Dreams… A window into another reality?... Do dreams have their own reality?... or are they just the by-products of electrochemical processes in the neurons of the brain? I would love to accept a strictly scientific explanation for dreams - after all I have spent most of my working life within the confines of a scientific discipline - but I have not found so far a complete, all encompassing scientific theory that would fully satisfy me.
Most of the wishy-washy esoteric theories likewise fall far short of a satisfactory answer to the nature of dreams and therefore in the sad absence of a full rational explanation, I am inclined - from time to time - to fall back on my own experiential believes. Which is not a very happy state of affairs, as I am unsure about what to believe.
At various times in my life I had some strange and very vivid dream experiences, which left me wondering and bewildered. At age six, for instance, when my father passed away after a brief illness, I entered a prolonged state that could best be described as a reversed state of existence or reversed reality. Every time I went to sleep I was with my father and I firmly believed that to be the absolute reality, whilst I was utterly convinced that my waking state was the dream. This state of affairs lasted for a long time, certainly for some weeks, if not for months.
So vivid and "real" were the encounters with my father at that time, that nothing could convince me that they were merely dreams and - likewise - my days were so dreamlike that nothing could convince me to the contrary. To this day I could not find an absolutely convincing rational explanation for that prolonged reversed existence, whilst a retrospective reflection on those days left me with a mildly unsatisfactory feeling of being irrational. Should I believe that my father was trying to console and reassure me from "another existence", or should I accept that it was merely a figment of my imagination, a series of inconsequential dreams, or was it perhaps a genetically programmed healing function of the brain, trying gently to steer me towards an acceptance and a way of coping with bereavement at an early age, when rational thinking is not fully developed yet. But if the latter would prove to be the correct explanation, then the concept of preordained reaction to events would also have to be accepted, which immediately would bring into question the notion that dreams are purely a physiological function of the brain. How could the brain of a six years old child conjure up a series of coherent but purely physiological processes best suited for the occasion, without assuming the helping hand of a "programmer" well versed in predicting all possibilities?
I cannot fully reconcile the notion of genetic programming with the oft-expressed evolutionary explanation that the genetic coding of a living creature is the result of modulated reactions to randomly occurring impulses. And all that happening at molecular level, that - when a response is required to a stimulus - in the ultimate, could elicit a reaction, which could rival and outperform an Oscar winning film director's best efforts of producing a masterpiece. That would be just about as believable as the possibility of an explosion in a print factory producing the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And that is precisely what we are expected to believe, if we accepted the scientific explanations and theories about dreams and dreaming.
Paradoxically - certainly from the purely scientific point of view - many a scientific discovery and theory originated from a dream or a dream like state. Yet, there is no satisfactory explanation to date how these dream like ideas occur and how they influence scientific research and discovery.
It is not my intention here, however, to indulge in a philosophical or scientific discourse on dreams and dreaming, but rather to give an experiential account of a recent dream and examine its possible origin and its effect and ramifications and perhaps to raise some questions, without much hope of a satisfactory answer or conclusion.
It was a very intense and very brief dream I experienced only a few weeks earlier. I have absolutely no doubt that it was a dream… Yet… it had some elements that made me think that perhaps it was more than "just" a dream. It made me feel so uneasy that I immediately woke up, despite the fact that there was nothing threatening within the dream. On the contrary; if anything it could have been described as trivial, even laughable. So, why wasn't I laughing?
I felt tired that afternoon and took the very unusual step for me of going upstairs and lying down on my bed. I was alone in the house. I hardly ever go to bed before midnight and frequently, when I feel tired during the day and am able to do so; I take a brief catnap sitting in an armchair. I cannot remember the last time going upstairs to lie down on my bed during daytime hours. And I have no idea what made me do so on that occasion.
Within seconds of lying down my eyes closed and I was in a shallow sleep. I knew it was a shallow sleep, because I was still aware of lying on the bed and very much aware that it was most unusual for me to be there at that time of the day. Then my mother appeared and I knew I was dreaming. I knew I was dreaming because I was aware that my eyes were closed and also because she appeared to be many-many years younger than when I last saw her before she passed away.
She was neatly dressed wearing a familiar matching skirt and short jacket over a dark blue discretely patterned silk blouse, which had a bow tie-like fastening above the top button under a rounded collar. Her hair was neatly coiffured and I could smell the scent of her favourite eau de cologne, that I was so familiar with, but which I missed in the last eight or so years of her life when she was confined to residential care.
She was standing at the foot of my bed, looking at me with an enigmatic smile on her lips and asked in Hungarian:
- "Honnan tudtad hogy meghaltam?" (How did you know that I died?)
I sat up startled and opened my eyes. She was gone… except for the scent of her eau de cologne which seemed to have lingered on hauntingly for a brief few seconds.
That was it. I knew it was a dream. It could not have been anything else. It was broad daylight, the sun was shining outside… this was not the witching hour… I was wide awake and I knew I was wide awake and also knew that the whole episode could not have taken more than a few seconds between lying down on that bed, falling asleep, having the dream and getting up… yet it felt like eternity…
I felt so uneasy, I had to get up and walk back downstairs. I could not settle back to a normal routine that day. I could not get her out of my mind for the rest of the day. I felt restless, incapable of doing anything productive.
A few weeks passed since that afternoon. Enough time to think about the whole affair with a cool detached mind.
My rational thinking dictates to accept that it was a dream. A vivid dream, a very short dream, but a dream never the less. It had every ingredient of a dream. It was something that my mind conjured up, in a moment of an altered state of consciousness, from images, sounds and scents stored in my memory. The sentence my mother uttered: "How did you know that I died?" gives the strongest clue to the fact that it had to be a dream.
In her last few years, owing to the progressive nature of her condition of senile dementia, she suffered memory loss, memory lapses, confusion, hallucinations and disorientation. It happened many times when I visited her that her first question to me was: "How did you know where to find me?"
It is logical to surmise therefore, that in a dream just nine months after her death that oft repeated question would somehow surface, get slightly distorted and translate into: "How did you know that I died?" That is precisely what happens in dreams; juxtaposed images, sounds, sentences, fragrances parading as reality. In a scientific age, one must be rational and trust logical explanations.
Yes… but… Is there a logical explanation for existence? Can logic and science explain all phenomena, all experiences? Must we always trust logic over intuition? Is our logic always so perfect, so infallible?
I am not implying here for one minute that anything unusual or unnatural happened during those few moments of sleep. I am not implying that it was anything other than a dream. Yet, I am left with an uneasy effect, weeks after the event that just will not go away. I hardly ever remember my dreams these days. Most of the time I am not even aware that I had a dream and I am not one who ponders over the meaning of dreams. So why did this short dream have such an impact on me? I wish I knew the answer…. But perhaps there is no real answer anyway…
Dreams… A window into another reality?... Do dreams have their own reality?... or are they just the by-products of electrochemical processes in the neurons of the brain? I would love to accept a strictly scientific explanation… but is there one?... and if there were one, would I find it acceptable?
© Peter Oszmann (May 2003. Revised 2004) Reposting.
Ps. Strictly speaking this article does not quite fit into any category listed on this site.
It would be pretentious to the extreme to list it under science or philosophy and I only listed it under psychology, because I am aware that there are many papers written about Dreams and Dreaming by research psychologists.
This article does not pretend to be anything else but a recollection of a dream, personal observations and comments on an event that could be classified as a “psychological event”.