Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Stupid Dreams

The May 2010 issue of National Geographic includes an article by D.T. Max titled “The Secrets of Sleep.” Max quotes William Dement, a sleep researcher who co-discovered REM sleep: “As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy.”

Dement’s syntax is a little confusing, but I find it very interesting that after decades of research, no one has a clue why we sleep. Furthermore, no one knows why we dream or if our dreams mean anything, either. The dream debate has raged between two camps: those who believe that dreams have meaning and those who believe that dreams are the meaningless result of random firing synapses.

I read Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung at least two decades ago and vaguely remember Jung’s archetypal discussions of dreams. At the time, Jung’s dream theories appealed to me simply because they read like literary theory, and it can be a lot of fun applying them to literature.

My own dreams, however, never made much sense, even when analyzed under the archetypal microscope, except in the broadest, most general terms. What I can remember of my dreams seems pretty badly composed, with disjointed narratives, surrealistic events, and characters merging and changing into different people. My dreams, in fact, seem like products of some sort of freaky acid trip rather than significant tapping into a meaningful collective unconscious.

Take, for example, my frequent nightmares about snakes. Freud might say that the snake is a phallic image that represents my repressed sexuality. I never much liked Freud. Jung might say my fear of snakes slithers into my dreams because of some deeper collective fear of snakes hearkening back to our ancestors on the African savannah who got KILLED by mambas and cobras and vipers.

I mean, this isn’t exactly an irrational fear, and I did almost run over a rattlesnake while riding a bike when we lived in Georgia. I was six years old, and it was totally traumatic for a little drama queen, but not as traumatic as my little sister’s experience, at the age of three or four, coming between a rattlesnake and its hole. Lisa was rescued by the telephone repair man and our dog Cindy Lou.

South Georgia has lots of rattlesnakes. I’m glad I don’t live there anymore.

No offense to Georgia, of course.

Whether this early experience started it or not, my phobia of snakes has stayed deeply entrenched. At age 21, I screamed like a little girl and hyperventilated when I stepped out my mother’s door one day and scared the hell out of a six-inch-long garter snake. George assures me it was just six inches, but in my mind that sucker was a yard long. Well, 18 inches, at least. My heart starts racing just remembering that green, legless…ewwwww! Get it away! I still struggle just looking at snakes behind glass at the zoo, and when the zoo staff bring them out for the public to touch, I stay clear by at least 20 feet.

So, we’ve established that I have a phobia of snakes, but what does that have to do with the activity of snakes in my dreams? Well, other than the fact that they are generally about to KILL me, not much. My freaky nightmares about snakes are rarely realistic. You see, snakes in my dreams are consciously searching for me to KILL me, like Mafia hit men I’ve offended in some way, which gives far too much credit to tiny little snake brains which are, in fact, far more interesting in killing mice so they can eat them. Also, my dream snakes do wacky things like bite their tails, make their bodies rigid like hula hoops, and roll down slopes after me with intent to KILL me when they catch me.

Marlon Perkins never reported this sort of snake behavior on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, did he?

Of course not.

The problem, at least as I see it, is that dreams can be interpreted so many different ways, using so many different theoretical approaches (Freud, Jung, even Northrop Frye and Karl Marx if you wanted to get really silly). Of course, Jung would have something to say about my dream snakes turning into hula hoops…circles being highly symbolic shapes after all. But who cares? What my dreams about snakes tell me is that I’m terrified of snakes. As if I didn’t already know that.

Last week, I sifted through some memorabilia that had belonged to my grandmother, including newspaper clippings of my sister Lisa’s ballet career. Two nights after this little trip down memory lane, I had a very weird dream.

It was present day, and I was a 43-year-old housewife who never had a ballet lesson in her life. Someone, who remained invisible and nameless in the dream, ordered me to dance the role of Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. (Lisa was a beautiful and elegant Sugar Plum Fairy, by the way.) In the dream, I HAD to do this, but all the rest of the dancers hated me for it because they knew I would ruin the performance. Mom and Lisa encouraged me and told me that I could do this and would be great, and I kept telling them they were crazy. I couldn’t find my make-up, either, which caused all sorts of additional anxiety, because, you know, putting on make-up makes you a better dancer.


It was such a relief to wake up after what felt like hours of agony and realize that I did not have to dance in The Nutcracker. This dream clearly fits into a category of recurring dreams about performance anxiety, which many people have, often with the fun twist of being suddenly naked in front of a large group. I also occasionally dream about needing to teach a class but being unable to find the right classroom. At least I always have my clothes on.

Another category of recurring dreams is the natural disaster dream, such as being in a tornado, tsunami, or earthquake. I have natural disaster dreams repeatedly during times when I’m stressed out waiting for a life-changing event over which I have no control, such as when George was about to get orders for us to move or when he flew off to war. As soon as the orders came through or the deployment ended, the dreams stopped. It doesn’t take a Jungian psychoanalyst to figure out what these dreams mean.

It’s partly this recurring nature of dreams that tempts us to create systems of meaning for them. Our brains are hardwired to see patterns and connect them to some bigger picture, an evolutionary trick that created jobs for literary critics and psychoanalysts, by the way.

Psychoanalyzing dreams beyond the fairly obvious, however, is a dangerous business, especially since science hasn’t yet explained what dreams are, where they come from, or why we dream. I’m eagerly awaiting further research to answer these questions because sometimes—just sometimes—our dreams seem to make sense and seem to be sending a clear message from our unconscious…collective or otherwise…that we feel compelled to listen to or act on.

But if there is a message in my dream about a potato growing out of my knee, I don’t want to know it. Ignorance is bliss.

Your turn...please share a weird dream, meaningful or otherwise, with the rest of us. Come on, you know you have an entertaining one!


  1. I had a wacked-out dream years ago. I was in the parking ramp at work in an orange truck (not a pretty orange like they have now for cars, a yucky reddish-orange) with a tailgate that opened like a bra. Somewhere in there (I think underneath the truck topper) were mice with ENORMOUS eyes, sort of like cartoon mice except they were real (in the dream). That's all I remember, thankfully.

  2. Nicole,

    ewwwwww! Mice with enormous eyes! Why do our dreams do these things to us?

  3. I have recurring "frustration dreams". I am scrubbed in (meaning dressed in sterile gown and gloves)in the OR, and I keep contaminating myself so that I have to change my gloves. This happens over and over, and the whole time the surgeon is waiting for me to hand him an instrument. I've never searched for a deeper meaning, but I'm sure there is one.
    Oh, and sorry you have an irrational fear of snakes - I used to have a pet Burmese python, but please don't hold that against me. ;)

  4. I was a waitress for six grueling weeks at a Howard Johnson's along the Pennsylvania Turnpike during the summer after my high school graduation. I hated it. I was a terrible waitress. My hands shook so badly that half of the coffee would be puddled in the saucer by the time I carried the cup to the table. For a long time after I quit, I'd have a recurring dream that I was the only one in the restaurant right before it was time to close. Suddenly, people would start coming through the door, filling all the seats, shouting orders at me. I had to take the orders, cook the food, make ice cream sundaes, and serve everything by myself. I still shudder when I think of those dreams.

  5. When I was young, my recurring dream was of flying. I miss that one. Now that I work as a teacher, I can count on at least one totally out of control classroom dream. If only I could fly away from those devilish students in my dream. Unfortunately, my childhood dream doesn't rescue my adult dream.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!