John and I had just left a college party after some guy spilled a beer on me. I hadn’t seen John in a decade, since we were members of the same theater company. As we ran up a set of seemingly endless stairs towards his dorm room I asked how his brother’s restaurant was doing. Suddenly he said, “Almost there, you’ll know what to do.” A fast moving metal treadmill stood at a 45-degree angle to a bright sky. My feet gripped it and I was flung into the air. In the distance a purple orb, I watched John’s form gracefully bounce off the ball and land on a platform. But I was on the wrong trajectory, I watched as I fell beside the ball, wondering if there was a back up plan.
Then I woke up. Over the past couple of weeks as I quarantine myself in my Brooklyn apartment something strange has happened. I remember my dreams. I know this is a commonplace occurrence for many people, but not for me. And it turns out I’m not alone. Sleep experts say that there are reports of many Americans experiencing dreams that are more vivid than usual.
The experts cite a few reasons for this. First of all, in the heightened emotional state we all find ourselves in these days, there is a lot of for our brains to process. Furthermore changes to our sleeping routines may cause more opportunity for REM sleep, the deep sleep in which dreams take place. But whatever the causes many people seems to be treated to, or tricked into a view of their subconscious minds that is by turns fascinating and jarring.
I walked onto the balcony, my son in the hotel room. After lighting my cigarette my boss offered me a blackberry from a mason jar full of them that he was holding. I didn’t want one. He said they were really good. I reached in the jar but my fingers couldn’t grab one, I wound up crushing them, and the juice stained the ground. He said we were late for the meeting. When we got to DC I realized in a panic I had left my son in the hotel room.
Then I woke up. There is an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where Data, the android uses a dream program. Throughout the episode the surreal images in his dreams help him solve a problem with the warp coil. Even in the context of artificial intelligence, we understand dreaming as a way to reframe reality and offer our emotions or ideas to ourselves untethered by the limits of physical phenomenon toward some end.
Though I have never really remembered my dreams much before this odd hiatus of our civilization, I have been aware of them. In fact, I often go to sleep thinking about a problem, or an article, and wake up with a new idea, summoned from I know not where. This window onto the actual narrative structure of my dreams is new, and I tend to view it as both a coping mechanism and an opportunity.
One thing we realize in isolation is how much information about ourselves we get from others. Like an animated mirror the way people respond to us often tells us our own mood before we even know it. As we read those we interact with we are simultaneously judging their reading of us. Without others we are left to our own devices. Our dreams can take the place of that mirror, showing us emotions we are too in the midst of to fully recognize.
As for opportunity, well, I think most of us have gotten to know ourselves a little better these past few weeks whether we want to or not. Without the distraction of our hectic hustles, there’s a lot of time to spend trapped in the old duder’s head. A newfound lucidity of dream is a nice counterpart to that. Sometimes showing us things we didn’t want shown, but in any event a unique way to explore ourselves.
For those of us in this position, who are unaccustomed to the memory of dreams that feel so real, my advice is to indulge them. Let yourself linger on them a little bit. I’m not saying we should turn into Freud or Jung and look for hidden meanings, although that can be fun, but at least reflect on them. How did it make you feel? Why are you telling yourself this particular story?
The mystery of dreams is as old as man; they are too all consuming to feel like mere accidents of imagery. The ancients believed dreams could reveal the world around us. The moderns believe they can reveal the world within us. Both are right. And in this time of crisis we can use all the help we can get.