Why dreams are irrational

It’s a constant source of wonder to me how dreams succeeed both in evoking the familiar and simultaneously cutting swathes through reality. One dreams of finding a lost room in one’s familiar home – only to wake up to realise the familiar home itself, in all its detail, was fictional. One enjoys dream-time with an intimate friend – or weeps inconsolably at their death – and finds on waking they were a complete stranger, whose face one nevertheless can still picture.

Occasionally, with recurrent dreams, the persistent memories can be so persuasive that one might almost think they were true, were they not impossible. I remember in my youth having so many dreams that I could, with the expenditure of great mental effort, levitate a few inches above the floor that I sometimes felt I was only submitting to social convention by refraining from doing it when I was awake, until I checked myself with some critical thought. Dreams of flying are, I understand, common – I wonder if I am alone in having had to work a little to keep them in the “dream” category.

Potentially more troublesome are dreams that are somewhat more rational in content. When I retired from medicine, eight years ago, I took the precaustion of removing myself from the medical register. Partly this was to save the exhorbitant annual registration fee, but mainly it was to avoid succumbing to any temptation to help somebody out by doing a locum or weekly clinic and find myself drawn back into the old stressful profession.

With that background, it’s not too surprising that from time to time since I’ve had dreams that I’m still working (actually as often or not they’re dreams that I still have medical finals to take, despite some vague recollection of being on a pension!). That intrusion of past reality into the dream-world means that the dreams started to take on the “plot” of my helping out in the surgery or the hospital even though I was retired.

At first, I remember being troubled, in my dream, about working in the profession when I was officially off the register. But as time has gone on, the dreams have become so familiar that I routinely joke with dream-patients that I really shouldn’t be treating them at all, since I’m officially “unqualified”. Although such dreams are certainly not that common, the motif is persistent enough that, like the old flying dreams, the nagging remnants of the belief that I should be retired but am not last into the waking hours – at least, until the first morning coffee sorts the day from the night.

My son tells me he never remembers his dreams, but many of us do, at least often enough for recurrent themes to be lodged in our memory… and that means that we ought to run the risk, at least potentially, of confusing our waking memories with our dreams. And that could be not only disturbing, but even dangerous, if you seriously thought you remembered you could fly off buildings, for example.

It seems to be largely the irrationality of dreams that prevents such things happening. It’s not hard to search my waking memory and recall not only my medical de-registration (and fish out the paperwork if in doubt) but the lack of any real opportunity in my present life to have nipped into work for a few sessions. It’s even easier to refrain from trying to fly, just on first principles.

But there are borderline cases where real life can seem irrational too. For example, as a teenager I was convinced that I’d seen a shop in my home town that had a real penny-farthing bicycle over the door and the sign “Another Shambles”. Who would call a shop that? Or put a Victorian bicycle on the front? it seemed pretty irrational, especially when I couldn’t find any trace of it again, however hard I looked (and you do look hard, when you think you may have been hallucinating!). I eventually concluded it had been a vivid dream, until a year or so later, when I chanced to go up a small alleyway and find a quirky Antique Emporium with a penny-farthing bicycle hanging over the door.

Did I ever tell you about the time in 1974 I saw a small hovercraft queueing in traffic at the end of Vauxhall Bridge Road in the middle of London? I was on the way to a paediatrics lecture, and made a point of asking people there to reassure me I was awake. It’s just as real to me as “Another Shambles”, except that I never found an explanation. But have I been looking for one in the wrong world?

Last week, I was convinced I’d once written a Hump post on the discovery of paracetamol. I can remember composing the thing, prompted by some discovery in the press about the drug’s ineffectiveness for some common indication. The research led to surprise at the serendipity of its discovery (look it up!), and the article was complete with a punchline about the ad hoc nature of science. It was, in fact, a bog-standard Hump blog – except that I can’t find it on the site, nor any reference to it in the archives I save, nor any of the sources I’d usually keep for reference in such a case. It’s as if, like the antique shop, someone has erased all record of the thing, except from my memory… which, of course, might mean that the whole thing was a vivid dream.

