What Good Is Dreaming, Anyhow?

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living” –The Bearded One

So here I am, typing along, having delegated the striking of keys to a subsytem, with some success, backspacing errors and retracing my thought, meticulously selecting this or that word from my vast armory of words, or that other word over there…. The question of whether I have free will (whatever that might mean) isn’t really top of mind for me, at the present moment. I’m too busy! The average American makes 35,000 “remotely conscious” (ditto) choices (ditto) a day, and if I bang out 2,000 words or so starting now, I will have exercised my free well above baseline. Of course, I can’t choose just any word…

“Nobody knows anything,” as screenwriter William Goldman remarked. As I have pointed out, repeatedly, “we know very little about what is most important to us. We don’t know why we are conscious, why we have (or don’t have) sex (verb or noun), or why we die.” Or why we love, why we laugh, why we sleep, why we wake, or — the point of this post, and I do have one — why we dream. From the Sleep Foundation:

Sleep experts continue to study what happens in the brain during sleep, but no one knows for sure why we dream.

We are said to spend two hours out of every twenty-four dreaming, or eight percent of hour time on this earth. And yet we don’t know why. Most people remember their dreams, at least some of them; others don’t. Nobody knows why that is, either. We are, at least, able to define what a dream is, or at least seems to be. More or less. Sleep Foundation:

Dreams are mental, emotional, or sensory experiences that take place during sleep.


Dreams are basically stories and images that our mind creates while we sleep.

My OED app:

A series of thoughts, images, sensations, or emotions occurring in the mind during sleep

I think we can all agree any one of those definitions “works,” even if there are big differences between them when you look closely (experiences v. stories v. series; “take place” v. “mind creates” v. “occuring in the mind”).[1]

I keep buzzing ineffectually around all these altered states — sleeping, waking, brainworms, now dreaming — because of “our republic’s” response to the ongoing Covid pandemic. The level of denial (“it’s just the flu”), cope (“hybrid immunity”), and willful ignorance, especially among the powerful (droplet dogma) seems to me to be staggering; like a real life Stepford Wives, a zombie movie, or, more to the point, The Last of Us. Are we really awake? Are we really conscious? Are we in a state of light hypnosis? Are we narcotized? Do we dream while we are awake? I do not mean any of these questions metaphorically; I believe there is a “nightmare” weighing “on our brains” for which an account must be given, exactly in the same way that SARS-CoV-2 was shown to be airborne using the seating chart of a bus, knowledge of patterns of air circulation, and elementary logic. Surely, things were not always like this? In a Republic, “[the people] assemble and administer [government] by their representatives and agents.” But what if a very large portion of “the people” — of which the “representatives and agents” are a subset — are terribly impaired?[2] How is it possible for us to to say and do (“Let me see your smile“) the things we do?

Well, I’m not going to answer these questions today (and, readers, if you can, I am most anxious to hear). Or give the account that I seek. What I can do is run through the conventional (and some unconventional) thinking on why we dream, and place that thinking in the context of the current “nightmare.”

There are two main buckets into which I can throw dream theorizing, but before I do, one caveat. From WebMD:

There are many theories about why we dream, but no one knows for sure.

Again, nobody knows anything, so I’m not entirely justified in skipping over the possibility that God may be speaking to us through dreams, as in the Bible, or that dreams are omens, as for the ancient Egyptians. But I’m going to do it anyhow. I’ll call one bucket Equilibrium; and the other Embodiment.

Equilibrium. I plowed through a good deal of middlebrow literature on dreams, and I might as well quote HealthLine, because it recites the various, closely allied conventional wisdoms in jargon-free language (i.e., no Freud):

Though there’s no definitive proof, dreams are usually autobiographical thoughts based on your recent activities, conversations, or other issues in your life. However, there are some popular theories on the role of dreams.

Your dreams may be ways of confronting emotional dramas in your life… [B]ecause the amygdala is more active during sleep than in your waking life, it may be the brain’s way of getting you ready to deal with a threat… [Dreaming] helps facilitate our creative tendencies…. [Dreams] help you store important memories and things you’ve learned, get rid of unimportant memories, and sort through complicated thoughts and feelings.

In all cases, equilibrium disturbed during the day is restored, by dreaming, at night.

