“Hope is a tattered flag and a dream of time,” wrote Carl Sandburg. We delight in, struggle with, are comforted, haunted, challenged, or vexed by these sometimes sweeping, sometimes simple arcs. Dreams are fleeting tapestries of memories, fears, hopes, doubts, unresolved problems, traumatic events, desires, things we could have should have would have done or said. Why do we have them? Where do they come from, really? How is it even possible that our brains construct them in the first place?
Science doesn’t really know. Researchers have linked the phenomenon of dreaming to memory-making, problem-solving, and the processing of information and emotion. Renee Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher famous for formulating the maxim cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), warned that dreams prove the fundamental duplicity of our senses. Lucid dreams (dreams in which we know we are dreaming) are rare, prompting Descartes to note that to a dreamer in the act of dreaming, the dreamed reality is experienced as reality. Our senses are unable to properly distinguish the dream-time simulation from real-world experience. Consider this an early formulation of the sensory anxieties inherent to various brain-in-a-vat scenarios or the Matrix films.
Many people believe that left-brain functions, such as reading, are impossible while dreaming. This concept was a key plot point in a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series in which Bruce Wayne realizes he’s captured in an induced, idyllic dream (his parents are alive) when he repeatedly tries and fails to read newspapers and books. This episode is so well-remembered that Google assumes you want to add “batman” to the search phrase “can you read in dreams” (which of course you do). Batman makes everything better, but it’s not as clear whether the no-reading meme is true. Lots of people say they’ve read in dreams, but because that makes Batman a liar (more likely, they are lying, because Batman), I have my doubts.
Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, held that dreams were essential to problem-solving, allowing the otherwise resting mind to sort through millions of inputs and establish patterns. Crick’s research partner, James Watson, famously claims to have realized the double-helix structure after dreaming of a spiral staircase in the thick of their research. Descartes himself claimed to created what become the basis of Western material philosophy, the scientific method, in a dream.
Although we still don’t really know for certain why we dream, scientific consensus seems to be with Crick. Minus the inventory of mental needs that comprise our waking hours, in sleep, our minds are free to fire different neural paths and establish intellectual, emotional, and other connections we’re often kept from making otherwise. In fact, with apologies to Fiona Apple, problem-solving isn’t just the reason for dreams, but for the very act of sleeping.
We sleep, it seems, to dream, and we dream to make sense of life, to better understand and experience our world, ourselves, and our relationship to everything between. Here the spiritual experience of dreams as visions or prophetic words are not at odds with the likes of Descartes or Crick, and certainly not with Sandburg. We are vessels of knowledge, hope, and time seeking understanding, clarity of purpose. We seek better patterns, fairer systems, and, sometimes, we find them.