The Science of Dreaming

Science journalist Alice Robb on why we need to take our dreams seriously.

Jessica Gross | Longreads | December 2018 | 14 minutes (3,551 words)

In 2011, when she was in college studying abroad in Peru, Alice Robb ran out of reading material and picked up a copy of Stephen LaBerge’s Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming. Her initial skepticism quickly dissolved, and she and a friend spent the summer practicing LaBerge’s tips: they recounted their dreams to each other; they did “reality tests” during the day to trigger similar checks while sleeping. Robb began keeping a rigorous dream journal and found that, after very little time, she began remembering her dreams in detail.

In short, she began taking her dreams very seriously — a stance that she has maintained since. In her new book, Why We Dream, Robb, a science journalist, presents a comprehensive and compelling account of theories of and research on dreaming from ancient times through the present day. Throughout, she displays an intense respect for what our minds do while we’re sleeping, and the findings she presents — that dreaming is essential for sanity, that analyzing our dreams can be revelatory, that dreams can be used as diagnostic tools and even manipulated for our own mental health—corroborate her conviction that, as a culture, we would benefit from paying more careful attention.

Robb and I met at a bar near where she lives in Brooklyn to talk about dreams’ predictive power, what it’s like to make your dream journal entries public (hint: uncomfortable), and what closely observing our dreams can offer.

Toward the end of the book, there is a line that moved me so much: “I like seeing proof that even while I’ve been unconscious, I’ve been alive.” It seems to me that dreams as proof of life — so then, maybe, as defense against death — is a pivotal concept in this book.

I used to have a lot of trouble sleeping and I was kind of afraid of sleep. A lot of people have compared sleep to death, and being unconscious is a scary thing to think about. But paying attention to my dreams and improving my dream recall and seeing that there’s actually so much going on in my mind while I’m asleep has made sleep feel more like a lively time — more integrated with the rest of my life and waking hours — rather than this weird period where I just shut down.

You started working on your book proposal in 2015, but that was several years after you’d begun your own personal journey with lucid dreaming. How much of the extensive research here was stuff that you had picked up from your own interest, and how much was directed specifically toward the project of this book? And, also, how did you synthesize all of it? Your notes are, like, 40 pages long! [laughter]

Most of the research that I did in a serious way was for the book proposal or the book project. I had been keeping a dream journal, though, and it ended up being really useful that I could draw on that and look for patterns that went further back. One of the challenges with this book is there’s obviously been so much written about dreams. I wanted to do my own reporting, but I didn’t want to do a ton of unnecessary reporting when there is so much fascinating archival material from so many different disciplines. I felt that where I could add the most value as a reporter would be in the more scientific sections, because that hadn’t been synthesized for a mainstream audience in many years. I wanted to try to make something cohesive out of all these different strands. And I didn’t want to leave out the historical stuff, which was some of the most fun to research.

Freud plays an interesting role in this book: early on, you present a physiological, neurochemical counterargument to his theories on dreams. But by the end—and tell me if this is an accurate reading—you have come to a really nuanced relationship with his theories; you present a lot of evidence that bolsters what he theorized. That said, you write that even psychoanalysts today have devalued dreams in comparison to the way Freud treated them. So can you talk about your thoughts on Freudian dream theory and psychoanalysis more generally, having gone through this entire research journey?

I think that’s definitely an accurate reading. Freud did something really important in giving dreams a scientific underpinning a hundred years ago. And I think a lot of the gist of what he said has been borne out, that dreams show us things about ourselves that we’re not consciously aware of. They sometimes show us things that we desire, but they often show us things that we’re afraid of.

But those are so linked, too.

Yeah. I talked to one historian who blamed Freud for the way that people became embarrassed to talk about their dreams; one idea that has obviously taken off in the public consciousness is that dreams are all about sex. Actually, there’s much less sexual content in dreams than most people would expect—at least based on how people report them, which may not be totally accurate. Regardless, when Freud’s reputation suffered, our consideration of dreams, I think, suffered a little bit along with it.

You write about how talking about our secrets, anxieties, fears, and desires through the language of dreaming gives us a way to talk about them safely, with a bit of distance. In Greek, you write, it’s phrased as “I saw a dream,” rather than “I dreamed.” In other words, there’s a way in which you can disown responsibility for what you dreamt.

I feel like that’s one of the most useful things about dreams, emotionally. A lot of the therapists that I’ve talked to have said that it’s easier to get someone to admit that something happened in a dream, which they can kind of laugh off. I have even used this in my life. Maybe I’ve wanted an excuse to get in touch with someone, so I’ll tell them a funny dream I had about them.

I’ve also had this interesting experience over the past few years working on this book where people often tell me their dreams. I think part of that is they want some psychoanalysis and think that I’ll be able to provide that. But sometimes they don’t realize how personal they’re getting, and those dreams open up incredibly personal conversations with people that I don’t necessarily know that well.

What has that been like for you?

Really interesting. I’ve had people confess a lot about relationship anxieties and a lot of people talk about people they’ve mourned in their dreams. Often, people will have more intense phases of dreaming and remember their dreams more when they’re working through something that’s really emotionally fraught. So someone may have died, or a lot of people have talked to me about how they used to have an addiction — they used to smoke pot everyday or are an alcoholic. When you stop doing that thing, you have a big increase in dreaming.

