Publisher’s note: David G. Allan is the Editorial Director of CNN Travel, Style, Science and Wellness. This essay is part of a column in English called The Wisdom Project, which you can subscribe to here.
(CNN) — I’ve dreamed of hosting “Saturday Night Live” for years. Literally. I have had that dream repeatedly, for decades.
I have traveled to space, to the past and I have become a superhero. I have been close friends with many celebrities. I have created new memories with friends and family, some deceased. I have committed terrible crimes. And I have saved the day, repeatedly.
Our sleeping mind is a private theater in which you are the director and usually the star, and there is no limit to the production budget. Yes, some are boring (most of mine are about work), but many are entertaining, incisive, and occasionally problem solvers. This is why you should consider turning a blank notebook into your first dream journal.
There is little scientific research on the benefits of keeping a dream journal, but practitioners find it useful or insightful at best, and interesting at best.
The first potential benefit of keeping a dream journal is that it can lead to creative breakthrough. The subconscious mind that dreams is by nature more inventive. Your dreams make leaps in time, they make leaps in logic, they accept contradictions and sometimes they don’t make any sense to our more conventional conscious mind
“Dreaming allows each and every one of us to quietly and safely go mad every night of our lives,” William Dement, founder of the Stanford University Sleep Research Center, once said.
There are numerous anecdotes of creative and innovative people who found inspiration in dreams and nightmares. James Cameron famously had a vision of a “Terminator” robot crawling after a woman; a dream that sparked a huge movie franchise. EB White devised the character of Stuart Little in a dream. Just like Mary Shelley with her “Frankenstein” monster. Computer scientist Larry Page dreamed of downloading the entire Internet and cataloging just the links before doing it with the company he helped found, Google.
Paul McCartney was inspired to write “Let It Be” after his mother said that phrase to him in a dream. The melody for “Yesterday” also occurred to him in a dream. “I’m a big believer in dreams,” McCartney said in an interview with The New York Times Magazine. “I’m a great dream rememberer.”
In centuries past, people believed that dreams were messages from the dead that contained clues about what the living should do. The Egyptian pharaohs believed that the gods sent us messages in our dreams; They called them omina, origin of the word omen. And the main current religions include in their sacred texts stories in which dreams are important enigmas whose meaning must be deciphered.
A more current theory about why we dream is that it helps to classify, organize and process all the stimuli of our waking life, as if it were cleaning cobwebs. But sometimes cobwebs turn to silk, when the answer to a problem you can’t solve in your waking life is solved in your most creative dream life.
Dream solutions have the advantage of working “without the limits of time, logic, space, or other real-world rules,” wrote Dr. Allan Peterkin in a guided dream journal published by National Geographic. Peterkin is a professor of psychiatry and family medicine at the University of Toronto.
There are also historical examples of problem solving in dreams. Elias Howe designed the modern sewing machine needle from a dream he had about cannibals waving spears at him, according to the New England Historical Society. Jack Nicklaus dreamed up a new golf grip that would improve his game. Albert Einstein went on to relate the roots of his theory of relativity to a dream he had as a teenager in which he traveled at the speed of light.
Sigmund Freud, who wrote the first academic research on the interpretation of dreams, thought that dreams mainly revealed secrets and shameful moments from our past. But his student-turned-rival, Carl Jung, believed that dreams are based on universal archetypes and contain clues from our subconscious lives to help us find happiness and answers to problems.
Another theory is that dreams act as a dress rehearsal for real life, a way to safely test alternatives. That seems like a likely explanation for the nightmares. Scary dreams originate in the brain’s amygdala, where intense negative emotions such as anger and fear reside, Peterkin explained. They are useful, according to the researchers, because they can help train the brain to prepare for challenges and fears in waking life.
By the way, the English word nightmare, “nightmare”, comes from an image that sounds like a nightmare itself: the Old English word for the evil female spirits (maeres) that are believed to sit on your chest. and suffocate you.
The real way
Dreams are windows to your deepest self. Looking at yourself through a mirror removed from reality changes your perspective. And by writing them down and considering what they mean, you travel “the royal road,” as Freud said, which leads you to the knowledge of the unconscious of your mind.
