Pinch Me, I Must Be Dreaming...
by Lewis Richardson, TPP High School Writing Contest Winner
It begins with an afternoon jog around the neighborhood. Steven always goes out for a run on a gorgeous evening like this one. The sky is a splendid mixture of violet and apricot, with the sun just barely shining through the oncoming night. Mesmerized by the extravagant sunset, Steven is not paying attention to the world around him while jogging. A distracted driver looks down at his phone as he receives a text message and looks up just in time to see a jogger.
Steven’s life flashes before his eyes in that instant. The car swerves, attempting to avoid the boy. Just as the SUV is about to collide with him, Steven wakes up. The whole occurrence was nothing more than a dream.
Throughout the beginnings of recorded history, humans believed that dreams were signs from spirits or a higher power. In religious texts such as the Bible, dreams are constantly cited as driving forces for actions that follow. It was not until Aristotle and Plato’s teachings in Ancient Greece that dreams were hypothesized to come from within our own minds. Plato taught in his examination of sleep, On Sleep and Wakefulness, that dreams are uncontrollable altered states of mind. He proposed that our senses are inactive in sleep. At the time, this wild hypothesis was given some credibility by influential 19th and 20th century European psychoanalysts. Researchers studied sleep patterns in greater detail to conclude that dreams are the mind’s way of acting out unconscious desires, which may be harmful or deemed taboo in the real world. Still today, we do not really know why humans dream. Every human has distinct thoughts, desires and even lustful behaviors, many of which are subconscious in nature. Each contributes to both the complexity and lack of information we have of dreams.
In time, science’s explanatory point of view has made dreams more comprehensible. In 1953, University of Chicago’s Nathaniel Kleitman and Eugene Aserinsky discovered the human sleep phenomenon of rapid eye movement (REM). In the pair’s sleep studies, participants awoken during REM sleep recalled vivid, somewhat lucid dreams. Meanwhile, those awoken when their eyes were motionless in non-REM sleep could rarely recall dreaming at all. Contrary to the era’s popular scientific thought, further studies concluded that the brain is more active during REM sleep than at any other time. Prior to this investigation, the human brain was thought to rest in a state of dormancy during sleep.
Yet another study in 1960 by Dr. William C. Dement told of the profound importance that REM sleep plays in everyday life. Dement woke subjects as soon as they began REM dreaming, and he noticed a multitude of acute effects. The subjects experienced anxiety, increased irritability, difficulty concentrating and an increased appetite with consequent weight gain. In some extreme cases, they experienced depression and hallucinations. These results were, and still are, a clear indicator of how essential dreams are to our lives.
Though countless scholarly articles, books and movies have tried to describe dreams in popular culture, there is no universally accepted definition. As a whole, the phenomenon of a dream is largely debatable, but the occurrences within them can be explained. What occurs in dreams is greatly influenced by the events in our conscious lives. Recent studies on children who survived through violence in Palestine demonstrate that traumatized younger generations suffer more threatening dreams. In addition, nightmares startling a person fully or partially from sleep are common in children from three to 12 years, as well as adults in some cases of extreme stress, anxiety and other emotional circumstances. Dreams are remembrances of conscious occurrences and often do not tell an entire story. Rather, dreams tell bits and pieces of events.
Regardless of whether or not a person remembers a dream the next morning, dreams are essential to our lives. Although very few of us can remember more than a few of our dreams directly from memory, scientists will likely always debate the origin of dreams and why we have them. For now, we will have to allow our best personal storyteller, our subconscious, to put on spectacular performances every night in our minds, surprising us with their ingenuity during the eight hours we have to ourselves in the darkest hours of the day.