Once more, what saves me (almost!) from self-doubt is the question of rationality: dreams are never that self-consistent, and I was reassured to find that my memory of the science and the history is corroborated when I look it up – but less reassured that I felt it necessary to look! Heaven knows what happened to my post: I even searched my e-mails to see if I’d just sent it as an anecdote to a friend rather than blogging on it. Maybe it got lost the time my computer crashed.

But at least, for the most part, I can be grateful that dreams are clearly separated from the real world not by memory – which to some extent includes both worlds indiscriminately – but by the fact that dreams are conveniently irrational. This world may not be the real one (as the philosophers muse), but it may as well be, because the other is a madhouse. Just think how difficult life would be if the brain only generated realistic dreams from our fears, possible events, and so on, rather than permutating them into fantastical shapes that achieve whatever their psychological purpose might be, without generating overly persuasive false memories. It’s a wonder of creation, actually. Or a wonder of evolution, except that all evolutionary explanations end up as equally prosaic instances of the anthropic principle (dreams had to evolve like that or we’d long ago have killed ourselves flying in antique hovercraft… yawn).

I suppose that one of the curses of dementia must be that the ability to use reason to sort waking memory from dreams is impaired – what a dreadful thing to remember all your dreams as well as if they were reality, if only in the short term. As it is, the moments of madness in which you have to concentrate to remember that your house doesn’t have a secret west wing, that Britain didn’t put an open seaplane into space in the 1930s, or that you can have breakfast instead of fleeing a tsunami all probably serve to ground one more firmly – and perhaps more gratefully – in reality.

Just to complete the dream, here’s a surreal 1968 song by the Incredible String Band, whose Robin Williamson used to keep a dream diary as a source of inspiration. I’m sure this was where this came from, from the way it almost makes sense.

Sweet (and crazy) dreams to you!

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to Why dreams are irrational

  1. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    Interesting post, Jon. I share your propensity for certain types of dreams. For a very long time, I thought I really could run without touching the ground (based on my talent for doing so in dreams) and several decades later was amazed to see this ability as fairly common among Chinese martial arts films of a more artistic kind.

    But I have also had some very important rational dreams. Four of them were crucial in my conversion to Christianity.

    • Noah White says:

      I think it’s interesting that most dreams involve some form of running. Mine almost entirely involve my running being drastically slowed, like I’m running in water, as well as what I can only call moon-gravity. Usually have these around the time I’m dealing with a bout of anxiety, so I’m sure there’s a connection there.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Hi Noah – the basic psychological stuff is, I’m sure, correct: my dreams of exams are clearly linked to “performance anxiety” in some real-life situation, as are the occasional “in-front-of-an-audience-without-any-music” type.

        But it’s the fact that one is revising for the exams in some completely unfamiliar appartment block that’s weird.

        Your “slow running” is another common one, in that I even read a remedy in a published source once: when it happens, you simply unscrew the heavy feet and sprint along without them!

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Ah Sy – I deliberately missed out the awkward aspect that dreams are also sometimes a real part of some “spiritual” world: apart from “dreams and visions” in the biblical sense, many of us have experience of premonitory dreams (I may have blogged on them at some stage).

      One instance that comes to mind in Craig Keener’s Miracles book was of some people praying for healing in rural Congo (or somewhere), and one being told in a dream which particular jungle tree to seek out for a healing remedy. It made me wonder if the astonishing folk knowledge of “primitive” people came entirely from painful trial and error.

      But thanks for taking the subject from the realm of relative trivia to the profound!

  2. Robert Byers says:

    I think the running/slow motion thing in dreams is the body telling us we can’t move. Its a suggestive thing that enters our dreams.
    Dreams are just our souls watching our memory collection. aristotle said this long ago.
    Dreams are not mysterious. just us, denied new senses info by being knocked out, needing something to watch while asleep.
    In fact dreams actually show how creatures get info from senses. Our waking time is just us watching our memory but with very recent memory input.
    Dreams prove our soul only watches a screen of memory . Just very fast new memories.

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