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Monday, February 26, 2024

Column: Dream a little dream

Hey, what are dreams? I mean, I know they’re the sounds/images/sensations that flit through our heads when we’re sleeping, but what actually are they? And what do they do? And do we even need them?

Let’s go way back. Usually this is the part of an informational column about dreams where we’d go back to the Ancient Greeks and start there. But I don’t want to do that because I’m sick of everything starting with the Greeks just because we in the West were trained by some Enlightenment hot shots to think of them as our intellectual ancestors. It’s West-centric! I’m over it!

Nah, friends. I’d rather talk about the Upanishads. What are the Upanishads? I’m glad you asked, rhetorically useful voice in my head!

The Upanishads are a collection of philosophical writings from old-timey India on the nature of existence, the value of ritual and other such weighty what-not. The part about dreams is mostly in the Mandukya Upanishad. Say that out loud, it’s very enjoyable. The scholarship on this little guy can get weighty, but here’s my typically under-informed summary.

So you’ve got your dream life, and your waking life. And in both, you think you’re confronting ‘reality.’  Look down at this newspaper. It’s real, right? It’s tangible, the words printed on the page don’t wiggle around, everything seems…real.

Now think back to your last dream. When you were inside of it, fast asleep, dead to the waking world, didn’t it seem real? When that giant Ryan Gosling with snake hands was chasing you, wasn’t it scary? Didn’t your heart pound with the erotic terror that only snake-hand-Ryan-Gosling can evoke? So why do we think of one world as more real than the other?

Well, says the Mandukya Upanishad, we shouldn’t. One of the tasks of living is to be able to view these two perspectives – life and dream – from a third place. In this third place, our essential selves reflect both on our lived experiences and on our dreams with an equally critical eye, privileging neither as more real. When we can do that, then we will truly understand.

If that freaks you out, good. You know what else is freaky?  The dream theories of Sigmund Freud. And before we get into this, he was undeniably a sex-obsessed, cocaine-addled narcissist. He was also a genius, and in the weirdest and most wonderful way.

Let’s see what creepy Uncle Sigmund has to say about our dreams. Well, first we should address the fact that Freud didn’t believe that any part of human behavior was random. For him, when weird things happen in dreams they’re just the thoughts and feelings you repress all day wiggling their way back into the foreground, your unconscious screaming out in the night. Dang, I should be a poet.

Do you know about the id/superego thing? Human existence, for Freud, is an epic, sword clang-y battle between the id and superego, with poor little ego stuck in the middle. The id is that naughty part of you that likes cake and sucking face with strangers, the unrestrained animal impulse. But pure id doesn’t work so well in a social setting.

So we have the superego, the schoolmarm part of the brain that says “oh no, no cake for you fatty! And you don’t even know that bar fly, she might have herpes!” Meanwhile, the poor ego, the conscious part of the brain that you think controls your actions, is all “what do I dooo?!?”

So in dreams, the rational ego goes away, and the id and superego, both of which don’t really manifest in daily life, run wild. But because these repressed parts of you could be damaging if they are expressed too clearly (and that part has never made sense to me), they translate themselves in to symbols. So your id might be wanting you to eat more gummy bears, but the resulting dream might show up as, say, a giant Joseph Gordon-Levitt with spider hands.

Or whatever. Hey, it’s your dream, interpret it however you want. I’m just here to make jokes.

If you want a dream interpreted, KATELYN HEMPSTEAD has no idea how to do that, but you can contact her anyway at khempstead@ucdavis.edu.

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