Embodiment. And now for something unconventional. In The New Yorker, “What Are Dreams For?”, August 2023, we learn of a neuroscientist named Mark Blumberg. Blumberg begins with a new way to look at REM sleep:

People, he knew, also twitch during sleep: our muscles contract to make small, sharp movements, and our closed eyes dart from side to side in a phenomenon known as rapid eye movement, or REM… Human adults spend only about two hours of each night in REM sleep. But fetuses, by the third trimester, are in REM for around twenty hours a day… In adults, dreams are offshoots of waking life: we have experiences, then we dream about them. But a baby in the womb hasn’t had any experiences. Why spend so much time in REM before you have anything to dream about?… [Blumberg’s] videos attest to the apparent universality of twitching: not only do many animals twitch in REM but they start before they’re born…. After finding that sleep twitches in early development aren’t caused by activity in the cortex, Blumberg increasingly wondered whether it might be the other way around—perhaps the twitches were sending signals to the brain.

And the key point:

In a series of papers, Blumberg articulated his theory that . You wouldn’t think that the body is something a brain needs to learn, but we aren’t born with maps of our bodies; we can’t be, because our bodies change by the day, and because the body a fetus ends up becoming might differ from the one encoded in its genome. “Infants must learn about the body they have,” Blumberg told me. “Not the body they were supposed to have.”

. If you can identify which motor neurons control which muscles, which body parts connect, and what it feels like to move them in different combinations, you’ll later be able to use your body as a yardstick against which to measure the sensations you encounter outside. It’s easier to sense food in your mouth if you know the feeling of a freely moving tongue; it’s easier to detect a wall in front of you if you know what your extended arm feels like unimpeded. In waking life, we don’t tend to move only a single muscle; even the simple act of swallowing employs some thirty pairs of nerves and muscles working together. Our sleep twitches, by contrast, are exacting and precise; they engage muscles one at a time. Twitches “don’t look anything like waking movements,” Blumberg told me. “They allow you to form discrete connections that otherwise would be impossible.”

The kicker:

It’s a process that’s most important in infancy, but Blumberg thinks this might continue throughout our lives, as we grow and shrink, suffer injuries and strokes, . Blumberg plays the drums, and, when he learns a new rhythm, he wonders whether sleep is involved. “You struggle and struggle for several days, then one day you wake up and start playing and boom—it’s automatic,” he said. “Did sleep play a role in that? If I had been recording my limb movements, would I have seen something interesting? That keeps me up at night.”

Blumberg’s theory really appeals to me, partly because he takes the otherwise inexplicable fact of “twitching” and makes revelatory sense of it, but mostly because there’s now a plausible mechanism. I do see that I have conflated REM sleep and dreaming, whereas in fact all we know is that REM sleep and dreams occur at the same time, but heck, all the other kids are doing it. The Atlantic makes exactly that point:

Blumberg argues that the brain uses REM sleep to test-drive the body. The brain pings the neurons that control muscles, creating twitches; it then collects sensory information from those moving limbs. By testing those connections during times of stillness, it can refine and recalibrate the network to work more efficiently during times of wakeful chaos. According to this view, REM-phase movements aren’t about dreams at all. They’re the work of a brain that’s learning how to more effectively pilot a body.

Blue-skying freely: This argument doesn’t make sense to me (whether Blumberg or the Atlantic writer I can’t say). A “test-drive” by definition is — if we go back to our definitions of dreams — “experiences v. stories v. series.” Ditto “piloting,” if we replace “test drive” with “flight plan.” A dream would be the brain/mind’s way of twithing what needs to be twitched in the proper order.

So I stan for embodiment. (Don’t ask me why the brain just doesn’t send a signal directly to whatever it wants to twitch; evolution is something of a bricolage; and in any case, the brain isn’t learning how to, say, lift a leg; it’s learning how to run.) Now let’s turn to the content of dreams, which necessarily have to come from the world the dreamer inhabits, in which they run.

