Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/February 1882/Dreams and the Making of Dreams

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629228Popular Science Monthly Volume 20 February 1882 — Dreams and the Making of Dreams1882Joseph Mortimer Granville



DREAMS are night-thoughts, unchecked by the judgment and uncontrolled by the will. It is not true that we do not reason in dreams, that the exercise of the judgment is wholly suspended, and that the will is entirely powerless or ceases to act. These faculties are not altogether in abeyance, but they doze while the subordinate powers of the mind—those which play the parts of picture-carriers and record-finders—ransack the treasures of memory and mingle together in the direst confusion old things and new. Imagination is not active, but it remains just enough awake to supply the connecting links which give seeming continuity to those parts of the phantasmagoria which we chance to remember on recovering perfect self-consciousness, and which, being remembered, we call "dreams." No one remembers more than one dream, unless he has roused from sleep more than once. This experience has led to the inference that dreams only occur at the moment or in the act of awaking. There are dreams which take place in the process of returning to consciousness for example, those instantaneous scenes and spectacles which are suggested by the sound or feeling that rouses the dreamer; but, in result of a long and close study of the subject with a view to discover the nature of dreams, and the laws of dreaming, for medical purposes, in connection with the treatment of sleeplessness, I am persuaded that dreams occur in the course of sleep and are wholly forgotten.

That they do not and can not take place in deep sleep is probable, because deep sleep is general sleep, and when this state prevails the subordinate faculties are sleeping, and the pictures and records which compose dreams are not disturbed. To understand dreams we must understand sleep, and it is because the two phenomena have not hitherto been studied together that so little is generally known about either.

Sleep is a function or state in which the particular part of the organism sleeping rests: whether it is wholly inactive depends on the degree of rest it enjoys. Every part of the organism sleeps, and the totality of the sleep-state depends on the fact of all the important parts sleeping at the same time. If some remain awake—perhaps busy with an unfinished task, or setting about one which the will has foolishly imposed on one of the lower faculties before itself going to sleep, or, it may be, too worried to take natural rest—then the unrest of the busy or distressed faculty or faculties will render the sleep as a whole incomplete, and the repose of the actually sleeping faculties disturbed. Natural sleep is simultaneous sleep of all the faculties of body and mind; and the secret of sleeping soundly and restfully consists in so ordering the life that the higher intellectual powers, the powers of automatic activity, the senses, the muscular system, and the viscera—principally the stomach—may all be ready and able to sleep at the same time. This can only be accomplished by making the act of sleep a thing done periodically, with that rhythmical regularity which Nature loves and on which the smooth working of the machinery of life depends. When sleep is natural, in the sense of being complete, dreaming is, as we have said, improbable, if not impossible; and the measure of dreaming is therefore—inversely—the measure of the integrity of the sleep enjoyed. A great dreamer can not be in good health, or, to use a familiar expression, he "can not have all his wits about him" when he is awake. Every faculty—by which I mean, every part of the organism which performs a distinct function—must sleep; and, if it be healthy, it will sleep at regularly recurring periods. It follows that a dreamer who is not unhealthy—a rara avis—must have formed the habit of allowing his faculties to sleep separately; some being on duty, or watching, while others rest. As a matter of fact, most persons form this habit to some extent, and therefore the majority dream. For example, the man who works with his brain often takes little muscular exercise, and his apparatus of motion rests and doubtless sleeps while his mental faculties are in full action. It may happen that the development of this habit of separate sleep is carried to such an extent that the several centers of the brain habitually take their rest independently of each other, and at different times. The clerk will doze as he adds up his column of figures; and the copyist will go on transcribing while his centers of thought and imagination sleep. Conversely, the lower and automatic centers of the brain—the senses—may sleep while the higher centers are awake. Much of the so-called "abstraction" and "absence" of mind we notice in ourselves and others is due to this cause. The brain-worker gains credit for being lost in thought when he does not perceive some object which ought to impress him strongly through one or more of the senses; the farmer toiling over his fields, the hunting-man weary with his day's work, the soldier exhausted by the toil of the march, will sleep so far as one set of faculties, or one part or system of the organism, is concerned, while the others are not only active, but so controlled that the subject of this partial sleep may walk or ride or go through evolutions while his mind sleeps. In short, it is possible, and easy, to fall into any habit of this class, and the inevitable consequence will be that only some of the faculties, or parts of the organism, are ready to sleep when night comes round, while those which remain awake will be unrestful and disturb the others so that they can only doze. In this state of matters, dreaming is an unavoidable experience. Meanwhile, the most highly developed and dramatic dreams occur to those whose sleep is so partial that part only—and, as it would often seem, a small part—of the brain sleeps at any time; or, perhaps, I ought to say, at night—because it not unfrequently happens that those who dream much by night do not dream when they sleep by day. This variety of partial sleep, which tends to sever the natural connections between the several component parts of the mind, is injurious, and therefore it is, as I have remarked incidentally above, that great dreamers are, as a rule, unhealthy. It is easy to see how this must be. If the intellectual faculties are, so to say, broken up in such a way that when some are active the others are sleeping, the checks and restraints which the several parts of the mind naturally impose on each other are wanting, and any one of the faculties may become exaggerated in the exercise of its functions. The practice of dreaming will then extend to the day, and the mind may—especially if there be any inherited and constitutional lack of cohesion among the intellectual faculties—become disorganized. This is a contingency, or more than a contingency let us say, a probability—against which the dreamer of particularly "worked-up" or realistic and elaborate dreams should be on his guard. It does not, however, follow from what I have said that the most coherent dreams are the worst, because the judgment may be simply dozing, and able to correct the scene or story as it passes through the mind. In that case, the severance between the higher and lower faculties will not be so great as when the incongruities of the dream are unchecked, and yet the pictures and thoughts present to the mind are especially clear and strong in their outline and coloring. Intensity without coherence is, as a rule, worse than an equal amount of vivid dreaming with more connectedness of thought. We now know something, though a very little, in truth, about dreaming, and we may pass to the consideration of our proper subject—dreams and the making of dreams.

