The dream-work makes the waking work possible.
November 26, 2020 3:37 PM   Subscribe

Such dream-sharing societies seem to possess a great deal more self-consciousness about the nature of dreaming—a much greater ability to make use of it, manipulate it, interrogate its function and purpose—than we do. We have been blinded to the splendor of their achievement by the dismissive judgment, so long promulgated in the West against other societies, that to assign dreams a cosmological and spiritual significance is to be enslaved to superstition.
Dreams are instances where the imagination unfurls its full power over us: An essay by Matthew Spellberg about societies in which dreaming is a shared, social act.
posted by Rumple (17 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
"Splendor of Our Achievement" always makes me think of Shriekback's Nemesis.
posted by jgooden at 8:23 PM on November 26, 2020 [5 favorites]

Trying to interpret dreams as if there were some systematic way to decipher hidden connections to what's going on in the world outside ourselves has long struck me as misguided at best and delusional at worst.

Sharing them with others in as raw and unedited a form as we can, though, so as to help the emergence of a shared understanding of what we all want? Different thing altogether.

We get plenty of practice at using language to share our ordinary day-to-day waking state of consciousness. A bit more sharing of alternate states would do most of us no harm at all.
posted by flabdablet at 8:43 PM on November 26, 2020 [5 favorites]

This makes me think of LeGuin's The Word for World is Forest, a novella in her Hainish Cylce, in which shared dreaming is a key aspect of the indigenous Athshean culture of a planet that Earthmen attempt to colonize.
posted by BrashTech at 8:54 PM on November 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

Trying to interpret dreams as if there were some systematic way to decipher hidden connections to what's going on in the world outside ourselves has long struck me as misguided at best and delusional at worst.

I like the theory that ancient augury could be useful for randomizing your behaviour, useful in the sense that random action can often be more successful than systematically following a bad plan.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:35 PM on November 26, 2020 [7 favorites]

From tsunamis to perfectly formed egg sandwiches, vivid dreams appear to have become a familiar experience during the pandemic. Now these powerful, bizarre and sometimes unsettling thoughts and images are to be captured for posterity.

The Guardians of Sleep project by the Museum of London, working with the Museum of Dreams at Western University in Canada, is asking Londoners to get in touch to share the dreams they experienced as Covid-19 swept the world.

posted by Rumple at 10:53 PM on November 26, 2020 [4 favorites]

I found this idea intriguing: there are many cultures where recounting and interpreting is not the paradigm for dream sharing at all. Instead, dreams are understood to be sites of action; not texts but places.

I was also intrigued by this idea, although my interpretation is probably not that of the Aboriginal peoples: The Dreamtime, or Dreaming, is the heroic myth-world, and also the realm of laws, traditions, ideals. I'm imagining that overlap in the English word "dream" between the thing that happens mostly involuntarily when we sleep, and the meaning closer to "aspirations" or "ideals" - what if we could all visit a realm from which we could dip into a vision of the world as it could be, and what if we shared that, verbally, with each other, as part of our daily life?

I'd like to read this essay more closely - but I do also want to mention that it reminds me of The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You, a fascinating novel about the people of Ata: Every aspect of their waking lives is governed by their dream life ... [the protagonist] gradually comes to realize that the people of this island support and maintain the real world through their dreaming.

This most interesting essay reminds me that maybe it's time for me to re-read Kin of Ata.

Thank you for posting this, Rumple!
posted by kristi at 10:57 PM on November 26, 2020 [8 favorites]

A big obstacle that I see for this is that a lot of people seem to find listening to other people's dreams intensly boring.

I don't necessarily agree - I'm rarely that keen on blow-by-blow accounts, but I do think dreams can make for a good topic of conversation on a more metalevel. Are there recurring motifs? Do you dream in colour? Can you remember smells from your dreams? Are your dreams generally more mundane or bizarre? (A friend of mine once had to do a dream diary for school and got shit from her teacher, because teacher found friend's dreams too mundane). How do you figure in your dreams? (In my dreams, I'm often an external observer, watching a dream about complete strangers like a movie. In other dreams, I'm switching between multiple perspectives). I think it's kinda fascinating how dream experiences can be so drastically different.

I really like the idea that following dream-logic can be a strategic advantage, because it makes you less predictable! By all mean, follow your dreams, shake things up a bit, bring more chaos into your life. Rationality can be so overrated. (Personally, I would only do that in very low stakes scenarios though).
posted by sohalt at 10:57 PM on November 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

I wish I could remember where I heard this, but one hypothesis I've heard about dreams is that they're your brain training for future scenarios. This mostly aligns with the uses of dreams discussed in the article, but the article spends a lot of time not saying that directly and the skeptic in me prefers the one-sentence explanation.

