I don’t use drugs, my dreams are frightening enough.
M. C. Escher
Terror shot through my body and catapulted me out of bed, gasping for breath. Something had awakened me. A shout in the dark of the night, close to my ear.
I checked my wife. She was still sound asleep. But then she spoke out again.
“Hello, space kitty!”Just a dream. Most people don’t gain an understanding of how active our sleeping brain can be until they’ve shared a bed with someone who talks in their sleep or thrashes about in the grip of a nightmare. While my wife has a knack for awakening me with terrifyingly articulate pronouncements in the gray hours of the early morning, I’m not innocent in this regard.
In my dream, I shout “Watch out! That gladiator has an axe!” as I dive-roll under the sweeping blade. In reality, I’m bellowing “BWUUUUUUUH!” into my pillow as I kick my wife repeatedly in the shins. (Have I mentioned that my wife is a very forgiving, good-natured person who I adore?)
My wife and I both have surreal dreams, with one key difference. I tend to remember my dreams vividly, while to this day, my wife denies any memory of the Space Kitty outburst.
That’s not surprising. Most dreams — some researchers estimate more than 95% — go unremembered; unless the dreamer is awakened or there is a strong emotional undercurrent to the dream, it’s lost upon waking.
The reason for that is purely biological. Chemicals necessary to encode short-term memory into long-term memory are suppressed during REM sleep. The parts of the brain responsible for logical decision-making shut down, but emotional and sensory areas remain active. That’s why dream imagery is often surreal, and why we’re sometimes left with the emotions of a dream even when the details are lost.
Because my wife’s Space Kitty dreams don’t seem particularly disturbing (to her, at least), I let her sleep through them, and she has no memory of them in the morning. But my dreams tend to be more chaotic, and I recall their intensity even if my wife doesn’t awaken me from my thrashing.
My stories are richer for that dream content, and I will always be grateful to my wife for putting up with the occasional bruised shin.
In Part 2, we’ll look at how authors and artists throughout history have used their dreams to spark their creativity, and I’ll share a few techniques for retaining dreams and turning them into a nightly wellspring of inspiration.