Dreams are re-collections, in the strict sense of that word. The pictures which have been put away in the chambers of mental imagery, the thoughts which have been recorded, as all thoughts are recorded, by the molecules of the brain in the act of thinking, the impressions left by perceptions made by the organs of sense, and by conceptions originated by the faculties of mental sensation, impressions of feeling, together composing the records of experience, are brought out of their holes and corners, and, as it were, thrown crudely before the mind. There is seldom any clear evidence of order in the arrangement, but there is no reason why, if the collecting faculty be thoroughly awake, it should not follow beaten tracks, and arrange the pictures and records it reproduces in their natural sequence. Moreover, there is that association of ideas which forms the basis of memory, and this will almost necessitate a certain amount of connection between the elements of the most chaotic dream. All that seems to be original in a dream is due to the kaleidoscopic effect of throwing the materials of which the scene is constituted into new and startling combinations. We know how much of novelty may be produced in the accidental combinations effected by shaking together some dozen particles of colored glass, or other small objects, in a kaleidoscope. The variety will be greater and the new combinations more surprising in the throwing together of memories in a dream, because the natural associations help to give vraisemblance to the effect, and the imagination, which is seldom wholly asleep, gives finishing touches to the panorama as it proceeds. Much less, however, is due to the intervention of fancy in a dream than is commonly supposed. The great majority of the results produced are caused by the overlapping of pictures, the entangling of threads of thought, and the distortion of the original connections between ideas, pictures, and records of impressions which have either been received or put away together, or connected in previous dreams. For dreams are often, wholly or in part, reproductions of former dreams, and in process of years a mind may become expert in, or habituated to, the experience of a particular class of night visions and night-thoughts. Dreams may be roughly divided into four classes: 1. Those of the present; 2. Those of the past; 3. Those of the future; and, 4. Dreams which would appear to be simply heapings together of inchoate ideas and mind-pictures, without either time, order, method, or reason. On each of these classes of dreams there is something to say, but it must be said briefly, and rather by way of suggesting inferences to other minds than in argumentative support of my own conclusions.

