Do Our Dreams Help Reveal Who We Are?

Dreams, and the mind in general, still baffle science. I’ve read quite a few theories about why we create surreal simulations of the world in our sleep. The current theory is we dream to process memories, but on top of that we dream to process emotions – in particular, to numb emotional pain and prepare us for it by creating safe scenarios of our worst fears. So I wonder, is this how our brain tests our mettle?

Such dreams would certainly have an evolutionary advantage. The ability to simulate running a buffalo off a cliff in your dreams is almost like a pilot running a computer simulation before flying a jet. They both serve to mentally prepare a person before being thrust into a dangerous situation. Our brains are so wired to do this that gamers commonly find themselves playing video games in their sleep. I’ve personally experienced this, and let me tell you, running Dwarf Fortress in your sleep is weird.

But how do such dreams tell you anything other than maybe you play too much World of Warcraft? Well, it’s all about your emotional reactions. The most vivid dreams tend to create more complex situations beyond learning to drop blocks in Tetris or fill out tax forms. When you’re dreaming about your tongue falling out or being chased by tornadoes, these are the dreams that are trying to tell you something.

There’s no easy way to interpret such dreams, because Freud was full of crap – there is no universal symbolism. A snake meant something different to a Medieval Christian than it did to a Hindu. Though dreams can be heavy on metaphor, because that’s just how the human mind works, but those symbols can be deeply personal. How you react in a dream (or your reaction after you wake from it) is more worth analyzing than the surreal bullshit your mind uses to press your emotional buttons.

To use a brief example (brief because no one wants to hear anyone going on about their dreams), for the past year I dreamed about cleaning out either my old house or my grandmother’s house. The dream almost always ended with me wanting to keep something stupid, or not being able to let go of a ridiculous amount of stuff, and I woke up mad at myself about it. My de-cluttering efforts were partially a reaction to those dreams. I was determined to let go of all the mental junk I’d attached to physical junk. When I started doing it in earnest (and otherwise getting my shit together), the clutter dreams stopped.

This post is also a reaction to a dream I had. My mind had concocted a situation where I was still in college and received a scholarship for a few thousand dollars, but I was the recipient only due to a clerical error. When I found out the money was supposed to go to another woman I gave it back. A friend from back then berated me for being dumb enough to give up “free” money, and I said something to her just as I woke: “The money’s not as important as having someone else’s back.”

Is that the real me talking, or an ideal me free of real life burdens? I’d like to think it’s the former, but the dream me has also been known to repeatedly smash someone’s head against a wall when they really piss me off. Then again, that never works – in the dream, the person just chuckles like an idiot as I try to beat their head in and I get more and more frustrated as my violence proves more and more ineffectual. So maybe that’s an object lesson my subconscious concocted to teach me about how useless violence is.

In any case, I’m pretty sure dream-me reflects my own values. However, I used to have dreams where I was someone else, and I could tell I was not me but inhabiting someone else. That’s weirdness I can’t explain, but if I were to guess it probably has something to do with me being a writer. I put myself in the heads of other characters as I write, so it comes as little surprise that this is something the subconscious can do quite naturally, and more vividly too.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.