I’ve always wondered why my brain doesn’t simply rest at night, as my body does, but instead sets to work creating an artificial world that seems as real as waking life. I don’t recall my dreams with any greater frequency than most people I know, but I’m intrigued by the ones I do remember and curious about what—if anything—they mean.
Often I awaken with no memory of dreaming at all, but sometimes, my experiences in that part of my life are so vivid that my mood for the day is colored by them. My dreams of flying come only two or three times a year but they are exhilarating. Making more frequent appearances in my night life, though, are the classic anxiety dreams in which I show up to take an exam for a course I’ve never attended or I arrive at a party and belatedly realize I’m missing vital pieces of clothing.
Then there are the out-of-control dreams, in which I’m driving a car that loses its brakes or its steering just as I start down a steep, winding hill, or the pursuit dreams, where I’m being chased by some dangerous person or creature. The common thread is that all of the dreams feel utterly real, from the visual details down to the emotions they trigger.
In discussing dreams with friends, I have found that the themes in mine seem to be quite common, as is my curiosity about them. I was particularly intrigued when I came across an essay by the late physicist Richard Feynman in which he posed many of the same questions about dreaming that I had. Like Feynman, I was intensely curious about why images in dreams looked so real, but I also wondered how they could feel so much like waking life.
My terror when I periodically dream of my children falling from a cliff or out a window is so physiologically real that I wake with my heart racing. Mulling over the mystery of what happens to our stream of consciousness when sleep descends, Feynman zeroed in on other fascinating questions: “What happens to your ideas? You’re running along very well, you’re thinking clearly and what happens? Do they suddenly stop, or do they go more and more slowly and stop, or exactly how do you turn off thought?”
As I discovered in the course of research for this book, you don’t turn off thought. It just takes a different form. Feynman lamented the fact that he was unable to find answers to his questions about dreaming because there had been so little scientific investigation of the subject. But thanks to the dream research that has unfolded in the past two decades, many of those answers are now becoming available.
I discovered surprising explanations about why dreams look and feel so real—fascinating in themselves but deeply revealing about how the mind works in waking consciousness. In fact, understanding more about what makes us tick during those other sixteen hours has been one of the most exciting aspects of my journey through the world of neuroscientific research.
We experience a dream as real because it is real. … The miracle is how, without any help from the sense organs, the brain replicates in the dream all the sensory information that creates the world we live in when we are awake.