Covid shows up in dreams. From Nature and the Science of Sleep, “How our Dreams Changed During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Effects and Correlates of Dream Recall Frequency – a Multinational Study on 19,355 Adults“:

In the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, a study in China observed a higher frequency of pandemic-related dreams, which were associated with higher levels of psychological distress. This finding of qualitative changes in dreams during the pandemic is in line with the continuity hypotheses, which suggests that emotional waking experiences are reflected in dreams. There appears to be demographic differences in dream recall. In an Italian survey 20% of the sample reported having dreams with explicit COVID-19 references, with women reporting higher [Dream Recall Frequency (DRF)] (50.8% of women were high recallers, 39.4% of men were high recallers), emotional intensity, and negative emotions in their dreams compared to men. Similarly, two other web-surveys conducted in Italy revealed that age, gender, not having children, depression and living alone were significantly related to pandemic DRF, respectively. These findings are consistent with a U.S. study, where the dreams of female participants, participants with high education level, and participants most affected by COVID-19 regar

Also from Nature and the Science of Sleep, “Nightmares in People with COVID-19: Did Coronavirus Infect Our Dreams?”

From a qualitative point of view, healthy individuals have reported higher negative emotional intensity in dream content during the COVID-19 outbreak. Moreover, pandemic-related contents were identified both during the first wave of pandemic and in the post-lockdown period. In a relatively large United States sample (N = 3031), dream activity and mental health were shown to be associated during the pandemic, with the finding that the more participants were affected by the pandemic, the more it affected their dreams. Similarly, individuals having COVID-19-related traumatic experiences, such as death or disease of relatives/friends, report increased distress in their dream content and nightmares. Further, people reporting more changes in their life situation (eg, sleep habits or working life) have more emotional dreams. Furthermore, some trait-like features have an impact on oneiric activity. Indeed, women have shown higher DRF than men, and older adults have reported lower (dream recall frequency) DRF and (nightmare frequency) NF than younger individuals.

Propaganda infects our dreams, too. From The New Yorker, we learn of Charlotte Beradt, who collected 75 dreams under the Third Reich:

Not long after Hitler came to power, in 1933, a thirty-year-old woman in Berlin had a series of uncanny dreams. In one, her neighborhood had been stripped of its usual signs, which were replaced with posters that listed twenty verboten words; the first was “Lord” and the last was “I.” In another, the woman found herself surrounded by workers, including a milkman, a gasman, a newsagent, and a plumber. She felt calm, until she spied among them a chimney sweep. (In her family, the German word for “chimney sweep” was code for the S.S., a nod to the trade’s blackened clothing.) The men brandished their bills and performed a Nazi salute. Then they chanted, “Your guilt cannot be doubted.”


Beradt’s work uncovers the effects of authoritarian regimes on the collective unconscious. In 1933, a woman dreams of a mind-reading machine, “a maze of wires” that detects her associating Hitler with the word “devil.” Beradt encountered several dreams about thought control, some of which anticipated the bureaucratic absurdities used by the Nazis to terrorize citizens. In one dream, a twenty-two-year-old woman who believes her curved nose will mark her as Jewish attends the “Bureau of Verification of Aryan Descent”—not a real agency, but close enough to those of the time. In a series of “bureaucratic fairy tales” that evoke the regime’s real-life propaganda, a man dreams of banners, posters, and barracks-yard voices pronouncing a “Regulation Prohibiting Residual Bourgeois Tendencies.” In 1936, a woman dreams of a snowy road strewn with watches and jewelery. Tempted to take a piece, she senses a setup by the “Office for Testing the Honesty of Aliens.”

From the present day, we have the 45 Dreams project, inspired by Beradt:

I had a dream about Trump the other night. He asked me to give a speech but the speech writer sabotaged it and had me looking stupid on live TV.

had a dream the trump admin brought back the draft but called it “war try-outs”

Had a dream I was touring the White House, and in every single room (including each bathroom) speakers were blasting songs covered by Trump.

Blue-skying even more freely: The “altered states” that enable denial, cope, and willfull ignorance of Covid are caused, at least in part, by propaganda from hegemons. (Of course, there are other factors, like interest, even taste.) As we see above, both Covid and propaganda infect our dreams. But why cannot dreaming help us disinfect our minds from propaganda? I would argue that all forms of submission to propaganda must be embodied (a smile, for example, would be a case of Blumberg’s “new motor memories” and “new skills”, embodiments the brain learns). And what is learned can be unlearned. We have heard of lucid dreaming. Could there be Bayesian dreaming? Why is there not already? Surely, Bayesian dreaming would be adaptive. Even, or especially, during a nightmare…


[1] The noun “dream,” meaning as above, only appears in English in the mid-13th century; I would have thought such a salient feature of the human experience to be traceable all the way back to an Indo-European root, and have all sorts of branchings. Oddly, not.

[2] See, e.g., “Speech Sounds,” by Octavia Butler.

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