The lyrics to “Row, row, row your boat” bring back a blissful summer morning in my great grandmother’s house (listen here if you’re oblivious https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zoWkmdzcWmI). I was particularly taken aback by the line: life is but a dream. I was four or five and struck by this. It made me feel…like what happened outside of me didn’t matter. That only what happened inside my mind was important. I am now, obsessed with this idea.
Thanks, Grandma Rose.
Dreams, daydreams and fantasies are part of who we all are. Yet, they are an experience unique to each of us.
Dream, Baby Dream
No one really knows why we dream. But here’s what we do know, dreams during REM sleep (when we are in our deepest sleep) are more vivid and colorful than at other times. During dreams the emotional machinery is hard at work, while our the more analytical side is not. Evolutionary ideas suggest that dreaming is a “safe” way for us to learn as opposed to real experience.
There is evidence that dreaming helps us consolidate our memories. Other theories tell us that dreams help solve emotional issues28. Though most of us don’t remember, we have three to six dreams per night29.
If you sleep on your belly, you may have more erotic dreams. Genetics – twins and those with similar genetic predisposition for anxiety and stress are more likely to have nightmares than those with less similar genes. When the earth’s magnetic field’s activity is less, there is evidence of wilder dreams.
Cheese. No shit, Cheese.
Cheese has tryptophan to varying degrees impacting dreams. Cheddar seems to be related to dreams about celebrities, bleu cheese related to bizarre dreams and those who ate Red Lancashire had nostalgic dreams about family and childhood. What you hear and smell impact dreams. Good smells=good dreams and visa versa30.
Only about 4% of dreams are about sex31.
There are three schools of thought on dreams. First, Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory which states that dreams represent unconscious desires, wish fulfillment and personal conflicts. Activation-Synthesis theory suggest the brain is just trying to process stimuli from your limbic system (memories, emotions and sensations). Finally, Continual Activation Theory theorizes that dreams help “hold” our thoughts while they are converted from short-term memories to long-term31.
But…no one knows for sure.
Dreams are often considered the “purest and most archaic phenomenal expression of all the possible forms of mind-wandering”16.
Day Dreamer, Head in the Clouds
The Default Mode Network, is the part of the brain that activates when not taking part in a cognitive task. This network connects to the parts of the brain that controls sensory and emotional experience (limbic system and the prefrontal cortex). When activated, we call the result daydreaming. Activation of the DMN (default mode network) helps us think about our inner-experience, make moral decisions, understand what others are thinking and consider the future13. There also is evidence that it bolsters creativity and helps with recall23. Although daydreams are often person-specific, the emotional content may fall into one of two categories: Conquering Hero or Suffering Martyr24. It is thought that the older we are, the less we daydream.
Essentially, daydreaming is in opposition to cognitive tasks. Our brains have two “systems”, both necessary for survival. An analytic system that helps us solve problems and an empathetic system that helps us relate to others. When one is operating, the other is required to turn off25. This is where daydreaming gets a bad rap. We often forget what we are doing switching from problem solving mode to relate to others mode. This is where the teacher called on us and we suddenly realized we don’t even know what class we’re in.
Researchers have posited that folks who daydream may be smarter and have more brain capacity. They may not be able to stop their minds from wandering26. However, studies show that the more our minds wander or the DMN is activated, the less happy we are. The same study shows that almost half the time, our minds are wondering27.
Maladaptive daydreaming is when an individual daydreams so severely their life functioning is impacted. Often these folks become addicted to daydreaming, preferring it over real life6. The individual’s productivity and interpersonal relationships are negatively affected10.
Can I make a self-diagnosis here?
Although not recognized as a disorder by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, there are many who believe it should be.
Better Fantasy, Than a Reality?
Fantasy ( ˈfan-tə-sē -zē )- N. – the power or process of creating especially unrealistic or improbable mental images in response to psychological need31. Some people choose to fantasize about the past or future, other folks fantasize about being a superhero. Most people, even asexual people, fantasize about sex. The human mind is very sexual and sexual fantasy is one way that we get this need satisfied33.
The top five sexual fantasies in the US are: group sex, BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadochism and Masochism), novelty and adventure, taboo sex, and partner-sharing/non monogamous sex8. People are more likely to fantasize about their current romantic partner than celebrities and porn stars. Those who did act out their fantasies with their partners reported that the experience was at least good, if not better34. It is CRUCIALLY important to make sure that you have CONSENT from your partner when bringing your fantasy into reality.
Our sexual fantasies seem to reflect our personality traits. Those of us with a high level of openness to experience tend to have the wider ranging fantasy material. Those with a high level of conscientiousness had much more detail to their fantasies as well as a larger focus on the setting. They were also much more likely to conform to sexual norms. Highly extraverted folks fantasize about group sex and polyamory much more often. Agreeable people are less likely to fantasize about the taboo and want to feel that their partner is enjoying the experience just as much as they are. Us neurotic folk are more likely to fantasize about romance and passion35.
Generally, we all like to think about sex.
You have a dirty, mind.
Reality, is a Big F*cking Mystery
But the more scientists learn about psychology, neurology and physics, the less they understand reality. Physicist John Wheeler (the guy who coined the term black hole) said “Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.”
What the hell?
Neuroscience and Physics are at odds. Neurologists try to discover how there can be first-person reality and physicists try to understand how there can be anything but first-person reality36. As this paradox is revealed, it appears that reality is dependent on the observer.
Donald Hoffman, cognitive psychology professor at University of California, Irvine, has discovered a mathematically supported theory illustrating how we do not perceive the world as it truly it is. It is more like the desktop icon on a computer. The icons themelves are what we recognize as objects in reality, but what the icons access is raw data, ones and zeros. It does not have any meaning, only the icon has meaning. What is actually accessed by the icon is akin to what is we consider actual reality. This is referred to as Interface Theory. Further, we are more evolutionarily fit if we are more attuned to fittness than reality37. This means that seeing something different than reality may be a more survival savvy trait than being able to perceive what actually is.
Hoffman’s ideas are described as conscious realism. This theory suggests reality is just conscious agents or points of view through and through36 .
In the end, it is true that what happens inside our minds is the only important thing. Just like my original intuition at grandma Rose’s house, reality is dependent on my observations. Physics is finding this truth. And though this is no excuse to go off on some nihilistic rampage, it does seem to relieve some of the heaviness, the weight of life. This is a very broad realization in the quest to understand just what we are. A realization that doesn’t immediately hit home. Meaning, it takes some time to work it out emotionally and intellectually.
I believe it was Shakespeare who wrote: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
He was on to this in the 17th century! The real truth in this excerpt from Hamlet might be the latter part: Thinking makes it so.