On the Interpretation of Dreams

Last night I had a peculiar dream in which, for reasons obscure, I hijacked one of the dishes of the Ryle Telescope at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge and drove it at high speed along a railway line all the way to Oxford (pursued by an ice cream van). To non-astronomers this probably sounds completely barking, but I should point out that the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory is located at the site of Lord’s Bridge, a former railway station on the (now defunct) line between Cambridge and Oxford and some of the telescope dishes move along sections of the old track. Of course the track no longer extends all the way to Oxford, and in any case there would be bridges under which one of the 13-metre antennae of the Ryle Telescope could not possibly pass. Such mundane considerations don’t matter in the world of dreams, however, and the whole escapade was like a madcap chase scene from a daft movie. I woke up chuckling.

I’m by no means an expert in the interpretation of dreams but on the occasions when I can remember what I’ve dreamt about it always seems to be a weird juxtaposition of things I’ve experienced in the recent past. In this particular case I recall reading an article about the possibility (now, I believe, shelved) that the Oxford-Cambridge railway might be reinstated. I’ve also been reading tweets and facebook messages from people currently at a radio-astronomy workshop in the Netherlands.

My interpretation of this sort of thing is that during a dream the sleeping brain is sifting through recent experiences and relating them to others, including recent events and things lodged in long-term memory. If I’m right, then this kind of dream is basically a by-product of the workings of a sort of subconscious filing system. Not sure how the ice cream van fits into this scheme though.

There are other kinds of dream, of course, and they don’t always fit into this pattern. In my experience the majority don’t make any sense at all, so I won’t say any more about that class. I don’t know how many people have regular recurrent dreams, but I do; these are of two types. The first is a standard “anxiety” dream. I could be sitting in an orchestra on the stage of a concert hall, or some similar situation. I have a musical instrument in my hands and am dressed for the part, like all the other musicians. It is shortly before the performance is due to start. The problem is that I don’t actually know how to play the instrument. Time is ticking away and I’m soon to be found out. How do I escape? I think it’s obvious that this dream is closely related to impostor syndrome.

The second type of recurrent dream is harder to fathom. I’ve moved around quite a lot during my career: starting in Sussex, then in London, Nottingham, Cardiff and then back to Sussex. In this kind of dream I’m supposed to be back in one of the places I used to live, but it’s curiously different from what it was like in reality. One example involved me being back in my old flat in Bethnal Green. Exploring the place I took a nice walk through the French windows and into the garden. Trouble is, the flat didn’t actually have French windows or a garden. How could it? It wasn’t even on the ground floor…

That kind of dream is quite disconcerting, especially since it’s recurrent. But I can give an example that’s even weirder. As regular readers of this blog – both of them – will know, I was unwell for a period last summer. During the worst of this episode I was confined for a while in a psychiatric clinic. I wasn’t there for very long (perhaps 3-4 days) but I didn’t really keep track of time very well and in retrospect it seems I was there much longer than that. I was also heavily sedated for a lot of the time I was there. The effect of this was to blur the distinction between sleeping and waking almost completely so I literally didn’t know whether I was conscious or unconscious.

Now I know for a fact that I didn’t have any visitors when I was in that place. However, I have perfect recollection of a time when a young man (a former student of mine of Cardiff University) came into my room, sat down beside my bed and opened a discussion about physics, his plans for doing a PhD in Early Universe Cosmology, and various other topics to do with books and films. Looking back on this I realize that the conversation I’d imagined was actually a kind of synthesis of bits of other conversations I’d previously had with the same person in a different environment (i.e. my old office in Cardiff University). The peculiarity is that I now remember that imagined pastiche of a conversation as if it were actually real, and it has always been difficult for me to convince myself that it didn’t happen. It’s almost as if the filing system had gone into reverse, pulling old memories out of their drawers and sticking them back in my consciousness.

Related to this (possibly) are various memories I have of very early childhood. These are often very vivid, but in many cases completely at odds with facts that I’ve subsequently established. I think what has happened in such examples is that I haven’t actually remembered the event in question, but have been told things about it so frequently that a memory has somehow been constructed to accommodate the narrative.

Over a year on I still find the clinic episode quite scary to think about. I think that’s mostly because it’s an extreme example of how one’s perception of what is real and remembered versus what is imaginary and dreamt can get confused. Am I really writing this? Or am I dreaming? Are you really reading it? Are you dreaming? Wake-up!

8 Responses to “On the Interpretation of Dreams”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Dreams have a high signal-to-noise ratio but I would be careful about making public what I believe to be signal, as I agree (for once) with Freud that they are the “royal road to the unconscious”.

    Memories can certainly be false, but I think that the emotions associated with dreams are likely to constitute significant signal.

    Has anybody ever dreamed that they were dreaming? It has happened to me once.

    • I don’t recall having had any dreams like that, but I have had ones in which I dreamed that I had woken up but was actually still dreaming…

    • Adrian Burd Says:

      Not that, but I have twice had a dream in which I awoke, went about my daily business and then actually woke up. These dreams scared the heck out of me as I spent several days afterwards wondering when, or if, I was going to wake up again. I should mention that when I woke up in the dreams, everything that followed in the dream was very vivid and perfectly normal.

      • This reminds me of the story of the person who dreamed that he was giving a speech in the House of Lords. Then he woke up and found that he actually was…

    • “Has anybody ever dreamed that they were dreaming?”

      Yes. My dreams are realistic in that the laws of physics apply, i.e. nothing happens which couldn’t happen in real life (at least as far as the laws of physics are concerned). In other words, they are completely realistic in this sense and not distinguishable from reality. So, of course, during these dreams I can go to sleep, dream, wake up etc. (And the dreams within a dream are also realistic.)

      An exception to this are dreams while on morphine. (I’ve had morphine a few times while in hospital.) They are realistic as well, and not significantly different in content, but in these cases I was always aware that I was dreaming: the dream essentially consisted of myself watching the main dream, as if in a cinema.

      There is one difference, though, whether or not morphine is involved: I usually forget dreams within a few hours, at most, after waking up, while real experiences stick much longer in memory. However, if I wake up and go back to sleep quickly, the dream often continues where it left off. Sometimes I intentionally go back to sleep when I otherwise wouldn’t in order to experience the ending. 🙂

  2. Yesterday, I had the thought to send you this site, because
    it’s part of my experiences, and research, i.e., the acausal
    factors in reality, per Pauli and Jung.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_mysticism

    See my blog, for dreaming reality verified by Princeton
    University researcher….

    http://open.salon.com/blog/newyorknews2

  3. “I hijacked one of the dishes of the Ryle Telescope at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge”

    “I think it’s obvious that this dream is closely related to impostor syndrome.”

    Hhmmm. MRAO. Wondering if you are yourself. Both themes occur in this 1980s music video, which also includes the crime of using a mobile phone near a radio telescope. (Yes, mobile phones, big ones, existed back then.)

  4. […] written about dreams a few times before (e.g. here) and don’t intend to repeat myself here. It does seem to me however that dreams are probably […]

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