Dreams are the best show in town. Here’s why you should write them down
David G. Allan is the editorial director for CNN Travel, Style, Science and Wellness. This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project, to which you can subscribe here.
(CNN)It has been my dream for years to host “Saturday Night Live.” Literally. I’ve repeatedly had that dream, going back decades.
I have traveled to space, back in time and turned into a superhero. I’ve been close friends with many celebrities. I’ve created new memories with friends and family, some deceased. I have committed terrible crimes. And I’ve saved the day, repeatedly.
Our sleeping mind is a private theater where you are the director and usually the star, and there is no limit to the production budget. Yes, some of them are boring (the majority of mine are about work), but many are entertaining, incisive and occasionally problem-solving. That’s why you should consider turning a blank notebook into your first dream journal.
There is little scientific research into the benefits of dream journaling, but those who make it a practice find it useful or insightful at best, and interesting at the very least.
The first potential benefit of dream journaling is that it may lead to a creative breakthrough. Your subconscious dreaming mind is, by nature, more inventive. Your dreams jump around in time, make leaps in logic, accept contradictions and sometimes make no sense at all to our more conventional conscious mind.
“Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives” is how William Dement, founder of the Sleep Research Center at Stanford University, once put it.
There are numerous anecdotes of creative and innovative people who found inspiration in dreams and nightmares. James Cameron famously conjured the vision of a “Terminator” robot crawling after a woman; a dream that sparked a massive film franchise. E.B. White came up with the character of Stuart Little in a dream. As did Mary Shelley of her monster in “Frankenstein.” Computer scientist Larry Page had a dream about downloading the entire internet and cataloging just the links before he did that with the company he helped start, Google.
Paul McCartney got the inspiration to write “Let It Be” after his mother had said that phrase to him in a dream. The melody for “Yesterday” also came to him in a dream. “I’m a great believer in dreams,” McCartney said in a New York Times Magazine interview. “I’m a great rememberer of dreams.”
In centuries past, people believed dreams were messages from the dead that contained clues for what the living should do. Egyptian pharaohs believed gods sent messages to us in our dreams; they called them omina, the origin of the word omen. And the major faiths today contain stories in their sacred texts in which dreams are important riddles whose meaning must be worked out.
A more current theory about why we dream is that it helps sort, organize and process all the stimuli from our waking life, like clearing out cobwebs. But sometimes there’s silk to be made of the webs, when the answer to a problem you can’t solve in your waking life gets worked out in your more creative dreaming one.
Dream solutions have the advantage of operating “without the limits of time, logic, space or other real-world rules,” Dr. Allan Peterkin wrote 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 historical examples of dream problem-solving, too. Elias Howe designed the modern sewing machine needle from a dream he had about cannibals waving spears at him, according to New England Historical Society. Jack Nicklaus dreamed about a new golf grip that improved his game. Albert Einstein even traced the roots of his theory of relativity to a dream he had as a teen about traveling at the speed of light.
Sigmund Freud, who wrote the first scholarly research on interpreting dreams, thought they primarily reveal secrets and embarrassing moments from our past. But his mentee-turned-rival, Carl Jung, thought dreams tap into universal archetypes and contain clues from our subconscious life to help us find happiness and answers to problems.
Another theory is that dreams act like a dress rehearsal for real life, a way to safely test out alternatives. That seems a likely explanation of nightmares. Scary dreams originate in your brains’ amygdala, where intense negative emotions such as anger and fear reside, Peterkin explained. They are useful, according to researchers, because they can help train your brain to prepare for challenges and fears in your waking life.
By the way, the word nightmare comes from an image that sounds like a nightmare itself: the Old English word for evil female spirits (maeres) believed to sit on your chest and suffocate you.
‘The royal road’
Dreams are windows into your deepest self. By gazing into a cracked, fun house mirror of reality, it changes your perspective. And by writing them down and considering what they mean, you travel along “the royal road,” as Freud put it, leading to the knowledge of your mind’s unconscious.
