Dreams are weird. The power of dreams to make you laugh, cry and not want to go back to sleep in fear of returning to them is gloriously bizarre.
If we take any notice of them at all, that is.
The fact is, most of us are too busy with our daily lives to pay our dreams any mind. We’ve all rolled our eyes at books with titles like “The Meaning of Dreams” and thought, if we read them, we’ll probably just find some stuffy Austrian telling us we’d quite like to bed our mothers.
The fact is, however, that dreams can be pretty bloody useful. Scientists haven’t yet landed on a single theory of what dreams are nor why we have them. Some of the widely held theories seem to be that dreams are:
- Representations of unconscious desires and wishes
- Interpretations of random signals from the brain and body
- Consolidation and processing of information gathered during the day
Much more than anything else, the last point is what I mean by dreams being pretty useful and today is an auspicious day to point this out.
At the time, Descartes was a talented young mathematician who, being tired of hypothetical arguments, had decided to study the practical applications of mathematics in war.
While stationed in freezing Bavaria with the Dutch States Army, Descartes turned the heat up to 11 on his room’s “oven” and buckled down for the night of his life without leaving the comfort of his bed.
[Behave! It wasn’t like that!]
Descartes’ First Dream
He has a lame right leg which impedes his walk before he gets ‘turned about’ by a great wind. He tries to find firmer footing inside a college church, where he meets a familiar acquaintance but is unable to greet him.
Descartes woke from the dream and immediately assumed that a bad genie had come to torture him but the heat in the room made him doze off again.
Descartes Second Dream
This was a short one. It mostly consisted of a thunderous noise that made him wake up again. He looked at the oven and saw that it was making no more noise than it usually did, so he fell back asleep again.
Descartes Third Dream
He sees a book on a nearby table but when he picks it up he sees that it’s a dictionary and it doesn’t interest him in the slightest. Then he notices a book of poems in which he finds the Latin quote “Quod vitae sectabor iter” (“Which path in life will I choose?”).
A stranger then appears and shows him a poem that starts with the Latin phrase “Est et non” (“What is and is not”). Descartes tells the man he saw that poem in the book on the table but, when he looks for it, it’s not there. At this point he also notices that there are pages missing from the dictionary.
The Interpretation of Dreams
I know. Absolute nonsense, right? Neil Gaiman, the master wordsmith who penned the famous Dream-based comic The Sandman, once pointed out that dream logic is not story logic. And he would know! Dreams do not make easy stories.
However, if we see dreams as symbols of stories we can interpret – imagine you’re watching a film and you only catch parts of it because your older sibling is farting around in front of the screen to annoy you – then they can be quite revealing.
You see, earlier that day, Descartes had been moaning about how his thoughts and knowledge was plagued by “disunity and uncertainty”. He wanted all knowledge to be as clear and precise as mathematics and he genuinely believed that this could be attained … it’s just that all other knowledge was “hidden”.
Descartes could just as easily have dismissed his dreams as feverish inconveniences. He could have just seen the lame leg as a weird ailment, the dictionary as a boring book, the poetry as nonsense and gone about his drab life bemoaning his lack of direction like any other normal 23-year-old. But he didn’t.
Instead, he chose to read meaning into his dreams based on his real-life experiences at that time.
The young philosopher’s main take-away from these dreams was that he couldn’t be certain of anything other than his ability to think. The original, full quote was “Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum”. Which literally meant, “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am”.
For Descartes, his inability to distinguish between reality and the dream-state led him to trust only one thing: his capacity to think.
This has made people consider Descartes to be one of the least “woo woo” philosophers of all time and yet he credits his revelation to that most “woo woo” of acts (and to a ‘bad genie’ too, no less).
Dreams As Stories Told By «The Insane»
All dreams are essentially stories. We can take them at face value and dismiss nagging questions like “but why did I dream of a carbuncle swinging from the Eiffel Tower in a gold dress?”
Or, we can read into them.
The history of myth and religion is the history of humankind reading into reality. Yet, all too often, humans get bogged down in dogma and shaking their fists as they scream «how dare you say living beings weren’t brought about by a giant cow licking primordial ice?!»
(Or any other way, for that matter)
Sometimes, we really would do better trusting the story as a wonderfully symbolic and illogical jumble of potential wisdom rather than the storyteller, which in this case is your mad brain shutting down for the night.
So, when remembering your dreams just before they effervesce into nothingness, take solace in the fact that, like Descartes, you’re bonkers!
Your brain can’t tell what’s real most of the time, so take a step back and, to the best of your ability, analyse it as if it were a wailing toddler too young to speak properly yet.
If you do that, things may appear a little clearer. Maybe you’ll see what it is you really want, or don’t want. Maybe you’ll find the solution to a nagging problem. (It worked for the inventor of the sewing machine.) Or maybe it’ll just become a little clearer when you’re acting like a toddler in your waking state. Who knows?
But, most of all, just try to remember that if the bonkers story tells you to hurt somebody, best not to listen to it. It’s probably just your brain being an arsehole.