I did enjoy the article, and don't let this criticism take away from that, but I also wish it had maybe asked - is the reason we use dreams differently related to the way Western society is structured differently from indigenous societies? It feels by the end that the author is unhappy with Western society for casting dreams aside as a tool for knowledge, but I would guess that we have a different relationship to our dreams because we don't have as much of a need to socialize to access knowledge.
posted by LSK at 1:14 AM on November 27, 2020

Since I have had a handful of what I consider to be prescient dreams, I'm probably less skeptical about their existence than most of the rest of you.

And if there are any otherwise unattainable cognitive benefits to be had from dreams, I do think time is of the essence:
Why send a message back in time, but lock it so that no one can ever read the contents? Because it may be the key to solving currently intractable problems. That's the claim of an international collaboration who have just published a paper in npj Quantum Information.

It turns out that an unopened message can be exceedingly useful. This is true if the experimenter entangles the message with some other system in the laboratory before sending it. Entanglement, a strange effect only possible in the realm of quantum physics, creates correlations between the time-travelling message and the laboratory system. These correlations can fuel a quantum computation.

Around ten years ago researcher Dave Bacon, now at Google, showed that a time-travelling quantum computer could quickly solve a group of problems, known as NP-complete, which mathematicians have lumped together as being hard.

The problem was, Bacon's quantum computer was travelling around 'closed timelike curves'. These are paths through the fabric of spacetime that loop back on themselves. General relativity allows such paths to exist through contortions in spacetime known as wormholes.

Physicists argue something must stop such opportunities arising because it would threaten 'causality' -- in the classic example, someone could travel back in time and kill their grandfather, negating their own existence.

And it's not only family ties that are threatened. Breaking the causal flow of time has consequences for quantum physics too. Over the past two decades, researchers have shown that foundational principles of quantum physics break in the presence of closed timelike curves: you can beat the uncertainty principle, an inherent fuzziness of quantum properties, and the no-cloning theorem, which says quantum states can't be copied.

However, the new work shows that a quantum computer can solve insoluble problems even if it is travelling along "open timelike curves," which don't create causality problems. That's because they don't allow direct interaction with anything in the object's own past: the time travelling particles (or data they contain) never interact with themselves. Nevertheless, the strange quantum properties that permit "impossible" computations are left intact. "We avoid 'classical' paradoxes, like the grandfathers paradox, but you still get all these weird results," says Mile Gu, who led the work.

Gu is at the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) at the National University of Singapore and Tsinghua University in Beijing. His eight other coauthors come from these institutions, the University of Oxford, UK, Australian National University in Canberra, the University of Queensland in St Lucia, Australia, and QKD Corp in Toronto, Canada.

"Whenever we present the idea, people say no way can this have an effect" says Jayne Thompson, a co-author at CQT. But it does: quantum particles sent on a timeloop could gain super computational power, even though the particles never interact with anything in the past. "The reason there is an effect is because some information is stored in the entangling correlations: this is what we're harnessing," Thompson says.
But if some dreams embody information going back in time in the way Gu et. al. propose, explicitly prescient dreams such as mine are effectively useless (they can't change anything) because they're not coded.

Which fits my experience: they are both useless and frustrating -- as well as frightening. But that's perfectly congruent with Classical tradition; we could call it the Cassandra effect. And it would be highly amusing if it turned out the Delphic Oracle was so obscure because that was the only way it could do any good.
posted by jamjam at 2:07 AM on November 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

The Dreamtime, or Dreaming, is the heroic myth-world knowledge-world and also the realm of laws, traditions, ideals. Aboriginal philosophy is subtle and sophisticated, in all likelihood ungraspable to the uninitiated; furthermore, the generalizations of anthropologists inevitably fail to capture the reality of a community in which myths knowledge and songs and ideas are created, negotiated, and modified by individuals, each with a distinctive cast of mind...
FTF Matthew Spellberg
posted by Thella at 2:10 AM on November 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

"Kwakwala verbs must indicate whether the action referred to was actually witnessed, learned about by hearsay, or took place in a dream." (Anderson, 1985:203)
posted by os tuberoes at 6:42 AM on November 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

This most interesting essay reminds me that maybe it's time for me to re-read Kin of Ata.

definitely one of those books that's never really left my consciousness ... rather like a powerful dream, now that I think of it.
posted by philip-random at 8:26 AM on November 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

When I read that this was about sharing dreams, I took it literally. This is because when I was young and had housemates, we would sometimes have the same dreams.

Nowadays, I love dreaming (and don't see it as fundamentally different from waking reality) but in deference to those who find the dreams of others boring, I seldom tell others my dreams. Except for my wife, who feigns interest.

Dream interpretation does not interest me in the slightest.
posted by kozad at 9:53 AM on November 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

Back in the olden days, I was involved with a Unitarian pagan group. One evening at somebody’s house, we did this spirit journey thing. It was described as a native people’s ritual. I don’t know how true that is. We lied on the floor, in the dark, and as someone slowly beat a drum, you were supposed to imagine a passage into the “other world.” I imagined a real cave on a beach. You then imagine yourself walking into the passage to see where it would lead you. It was a dead end. So we did it again and that time it worked. I experienced a very vivid dream, that I clearly remember to this day. It was a waking dream. I gather that this practice of “creative imagination” is not that uncommon. Given that the experience was dreamlike though I was awake, how does this fit into the dream time, real world time dichotomy?
posted by njohnson23 at 10:16 AM on November 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Trying to interpret dreams as if there were some systematic way to decipher hidden connections to what's going on in the world outside ourselves has long struck me as misguided at best and delusional at worst.