“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 came out publicly after having a dream about a bird flying out of its cage and setting itself free. Brad Pitt said in a recent GQ interview that by studying his nightmares of being chased, trapped and stabbed he was able to understand and work through “deep scars” from childhood.
“No dream comes just to tell us what we already know. It invites us to go past what we know,” said Jeremy Taylor, author and former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.
“I’ve been paying attention to my dreams lately,” wrote director and actor Sarah Polley in her new memoir, “Run Towards the Danger.” “After 20 years in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy I’m used to noticing them. They’re smoke signals from the past, drawing my attention to burned out wreckage in a distant forest of the mind, packed and buried under years of debris, still smoldering. But lately I’ve also started to see dreams as guides, pointing the way forward.”
‘Poor man’s opera’
One more benefit of recounting and recording your dreams is simply escape. And who doesn’t need a vacation from life from time to time? In your dreams you can visit the past or future, go anywhere in the world or off it, and fly there with or without a plane.
As Kahlil Gibran put it more poetically, “permit us to surrender ourselves to slumber and perhaps the beautiful bride of dreams will carry our souls into a world cleaner than this one.”
The word dream comes from the Old English word for “joy, noise or music.” And there is joy in recording the music or deciphering the noise.
“Bed is the poor man’s opera,” an old Italian saying goes. And there is a new performance daily. Dreams can be “an incredible virtual reality model of the world,” Peterkin wrote, “updated with cool new content several times each night.”
In some of my wildest dreams, I married Nicole Kidman, joined Laird Hamilton’s surfing crew, beat LL Cool J in a rap battle and drove Speed Racer’s car, the Mach 5. In still others, Sarah Silverman was my therapist, Ally Sheedy and I had a fling while we made an ’80s movie together, and I played Han Solo in a version of “Hamlet,” using a script made out of graham crackers. I went to high school in the 1800s, with Hulk Hogan, at which time I attended Gen. Robert E. Lee’s funeral. And I was the Batman.
I can remember these dreams and hundreds more because I have been writing them down since high school. It’s the simple act of recording dreams that keeps them from evaporating in the sunlight of day.
Of the many dream-themed movies, my two favorites are Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” and the lesser-known 1991 Wim Wenders’ film, “Until the End of the World,” with William Hurt, Sam Neill and Max von Sydow. As a subplot in “Until,” the main characters find a way to video-record their dreams and subsequently become narcissistically addicted to watching them (to the point of madness).
“You’re now looking at the human soul, singing to itself. To its own God!” von Sydow’s character says. As fun as that sounds, present-day technology has not advanced us to the point of DVRing our dreams (yet). The closest thing available is writing them down.
There’s little you need to get started. Find a dream journal app or designate a notebook to keep next to your bed. And the next time you recall a dream, even a hazy, half-remembered one, write it down. Even if it’s boring and doesn’t seem worth remembering, write it down. The more you get in the habit of recording them, the better your recall will get.
I also leave a scrap of paper out in case I make some scribbled notes of 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 your dream soon after you wake up can also help hold on to it until you write it down.
My dream journals have evolved over the years to include headlines for them, tracking themes, people and locations, as well as noting how many were “good” “bad” or “neutral/in between.” I do that to look for trends, but don’t make the bar too high for yourself, especially when you’re starting.
I also, on occasion, will write a note at the end of the dream if I feel I have some insight into its meaning. I may instantly recognize that a dream about being lost in a city is really about losing a work file, for example.
Dream dictionaries compile mythology, psychology and cultural symbolism and can be interesting to look up reoccurring themes in, even if there is little that is scientific about them, except in a Jungian collective, unconscious way.
Just remember always to interpret a dream through your personal experience. For example, a dream dictionary may suggest a dog in a dream means loyalty. But if you’re scared of dogs, it more likely represents something else you’re afraid of. Or if your mom owns five dogs, your dream dog may be standing in for her.
As the great myth expert Joseph Campbell put it, “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”