Electricity? Chemistry? Brainstuffs?
As I understand it, the theory is that neurons in the brain fire during the night. This is actually roughly equivalent to the activity in the brain during day to day life, but with the release of a whole bundle of neurotransmitters suppressed to stop the body from reacting. So from an internal perspective, dreams are made of the same thing as reality, just from a different source.
Which leads to the question, what is the matter of dreams made of (less literally)?
This one nobody knows; but people love guessing. Purposes of dreams are generally proposed to be some sort of mental sorting. Getting rid of useless information or reaffirming the useful. Going through the thought processes of the day and figuring out answers.
It’s fairly clear from an experiential point of view that this noise is translated into something more cryptic and abstract. A mechanical process (the literal chemistry above) somehow penetrates our conscious mind (unconsciously) in the form of surreal narratives, adventures, monstrosities and terrors.
Freud (largely debunked intellectual bigot) read dreams as masked wish-fulfillment. Repressed desires would be played out by the brain, but the conscious mind could not deal with this, and locked them up in wordplay and crypticism. This distortion was known as the dream work, and his psychoanalysis would try and work out the symbolism of the apparent content, to to work out what the ‘real’ content was.
As I say, this is debunked, but there’s a beauty in the term ‘dream work’ that I find hard to ignore. A dream is something so incomprehensible and unlike anything we can understand (or are willing to understand) that after the fact, as our conscious mind awakes and tries to deal with it, it distorts it. Dreams themselves could be immensely simple, but our brains cannot listen, so it warps them into these chimerical monsters of narrative and emotion, worming in details from daily life, either as cryptic symbols or obfuscation.
It’s kind of like how we process daily life, but less restricted.
If dreams are narratives we craft out of possibly random pulses in the brain, then what about the narratives we craft in the day. What about the things we can’t look in the eye in our day-to-day dealings. What dissonances do we encrypt to keep our underworlds at bay?
I think dreams are our own personal mazes. Puzzles and games and toys. They provide a lesson on how we think and what we care about. An opportunity to experience things outside our day to day life. Explore the impossible. Engage with our anxieties.
Dreams provide us with a worthwhile example of the way the brain can distort perception. A practical lesson in how unreliable our understanding of the world is. How impressive it is that our day to days seem so coherent and causal.
Dreams are made of the same thing as wakefulness, directed differently.
That’s kind of worrying, but then, so are dreams.
Or reality. I forget which.
Illustration by Helen.