That must be interesting, because on the one hand you’re in a dream group—a group of people who gets together regularly to share and collectively analyze your dreams — so you must really like relating to people in this way. But on the other hand, your dream group is a structured environment with people you know well, which is entirely different from a semi-stranger coming up to you and soliciting that kind of engagement.

I think that for people who do remember their dreams every night, it can be this very intense thing that they think that no one is interested in — they’ve been trained to suppress it and not talk about it. And then they meet me, and it’s this free pass: “Here’s someone I can talk to about this.”

Yes. The book feels like it really is driven by a mission, which is urging people to (a) take dreams seriously, (b) track them, and (c) share them. You’re presenting the benefits of paying attention to your dreams over time in a rigorous manner.

Yes. That is the argument. Have you ever tried to track your dreams?

It’s funny, when I started reading this, I remembered that I had this dream journal that was in my nightstand, I just hadn’t taken it out in years. So I looked at it and the last time I had recorded a dream was in 2009, almost ten years ago.

Wow.

I always think I can’t remember my dreams, but the entries were very detailed. So I put it on my nightstand to urge myself to try it again. But 2009 was before I had a smart phone. Now, I’m in the habit of checking my phone immediately when I wake up—which makes the dream vanish. I put the dream journal there—but the smart phone is right here. So how can people hold onto their dreams in this era when there’s no time between waking and information, information, information?

The thing is, it takes so little time to think about your dreams in the morning. If you take ten seconds before you reach for your phone, I think that can be enough because dreams do, for most people, just disappear if they don’t think about them immediately.

But for a while I used to record my dreams on my smart phone. So that’s another thing you can do. You can either type them into the Notes app or speak them into a voice recorder.

You go through so much research on what dreams can offer us, along so many different avenues. One that I’m particularly interested in, probably just because I’m a writer, is the link between dreams and creativity. You cite many examples of writers who have been inspired by their dreams and translated them into stories—one that came to my mind, that you didn’t cite, is George Saunders’ “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” which was inspired by a dream. In this vein, you write about free-associating, and how the pathways that are built in dreaming are very similar to free-associating pathways in waking life. So has doing all this research enabled you to trust your own waking-life free associations more? Because I feel like there’s an instinct to dismiss stuff that seems illogical.

That’s such an interesting question. I feel like as writers, we probably are a little bit more accepting of those free-associative pathways. I did keep hoping that I would find a structure for my book in a dream.

Wouldn’t that have been great?

That has never happened. At one point, my editor and I were both trying to think of a title in our dreams, but that also never happened.

How do you try to think of something in a dream?

If you focus on something before you go to bed, you can increase your likelihood of dreaming about it. We think of our dreams as these crazy aberrations, but a lot of our dreams are a pretty straightforward recital of what happened during the day, or just really mundane stuff from three hours before bed. So if you try and think about a problem before bed — Stephen King, for example, fell asleep thinking about a plot problem he needed to solve in It and, in his dream, he did.

I love that. You’re a lucid dreamer, so you probably have a greater potential to do this than someone who isn’t. But you write that even in lucid dreams, you can’t just do whatever you want, which I didn’t know.

No. I think that’s a really common stereotype. Lucid dreaming, like regular dreaming, is very idiosyncratic, so there may be people who can control every aspect—but part of what’s fun about lucid dreaming for those of us who can’t is that you’re very aware, but you’re not controlling everything, so things are still surprising. That’s what’s sort of mind-bending about it: people are talking to you in your dream, and you’re still surprised by what they’re saying, even though obviously it’s coming from you.

It reminds me of fiction writing in that sense: all the time, writers say things like, “I didn’t know the character was going to do that,” or “I didn’t know that was going to happen.” It sounds crazy, but I think it really does work that way! Similarly, as you point out, the characters in your dreams are all versions of you, but because they’re coming from your unconscious, that doesn’t mean that you are dictating their behavior willfully, even if they’re reflecting aspects of you that are real.

Yes — and that self-discovery is, I think, a big part of the value of dreams.

That said, I was comforted by what you wrote about dreams being mostly mundane and boring, because I always thought I was the most uncreative dreamer on the planet.

[Laughs] Yeah. Sylvia Plath has this story that I found after I had submitted the final draft about a Sylvia Plath character whose dreams are really boring; she is really jealous of the Ted Hughes character, whose dreams are really exciting. And then she kills herself. I kinda wish I’d found that two months earlier.

Alice Robb (Photo: Don Razniewski)

What else were you sad didn’t make it into the book?

I didn’t end up including this because it’s been written about several times, but it is a crazy story: Abraham Lincoln had this dream shortly before he died about being assassinated. It was this really eerie dream that he wrote a letter about. He was wandering through the White House and he heard a funeral procession and he saw a coffin and then he looked in the coffin and it was himself.

People are constantly telling me stories that I like wish I could include — like what you just said about George Saunders’ story. A friend who I sent a galley to just texted me that her mom was in a lucid dreaming study in the 1980s at UVA. And I was like, “I would’ve loved to have interviewed your mom.”

