Health & Science: What Dreams Are Really Made Of
Published: Sunday, October 6, 2013
Updated: Monday, October 7, 2013 00:10
Sleep is one of those things that scientists still haven’t managed to explain.
In the past 70 years, sleep studies have begun to shed light on what is physiologically occurring while we sleep (REM cycles, circadian rhythms, and the like), but a complete explanation for why we physically need sleep still eludes us.
There are a few theories floating around out there as to why we sleep—some claim that sleep is an evolutionary adaptation that allows us to conserve energy, others say that we need sleep because it allows our bodies a chance to fortify biological components of ourselves that we submit to stress during our wakeful day-to-day activities. Regardless of the reason why, though, the fact remains that we spend roughly a third of our lives lying in bed dreaming.
Just because it takes up such a substantial amount of your time doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with sleep. There’s no better way to start off your day than waking up feeling well-rested, and a nice nap can leave you feeling pretty fresh and ready to take on whatever you have left on your plate. True, if you forget to set an alarm for the morning then you may find yourself wishing humans were instead a race of robots that could just stay turned on for 24 hours in a day—but even robots need to recharge at some point. And sleep provides us with a certain escape from reality that can be quite an experience: dreams.
Dreams can be inspirational when viewed with the correct perspective. A bad dream can be frightening, but a particularly good one can set the mood for your entire day. Dreams are more often than not incredibly confusing, but in a pleasant sort of way. Sometimes, the best dreams will make you wish you hadn’t woken up quite so soon.
When you really think about it, though, we don’t stop dreaming when we wake up. Whether you’re talking about the short-term (finish that paper for philosophy class tomorrow), the semester (get an A in that philosophy class), or the rest of your life (get a job with your philosophy degree—good luck), we are always cognizant of our goals and objectives. The image in your head of a completed philosophy paper isn’t real yet—just like your dream last night in which you got drinks with Eddie Murphy never happened (we’ll leave the question of why you were dreaming about Eddie Murphy for a later date).
In essence, a “goal” is really just a dream that you consciously, rather than subconsciously, imagine. Goals can be realistic and unrealistic, just like dreams. Goals are subject to the influence of your surroundings, too, as are your dreams, although in somewhat different ways. While it may not take more than a couple of pre-bedtime episodes of Lost to induce a dream about smoke monsters and polar bears, goals are a little more rigid. They are subject to two constraints: what you perceive to be possible and what you want.
Oftentimes, these two factors are at odds. Take, for example, the case of a BC student deciding which major to choose. She loves reading and talking about philosophy but ends up becoming an economics major, because it is more likely to land her a job. In the end, she let the relative ease of getting a job with an economics major override her true desire to study philosophy.
This method of goal-setting is not in the true spirit of dreaming, and it perpetuates a generation of “settlers”—people who could have beaten their own paths to happiness but instead settle for a set track to complacency. Our only true goal in life should be to do exactly what we want, otherwise we risk leading a life filled with regrets and what-ifs. This doesn’t mean setting aside all practical concerns (like getting a job)—it just means working to find a way to fit together all of your wants into a goal that fulfills each one.
One classical model of explaining why we dream is wish-fulfillment theory, which credits the contents of our dreams to our own subconscious desires. Putting aside the fact that this theory was posited by a rampant cocaine user, there is a message to be taken here. If our subconscious dreams are based on what we really want, then shouldn’t the goals that we consciously dream up also reflect this sentiment?
The best dreams make you wish you hadn’t woken up. When you’re actually living your dream, however, you’ll never want to go back to sleep.