“Culture is in a constant battle for our imagination. It is our most powerful tool to inspire the change these times demand.”
Dating back as early as the third millennium BCE, humanity has been trying to understand the role that dreams play in our lives. In all of the time since, our greatest scientific minds have still not been able to answer this seemingly simple question. The Nap Ministry’s Tricia Hersey believes that dreams—which only happen in deep rest states—hold the key to dismantling our world’s oppressive systems. When examining scientists’ most compelling theories as outlined by Amy Adkins, it becomes clear that Hersey might be right.
One widely-known theory is that we dream to reveal our desires. Sigmund Freud believed that every aspect of our dreams are symbolic, that they are messengers of our unconscious. What if, encoded deep within the collective unconscious, rests the key to a new way of being? How else are we ever going to arrive at a new future for humanity if we do not create the space to dream it? In this sense, dream work might be the most integral work there is.
A second theory is that we dream to remember. In 2010, researchers tested subjects’ ability to navigate their way through a maze. They found that those who dreamed about the maze in between attempts were ten times better at solving it on the next, because certain memory processes only happen while dreaming. Similarly, a third theory is that we dream to problem-solve, unshackled by the confines of logic. If that is indeed true, enforced exhaustion (a state in which it’s harder to dream) becomes a form of self-defense for capitalism.
Another explanation is that we dream to forget. According to a 1983 Nature article, reverse learning is a process that occurs in REM sleep states, in which the brain reviews the 10,000 trillion neurological connections that exist therein (determined by our thoughts and experiences) and determines which ones to erase. The theory holds that without this critical review, our minds become overrun with parasitic thoughts that drain our mental capacity. Need I say more?
Yet another theory holds that we often dream of life or death situations because we dream to survive (or rather, practice our survival skills). In playing out scenarios in which we fight off danger, we are keeping those skills sharp. In a system that seeks only to protect its own survival—and the few at the top—it should come as no surprise that it actively endangers the survival of the many by keeping them too overworked to dream.
A final theory, one that is perhaps most relevant to this newsletter, is that we dream to heal. While we are in deep sleep, the neurotransmitters that process pain are significantly less active—even during nightmares. Some psychologists believe that this helps us process trauma through a kind of safe exposure therapy. It lets us face our traumas so that we can heal them.
As I write these words, I am reminded of the early stages of the pandemic, in which many were expressing heightened dreams states. A year later—a year in which we have collectively come to terms with our exhaustion and the unsustainable systems that perpetuate it—we are faced with an uncertain future. We know that the solution to depletion will not be depletion, nor will it be derived from it. We know our world has to change, that we must imagine a different way of being, but how? Perhaps we should start here: Sleep on it.