First, as to dreams of the present—it is important to note that, though these are seldom precisely what they seem, when there is a tendency to employ very recent mental pictures, records, and impressions as the material of dreams, the faculty engaged in dream-making is either jaded or lethargic. Thus we get the same result, as regards the constituents of the dream, from two opposite causes. When that part of the brain which performs the function of re-collecting the records of memory is very weary—perhaps too distressed by excessive or disorderly work to sleep—it worries the mind with the subjects of immediately previous attention, being unable to leave them, and busying itself with them in a purposeless and distressful way, as a somnambulist or very sleepy person labors at a task he is unable to leave. The result will be a dream consisting of thoughts and scenes and impressions of the scenes which, as it were, cling to the mind and will not be dismissed. There are, doubtless, especial states of the mind, or its organ, the brain, which may be loosely described as "sticky," and which create a strong tendency to dally with objects of thought, and hold impressions of the senses before the consciousness longer than is necessary, instead of putting them away promptly in the memory. We know how the clumsy-fingered or bewildered workman clutches his tools and hangs over his task instead of using each tool deftly, doing each stroke of work cleanly, and passing on to something else. The same faults of method are to be recognized in the operation of many of our mental faculties, and this is one cause of dreams constructed of recent materials. Dreams of this class, as would naturally be expected, are deficient in that characteristic which is due to an active play of the dream-making faculty with the materials it employs, namely, the quality of "originality." They are apt to be little more than worrying recitals of the words spoken, the books or letters read, and reproductions of the scenes and impressions of the previous day, without much modification or embellishment. When reminiscences of this nature occur at night in the false sleep that mocks real rest, they are likely to be exaggerated and intensified in an extraordinary and generally painful degree, simply because the mind is isolated by sleep from its immediate external surroundings, and all the energy of consciousness it evolves is, so to say, turned in on itself. Dreams of the present, produced by lethargy or exhaustion of the faculty which collects and reproduces the pictures and records of memory, are generally distinguishable by their tumultuous or oppressive character. The faculty is, as it were, overburdened by the subjects it strives to manipulate. It can neither bring them fully and clearly before the consciousness, nor can it remove them at pleasure. The mind does not so much itself hold them as feel oppressed by their presence. It would fain be rid of the thoughts and scenes pressed on its attention, not because they create a painful interest, but because they bore it. On the other hand, dreams of the present, which are more directly due to the general state of mind previously described, take an agonizing hold on the consciousness, and will not be shaken off, so that it struggles to be free as in a state of mental nightmare. Dreams of the present which are produced by a lethargic rather than an exhausted state of the faculty that makes them, are characterized by the slow progression of scenes and the tardy flow of thoughts rather than repetition. The consciousness seems to be in a dreamy condition, while some slow and stupid exhibitor is unfolding a story or panorama lazily. The resulting feeling is one of simple fatigue from loss of rest, rather than the head-and heart-aching, as from worry and prolonged irritation, which follow on dreams of the present that have been produced in the ways already indicated. It may be set down as a rule, that dreams of the present are of graver import as clews to the mind-state than the other classes of dreams on which we must now bestow a few moments' attention.

Dreams of the past and future do not call for detailed consideration, and may be most conveniently noticed together. When the faculty which makes dreams dives deeply among the lumber for its materials, it is either very active, and probably not sufficiently worked in the waking hours, or it has not much interest in recent events, because these have not made a very strong impression on the mind. It often happens that at a period of life when there is not any particularly keen interest in the present, the dreams are of the past. When a man is growing old, he dreams of his early life, not merely because there is in all respects a tendency to revert to the beginnings of life when the power of vitality is on the wane, but because there is a loss of interest in the present. The heat of the struggle is over, and the emotions are no longer as active as they were, so that self-consciousness comes to be increasingly a retrospect of experience. Dreaming only occasionally of the past may be the simple result of the association of ideas, the dream really consisting in a present recollection of records relating to the past: but I am now speaking of the habitual reproduction of long-past and possibly forgotten pictures and records of memory in dreams. Dreams of the future are, for the most part, anticipations arising out of the affairs of the present. They are, properly speaking, forebodings, or eager foretastes, of the dreaded or desired issue of plans and experiences which belong to the present. There is no reason to suppose that the mind is capable of prophesying while the supreme cerebral centers sleep. Most of the so-called dreams of the future are really vaticinations of the imagination while on its way to sleep or slowly emerging from the state of self-forgetfulness.

