in particular, to lose the usual REM sleep paralysis and physically act out their dreams.

“Men may [even] start strangling their wives,” she points out, putting my own “real-world example” of acting out in a more favourable light.

In the past, the physicality theme was part of philosophical arguments over how, if sleep is defined as unconsciousness, dreams can exist as “experiences” – and that any waking memory of dreams must therefore be some sort of mental deception. Laboratory research has since shown that dreaming occurs not just in REM sleep but all stages of sleep, and this – coupled with similarities between dreams and daydreams (or conscious “mind wandering”) – indicates that “conscious” and “unconscious”, or “awake” and “asleep”, probably aren’t opposite concepts but close to the same thing.

“Suggestions are emerging that conscious thoughts may be much less controlled and cognitive than previously thought, and much more like the thoughts or experiences found in dreams,” says Windt. “Especially given that mind wandering is said to occupy up to 50 per cent of our waking lives.”

On May 16, I record the following dream in my journal: “I’m standing with a crowd of people at a window looking across tranquil countryside when hillsides begin collapsing in the distance. As the destruction gets closer, boulders fly, trees explode and rivers change course before our eyes. Strangely, only a few of us seem troubled by what’s happening. ‘Time to go,’ chants an automated voice in the lift after the front of the building disappears, and we all file outside and drive away.”
Two days later, with polls still predicting a comfortable Labor victory, Australians vote to return the Morrison government.

The day after that a near neighbour, whose fence has been anointed with signs promoting candidates from the religious right, adds a handwritten poster: “I Believe In Miracles!” Each to his own. I’m inclined to put my faith in precognitive disaster dreams.

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