“Trying to understand your dreams can become an important part of understanding yourself, your relationships, and your world, both inside and out,” Peterkin wrote.
Ellen DeGeneres spoke publicly about her sexual identity after having a dream in which a bird came out of its cage and broke free. Brad Pitt said in a recent GQ interview that by studying his nightmares in which he was chased, trapped and stabbed, he was able to understand and work with “deep scars” from childhood.
“No dream comes alone to tell us what we already know. It invites us to go beyond what we know,” says Jeremy Taylor, author and former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.
“I’ve been paying attention to my dreams lately,” actress and director Sarah Polley wrote in her new memoir, “Run Towards the Danger.” “After 20 years of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy I am used to noticing them. They are smoke signals from the past, drawing my attention to the burnt remains in a forest far from the mind, packed and buried under years of rubble, still burning. But lately I’ve also started to see dreams as guides that point the way forward.
The poor man’s opera
Another advantage of counting and recording dreams is simply avoidance. And who doesn’t need a vacation from life every once in a while? In your dreams you can visit the past or the future, go to any part of the world or outside of it, and fly there with or without an airplane.
As Kahlil Gibran put it more poetically, “Let us give ourselves over to sleep and perhaps the beautiful bride of dreams will carry our souls to a cleaner world than this.”
The word dream comes from Old English and means “joy, noise, or music.” And there is joy in recording the music or deciphering the noise.
“The bed is the poor man’s opera”, says an old Italian saying. And every day there is a new representation. Dreams can be “an amazing virtual reality model of the world,” Peterkin wrote, “updated with cool new content multiple times each night.”
In some of my wildest dreams, I married Nicole Kidman, joined Laird Hamilton’s surf crew, beat LL Cool J in a rap battle, and drove the Speed Racer car, the Mach 5. In others, Sarah Silverman was my therapist, Ally Sheedy and I had an affair while making an ’80s movie together, and I played Han Solo in a version of “Hamlet,” with a script made out of graham crackers. I went to high school in the 19th century, with Hulk Hogan, and at that time I attended the funeral of General Robert E. Lee. And I was Batman.
I can remember these dreams and hundreds more because I have been writing them since high school. It is the simple act of recording dreams that prevents them from evaporating in the light of day.
Of the many dream-themed films, my two favorites are Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” and the lesser-known Wim Wenders’ 1991 “Until the End of the World” with William Hurt, Sam Neill and Max von Sydow . As a subplot in “Until the End of the World”, the protagonists find a way to videotape their dreams and subsequently become narcissistically addicted to watching them (to the point of insanity).
“Now you’re looking at the human soul, singing to itself. To its own God,” says von Sydow’s character. As fun as that sounds, current technology hasn’t advanced to the point where we can record our dreams (yet). The closest thing is to write them.
To start, it doesn’t take much. Find a dream journal app or designate a notebook to keep by your bed. And the next time you remember a dream, even if it’s hazy and half-assed, write it down. Even if it’s boring and doesn’t seem worth remembering, write it down. The more you get used to recording them, the better your memory will be.
I also leave a piece of paper in case I scribble down key words and elements in the middle of the night. Even a single detail can bring back the memory of an entire dream. Telling someone about your dream soon after you wake up can also help you retain it until you write it down.
My dream journals have evolved over the years to include headlines for them, keeping track of topics, people, and places, as well as noting how many were “good,” “bad,” or “neutral/in-between.” I do it to look for trends, but don’t push yourself too hard, especially when you’re starting out.
I also sometimes write a note at the end of the dream if I feel like I have some idea of its meaning. You may instantly recognize that a dream about being lost in a city actually refers to losing a work file, for example.
Dream dictionaries collect mythology, psychology, and cultural symbolism, and can be interesting for looking up recurring themes, even if they aren’t very scientific, except in the collective and unconscious Jungian sense.
Always remember that you must interpret a dream through your personal experience. For example, a dream dictionary may suggest that a dog in a dream means loyalty. But if you’re afraid of dogs, it’s more likely to represent something else you’re afraid of. Or if your mother has five dogs, the dog in your dream may represent her.
As the great myth expert Joseph Campbell said: “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”