The inchoate dreams which approximate to paroxysms of delirium constitute the fourth class into which I have divided these experiences. They are often exceedingly distressing, and bespeak a troubled or disorderly state of mind, but they are not, in themselves, so threatening to mental health as certain varieties of the dream of the present, to which we have already adverted. Dreams consisting of disconnected and fantastical pictures and ideas are commonly of short duration, and occur more frequently in the act of going to sleep than in that of awaking. They may be amusing or annoying; and they are not uncommonly the causes of bad sleep—or, more accurately speaking, of delay in going to sleep. The brain is awakened by the merriment or the disgust occasioned by these dreams. Sometimes the would-be sleeper rouses himself by laughing at the grotesque imagery presented to his mental vision, or the strange ideas which occur to him. The mind may be so disturbed by these awakenings that sleep becomes impossible. Probably the most common cause of this class of dreams is an undue excitement of the organs of sense immediately before going to bed. Such dreams occur after visits to the theatre, reading novels, or hearing music late in the evening. They also frequently follow gay and dissipating scenes or experiences. The sense-organs are overexcited, without being wearied, or so much agitated that they can not rest. Except when they indicate a generally excited brain, dreams of this class are not of great moment, and are easily obviated by giving the mind regular and methodized work, which lowers the excitement and induces moderate fatigue without distressing it. Sufferers from this trouble may generally cure themselves by reading aloud some not very exciting but sufficiently interesting book for half an hour before retiring to rest. The aim should be to give the mind a subject of thought with which it may engage its attention, and shut out the troublesome crowd of imaginings which obtrude the moment the head is laid on the pillow and the eyes are shut.

It follows from these general considerations, that dreams are made out of the pictures and records of thought, that the making of dreams must be, to a much larger extent than we are wont to suppose, under the control of the will. The difficulty of believing this to be the truth lies in the fact that the will is not able to call up or prevent a particular dream or class of dreams. The making of dreams is not an affair of now, at any period of life. The material employed in their production is the stock of pictures, impressions, conceptions, and feelings previously accumulated. Meanwhile, he who would dream pleasantly in adult life must see to the material with which he stores his mind in youth; while, in the heyday of manhood, we are heaping together the material of dreams for old age. The mind is not conscious—or does not notice—one half the impressions it receives from its surroundings. To this circumstance, in fact, is due the surprise with which we view, as for the first time, many of the unconsciously received or treasured impressions which are reproduced in dreams, and hence the feeling that they are original. It is not, therefore, possible to prevent the accumulation of pictures and records which we would gladly eliminate from the stock material of dreams; but much may be done to improve the store as a whole by feeding the mind with wholesome and healthy thoughts and impressions. He who makes it a rule through life—beginning early in youth—to take care that what he puts away in his mind and accumulates is, as far as may be possible, a treasure of pure and good materials, will do much toward making the dreams that haunt his sleep in the later years of life not only tolerable, but, so far as night-thoughts can subserve any useful or beneficial purpose, improving. There can be no question that pleasant dreams sometimes afford relief to the mind, especially when they occur on awaking, or when they blot out the disagreeable impressions of the day, and facilitate the process of passing into a state of natural and complete sleep. Such dreams do not last long, and are seldom so intense as to distress the faculties. There is always a danger, in light sleep, of the senses being partially awake to surrounding impressions, and making them the pegs on which to hang a dream. It is, therefore, important to secure the most peaceful and negative conditions for sleep. Dreams are often made by the externals of the sleeper. To avoid this contingency, the sleeper should train his senses to disregard the external when composing himself for sleep. This is not difficult to do if the mind is set resolutely for a few nights in succession to shut out or ignore the impressions that strive to attract it through either or all of the senses. It is happily not required of us to know the way in which we accomplish all the acts we perform; and, in respect to some, it is better not to be too curious concerning the means if we gain the end. In regard to dreams and the making of dreams it will, however, be found an advantage to be fairly well-informed.—Gentleman's Magazine.