It's always seemed to me like it could, at the very least, be as useful as reading tea leaves or looking at Rorschach blots or imagining images in clouds or constellations, as long as you're conscious of the dynamic that what you're seeing is coming from you.

The behavior that I think is complete folly is when people not only let their imaginations run wild but then build an elaborate set of rules on top of what they imagine and treat it as if it's empirical or something. I had this friend in college whose parents, apparently half-woo and half-mischievously, cultivated his belief in ghosts like it was a Santa Claus, pretense-for-the-kids family tradition or something growing up, and by his twenties it had manifested as complete fullblown talking-like-Ghostbusters in him. He would rattle on with a bunch of very specific statements (ones that often seemed like they'd make for easily-testable experimental hypotheses to me...) about the reliable regular activities and motivations of ghosts—a guy who was quite well-educated, insightful, and entirely reasonable about most other subjects—and I'd try to engage and play along and speak the language of my interlocutor and stuff, but I'm afraid I couldn't always prevent my extreme skepticism from showing through.

I don't want to exoticize other cultures any further with “grass is always greener” notions, of course, but I'd kind of be curious whether, if you could somehow normalize the comparison for analysis, these cultures that embrace intentional dreaming and dream sharing would actually turn out to be less superstitious than cultures I'm more familiar with. As TFA says,
...Tolstoy makes a point on two fronts. You cannot just say a dream means this, or a dream predicts that; you cannot reduce the dream to stereotyped text or message. This is dream sharing debased into superstition. But to say that therefore dreams are nonsense or indecent, too private or too trivial to be shared—this is a still more catastrophic mistake.

posted by XMLicious at 11:25 AM on November 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

From previous thread regarding dreams

My thoughts and biases...

I have been dreaming most of my life. I remember my first dream and my first nightmare. The nightmares were frequent for several years. At some point, I figured out how to game the dream and agency to the point where I have never had them since. My dreams as a child were often flying dreams. The older I got, the tougher it was to lift off the ground until I was fully grounded. At some point I stopped dreaming altogether.

Struggling at UCLA in 1988 with depression and mental health issues, I felt that I needed to go back to dreaming again for my own sanity. I have kept dream journals ever since.

Former hitchhikers pick up hitchhikers. They've been there before. There is immediate companionship and an intimacy known only to wanderers. Unspoken is the fact that you'll never see this person again. In a way dreams are similar.

Dreamers can usually pick another dreamer out and make the connection known pretty quick. For those who dream often there does seems to be an ineffable language that only other dreamers can understand. Like a hitch, there is a sensitivity and intimacy that many dreamers feel unsafe in sharing with others. And others feel uncomfortable being on the receiving end of that intimacy

The dreamers I know tend to be comprehensive in their skills sets and knowledge, systems thinkers, good at risk management, and negotiate chaos well. Playfulness is a priority.

As for interpretation, there is a systems or interpretative bias. Indigenous cultures tend to be shamanic cultures. Those models do not adapt well to Western thought. Books on what images in dreams mean, to me, are worthless. There is one close friend I ask for interpretations. It's been long enough that we are aware of certain themes that repeat themselves and guess how that fits in with the temporary narrative had the night before. I think it is impossible to lay one "grid" over dreams or dream interpretation. The best decision I made in that respect is to accept all schools of thought. For me that opens up the playing field and allow for different degrees of perspective. I've experienced dreams that are prescient, dreams that provide clear models of what I am going through at the time, dreams with loved ones who have moved on, messages from people who are incapacitated by dementia, dreams with historical figures, popular and obscure celebrities, athletes and visionaries, and dreams that gives clues to a person's personality. My dreams with Trump have been intense. And it's fascinating to see how my interpretation of him plays out. These dreams I tell to no one.

And often, the dreams aren't fun and are deeply disturbing. You still wake up.

So the communal aspect to dreamers talking to dreamers is very strong and intimate. The majority of people I ask "Do you dream" and don't, seem to be be very apologetic. "I dream but I don't remember them. I should" My heart drops a bit because, they don't need to be. I think, at heart, dreamers are always saying, "Come meet me in dreamtime." I think this is a carryover from indigenous, shamanic cultures and maybe the purpose of dreaming altogether.

To finish, I read some years ago of dream research being done at UC Berkeley where they are actually getting rough images of the visuals being "seen" in dreams. Not sure how I feel about that :)
posted by goalyeehah at 3:01 PM on November 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

‘Lathe of Heaven’ anyone?
posted by Gadgetenvy at 8:25 AM on November 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

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