People often believe that we’re supposed to remember our dreams, but the reality is the opposite: the dreams we remember are rare, and, we forget almost all dreams. In fact contemporary neuroscience research suggests we are supposed to forget our nightly dreams, which implies it is natural and normal not to remember them.
The average American across a lifetime will have about 200,000 dreams – with that much mixing of memory, imagination, and emotion it should come as no surprise that some dreams seem especially meaningful, cathartic, or unusually coincident with other parts of living. But the real story of dreams is far more complex than each our own personal relationship with dreams. The real story has a much more intricate neurology than ever imagined by the authors of cliché guidebooks for dream symbols, which are largely impersonal, dorky assignments of generalities posed as meaningful. But if dreams are such a frequent part of cognition, why aren’t they more meaningful and why do we remember so few?
This new report may explain how we don’t remember our dreams all that well, and why they fade away so quickly: Why Dreams Are So Difficult to Remember: Precise Communication Discovered Across Brain Areas During Sleep. In summary, we don’t remember dreams well because while dreaming the neural connections that would normally produce memories don’t fire in sync with each other, but rather, in disharmonies.
Memories are known to be formed in the hippocampus (which is good news for all you athletic people, whose activity causes the hippocampus to strengthen and grow: Physical Fitness Improves Spatial Memory, Increases Size of Brain Structure). After forming, memories are moved to other parts of the brain, probably the neocortex. Although the exact mechanism for this shift from hippocampus to neocortex is not fully known, we do know that how frequently and how strongly neurons fire causes the connections among neurons to strengthen. Caltech researchers found that precise connections were strengthened and made during sleep when people were not dreaming, but were out of sync during dreaming and thus unable to create strong memories.
This kind of study provides a strong framework for understanding the relationships required to build memories, but it also shows that there are clear biological patterns and processes involved in dreaming, ones that are far more complex and chaotic than anything that Freud and Jung and the Surrealists could imagine. Dreaming, we know today, is a result of many different cognitive processes, including some disorganizing and disordered processes and out-of-sync processes – this begs the question of whether or not dreaming is meaningful, or more meaningful than other types of cognition. It might be that it’s no more or less messy than everyday waking thought.
Although many of their paintings and writings are strange and beautiful, the psychoanalytic model relied on by the Surrealists has become unreliable and wildly inconsistent with the biology of how dreaming works – applying meaning to out of synch processes. Nonetheless, Freudian literary and art interpretive theory continues to survive, because in the arts, theorists too often are not required to act on or investigate the biological evidence. This kind of art problem was predicted long ago by Leonardo da Vinci, who wrote:
Beyond a doubt truth bears the same relation to falsehood as light to darkness; and this truth is in itself so excellent that, even when it dwells on humble and lowly matters, it is still infinitely above uncertainty and lies, disguised in high and lofty discourses; because in our minds, even if lying should be their fifth element, this does not prevent that the truth of things is the chief nutriment of superior intellects, though not of wandering wits. But you who live in dreams are better pleased by the sophistical reasons and frauds of wits in great and uncertain things, than by those reasons which are certain and natural and not so far above us.
Freud in fact did things backwards: inventing an explanatory theory and then illustrating it with his clinical practice and anecdotal reports from his clients, which of course supported his ideas. We must remember, when looking at Freud and Jung and other early 20th century theorists, that they did not have the tools to assess how the mind functions as a product of the human brain – no MRI, fMRI, CAT, or other types of scanning were available, and simpler EEG, EKG and other testing just didn’t exist. In other words, Freud didn’t have access to the small facts of neurons and connections among cells of the brain, which today are ‘those reasons which are certain and natural and not so far above us.’
In contrast to Surrealism there is no contemporary art movement that focuses on 21st century neurological understandings of dreaming (although artists like Janine Antoni, and her work Slumber, come close to relying on the sciences).
Dreaming, the imaginations it implies, can serve important functions in terms of art and creative writing. There is something to be said for the vast importance of fantasy within our ability to innovate and be creative. Like Leonardo before him, the sharply political artist Goya [1746-1828] emphasized the puzzling conflict of wayward fantasy versus wayward reason in numerous cartoons and etchings. Many of them show the artist tormented by bad dreams and strange, winged monsters. He penned
Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.
As contemporary neurology reliably investigates and continues to strengthen our understanding of how the mind works, we gain greater understandings of how creativity works. Years ago, when I was in undergraduate art school, one of my teachers James McGarrell (google him to see his paintings) hypothesized that fantasy, imagination, and memory were generally the same thing, constantly constructive and revising each other. It seems today that he was mainly correct about that, with the caveat that it’s the timing among neurons that makes the differences between meaningful, structured memories versus unstructured, random, mainly meaningless dreams.
You know, as an artist, I deal with the human mind on a constant basis — perception and cognition are so interlaced as to be nearly the same things, one always feeding back into the other. In my paintings, this sense of mind is dealt with in images like this one, Grey Matter, which shows two birds surrounded by a grey outline that is like the outline of a brain, fleeting / changing / flying thoughts within. I hope you enjoy it, click to embiggen:
It is important to understand the fundamentals, that it is okay to forget or not remember one’s dreams.
If you’d like to dive into much more depth about why so much ‘dream interpretation’ is so bad for you, I suggest the following superior books that ask great questions. The first two are by far the most important for general critical thinking skills. The other ones are more specific related to why Freud and Jung were both wrong on so many levels.
How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age
How to Think about Weird Things, by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn (2001). This great guide will help you understand why dream stories and memories of dreams (both a category of anecdote, and highly biased unmeasured anecdotal evidence), are not reliable ways to make important decisions.
Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (8th Edition)
Asking the Right Questions (8th Edition) by M. Neil Browne and Stuart M. Keeley. This is a great book about learning basic critical thinking skills. I’ve used it for teaching college-level introductory thinking skills and strategies. It’s great. Buy it, read it, do the exercises, and practice, practice, practice!
Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science, And Psychoanalysis
Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science, and Psychoanalysis by Richard Webster. A stupendous research of where Freud got some of his ideas, and how they were based in misdiagnosis of sometimes severe medical, neurological conditions.
Freudian Fraud: The Malignant Effect of Freud’s Theory on American Thought and Culture
Freudian Fraud: the Malignant Effects of Freud’s Theory on American Thought and Culture by E. Fuller Torrey. What were fascinating questions in Freud’s day would never qualify as scientific investigations and experimental evidence today. So why do we keep relying on Freud? This author critiques Freudian ideas in detail and in the larger cultural context.
What Is Wrong with Jung?
What’s Wrong With Jung? by Dan McGowan. A totally great skeptic’s guide to what’s wrong with Jungian interpretations and theories, and why you should question so many of them for their failures to account for cultural diversity.
The Jung Cult : Origins of a Charismatic Movement
The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement by Richard Noll. Don’t expect to be thrilled by Jung here, this is a great expose of how and why he developed many of his ideas, often without regard to proper scientific controls.