When I was talking about people telling me their dreams, often people would just tell me things that I would want to include in the book. Dreaming is something that everyone has a personal relationship with, so everyone is entitled to an opinion on it. Some people have told me stories of making decisions because of their dreams. Someone I had just met told me how he had broken up with his girlfriend because he kept having dreams that she was cheating on him. He would wake up angry with her, and it led him to reflect on other issues in the relationship. It seems like the dreams were the motivating thing.

But he must have been harboring some suspicions or ambivalence or whatever, otherwise he wouldn’t have dreamt that in the first place.

Dreaming reifies the feeling.

The Lincoln story is so interesting—you write about how dreams can be predictive, but not because of mysticism, necessarily; that you’re picking up on low-level things in the environment that you may not be consciously aware of, but that you’re synthesizing in dreams, right?

Yeah, because we’re taking in so much information all the time and we’re not consciously analyzing all of it, so we probably can predict lots of things that we don’t think we can.

A lot of people have talked to me about their Trump dreams. I was actually looking through my dream journal and found that during the primaries, I had a dream that Trump had taken over The New Republic, where I used to work — he had commandeered it. And I had one that I was like sitting next to him on a plane and then he sexually assaulted someone. And this was before — this was when I first thought he was going to lose. I mean, I’m not saying that’s predictive, but…

But sort of.

Yeah.

What do you make of that now?

I think that I was anxious; I don’t think it’s necessarily more than that I was anxious about the election even though we all were telling ourselves it was going to be okay, on some level, it was scary.

And so maybe you were picking up on some level that this was a greater possibility than we were consciously admitting to ourselves.

Yeah.

Let’s talk more about the research you did. What discoveries shocked or surprised or delighted you?

The International Association for the Study of Dreams conference I went to in the Netherlands was a lot of fun. I saw these really symbiotic relationships between scientists and people who were more into the mystical side of dreaming, and how they could really help each other. The scientists could find research subjects, for example. It’s hard to find people who are so skilled at lucid dreaming that they can just go into a sleep lab and do it any night of the week. I met this woman who uses lucid dreaming to help with her anxiety. Almost all of her dreams are lucid, which is very unusual, so she’s become something of a celebrity in the lucid dream world. She has been a subject in a bunch of studies; scientists love her. So a lot of those relationships were fun to watch.

One of the things that I had to overcome, working on this book, was a certain bias: I couldn’t just dismiss someone because they had done a study on whether dreams could predict the future, because they could do one study on that and then they could do a study on something more stereotypically reputable. If both studies used the scientific method, I couldn’t dismiss that person’s work.

One thing that seems very clear from the book is that if we don’t dream enough, our mental health really suffers. You write about research in which cats were bopped on the nose to wake them up as soon as they appeared to start dreaming, which, over time, made them become sort of manic and ferocious. And then you write about two people who did these stunts staying awake for extreme amounts of time — two hundred hours for one man, eleven straight days for a teenager after that — and really suffered for it, at least in the short term.

Yes. I think we all know now how important sleep is for health, but it does seem like REM sleep is particularly important for mental and physical health. I was really surprised by some of the links between dreaming and depression, and how there’s this paucity of dreams in depression.

Rosalind Cartwright has done studies investigating how people’s dreams change throughout depressed episodes. She did a study on people’s dreams as they’re going through the divorce process; she could often predict who would recover based on how they were interacting with the exes in their dreams. In the study, the people who didn’t recover as well were people who tended to be more passive in their dreams about their exes; they just kind of looked at them or still felt humiliated by them or watched them with another person.

Passive and victimized.

Helpless, yeah. In general, taking control in your dreams can be helpful for mental health: for people who are recovering from trauma, mastering the trauma in dreams can translate into real life improvements.

What was it like for you to choose from your own dreams to share with a public audience, and how do you feel knowing that this book is going to come out and your dreams are in it?

I just pretend it’s not happening. [Laughs] That’s the answer.

Let’s talk about how people think dreams are boring. As I started to read that section, I was like, How dare they? But you actually present some compelling reasons: dreams are illogical. It’s uncomfortable to hear a story that doesn’t follow, that doesn’t have normal cause-and-effect. You don’t know what to do with it. Right?

Yeah. It was really interesting trying to get an answer to that question because as much as I am more interested in dreams than the next person, sometimes people tell me their dreams and I wish they would stop. But I tend to think that it’s more that we’re not in the habit of telling them in an interesting way. We’ve all learned how to tell stories in a way that we like: leave out the boring details, structure them in a dramatic way. It seems like people have less practice in doing that with dreams.

How could we tell dreams in a more captivating way?

I think that if we took them more seriously, we would. And if we did see them as having more real consequences or being more revealing, if we accepted that idea, then we would be more willing to listen to each other’s dreams.

It does take some effort, sometimes, to unpack a dream. My dream group of 10 people will spend an hour or an hour-and-a-half talking about one dream. If that’s what it takes to get somewhere, to even chip away at a dream, that’s probably not what we’re going to do in a casual conversation. It may be a different type of conversation that’s necessary.

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Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.