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. Read more…