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Friday, April 17, 2020

Dreaming about the end of the world

Dreams don't tell us what's happening. They tell us what it means

I was in a house. Suddenly it started raining more and more heavily. So I went outside and saw the road near the house was flooding. There was a levy and it was about to burst and flood the entire area. Then I woke up. It turned out I was getting a toothache from a stuck piece of food. I brushed and flossed. The toothache went away and I went back to sleep.

Why did my subconscious interpret an impending toothache as a flood? We can think of things they have in common—a flood of pain, perhaps—but if the purpose of dreams is to warn us, why not just dream about the actual problem? Wouldn't that be easier?

Many people are said to be having end-of-the-world dreams at the moment. Despite what the hysterical news media would like you to think, this doesn't mean people are so terrified about some virus that they think the world is coming to an end. That's wishful thinking on their part.

Everyone is different, of course, but we can understand it by asking what happens when the world ends. Your way of life changes. This is what the dream is really trying to tell you.

Of course, you may already know your way of life is changing. If you're on lockdown, you're a virtual prisoner in your home, cut off from friends and work. Everything you do is different. So your brain dramatizes that for you in an attempt to get you to recognize the significance of those changes.

I'm not an expert on dreams, nor am I a psychologist. But from what I know about how the brain works, it's clear that dreams aren't some weird curiosity. They're how we think, or more accurately, they're why we think. From pure logic alone, there would be no particular reason why we'd care whether the world came to an end or not. It's only the implications—the loss of the things we value—that really matter to us. Maybe that's why we rarely dream about doing math problems, reading books (but see below), or cleaning out the bathtub. We may do those things in real life, but they're not things the subconscious mind can help you with.

The reason dreams are symbolic isn't that the actual events in a dream don't matter. What's important to the mind is the emotions the events represent. A dream is a presentation of reality with the physical events replaced by some other event that has the same emotional meaning.

There's a theory that if the dream wakes you up, that too is symbolic: it could mean that your subconscious mind thinks the issue is so urgent that it endows the dream with emotional content and awakens you so you remember it.

An example is dreaming that you have another apartment somewhere that you forgot about. The rent is overdue and all your stuff is about to be thrown out on the street. This could mean there's some aspect of your life that you're ignoring and you need to start paying attention to it. It's the nagging feeling that you've forgotten something that the mind thinks is important.

Another example might be that you left the door unlocked and you came back to find all your stuff has been stolen. This is pretty easy: your brain is saying something of value is being taken from you and you need to keep closer tabs on it.

Chinese people seem to have a tradition that dreams are always prophetic. One highly aggressive Chinese postdoc who I worked with once tried to warn a colleague that she dreamed his bookshelves had collapsed and he should check them for his own safety. But knowing this person, what she was probably really thinking was that his research was flimsy and his theory would collapse. Whether that was wishful thinking or not isn't important. What's important is that it shows us why we use metaphors and similes in our daily life: unbeknownst to ourselves, it's how we actually see the world.

I had one recurring dream where I was back in college and there were lectures about a new way of analyzing something that was highly mathematical, but when I read more papers on it, I discover it's no good. “Just because something is hard to understand,” I say to a fellow student, “doesn't mean it's not nonsense.” The student is puzzled. Then I'm walking down a road on a steep hill that's covered in ice. I have to trudge through a deep snow bank and I get snow on my glasses. I have absolutely no idea what my subconscious was telling me, and perhaps that was why the dream kept repeating.

Maybe it's bizarre to be dreaming about reading scientific papers, but it's also frustrating: if you forget it was only a dream you may try to cite it but be unable to find the paper.

This is what I dream about. Maybe my dentist is right: I am a dull person. But that's the nice thing about dreams: if they're ridiculous, you can always blame your subconscious. If I had to guess, I'd say that was no accident.

apr 17 2020, 8:47 am

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