It was the sixth grade, and we were on the bus ride home from our class trip. I was sitting in the back with my best friend, Gary. The other kids were joking around, making fun of him in a cruel way. He was not taking it well. I felt bad, but as an extremely shy person, I was too afraid to speak up. The teasing got worse and worse, then, as the bus arrived at my apartment complex, Gary pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head. He died instantly.
Then I woke up. I was not in the sixth grade—I was 31 years old. Gary was alive and well. It was all a dream.
I’m sorry if you feel deceived, thinking it was real, but I was only trying to recreate the experience I had while dreaming. I thought it was real at first, too. I was absolutely devastated when Gary killed himself, then utterly relieved when I woke up. That’s what makes dreams so intriguing—how they can simultaneously seem so fantastical and real.
As a child, I used to have a common recurring dream of being able to fly. I’d spread my arms, run, then glide through the air, soaring over the neighborhood. I was the only one in the world who could do this, and I tried to keep it secret and not be seen. I’d fly over the trees and houses, just cruising around town. This seemed completely normal in the moment…until I woke up.
It’s curious how dreams make no logical sense, yet we completely believe it in the moment. It’s not until we wake up that we see the logical fallacies and realize it was fantasy. For instance, why, in the sixth grade, was I going to the apartment complex that I didn’t live in until much later in life? Furthermore, why was I suddenly a child again? It made no sense, yet within my dream, I didn’t pick up on those discrepancies. Nor did I ever see anything illogical about being able to fly.
Dream interpretation is a whole other domain. Usually, dreams are your subconscious brain processing your emotions and memories and/or warning and preparing you for potential scenarios in the future—which explains most nightmares. Many dreams focus on our greatest fears and desires. Though most of our dreams we simply forget. Everybody dreams every night (assuming they reach a deep sleep state of rapid eye movement), but we will only remember the dream if we wake up in the middle of it (mid REM cycle).
The dream with my childhood friend Gary represents one of my greatest fears—not social anxiety in itself, but letting my shyness prevent me from acting in times of crisis, and by inaction, causing another harm. The dream was likely saying that I shouldn’t have been so shy. I should have stood up for Gary, and, if in the future I see someone else in trouble, I should stand up for them as well. I should never let my shyness stop me from potentially saving someone’s life.
Thankfully, nothing so tragic like a friend committing suicide ever happened to me in real life, but there were times in the past that I remained quiet while friends got bullied. And, who knows—those memories could have had lasting impacts on their self-esteem. Me saying something could have made a real difference in their lives. I wished I had the courage to stand up for them then, but I didn’t. In a sense, that dream was a warning of what not to do. Not that I’ll be on a bus in the sixth grade again, but I may encounter a situation where I can stand up for someone being unfairly treated by others. I’ve had many different variations of dreams in that same vein (warnings of what not to do in the future). Then again, other dreams, like when I’m flying, seem to have no message at all.
Dreams are mysterious. But so is memory.
Our memories are not very reliable. Years later, I’ll have a memory of something, but I can’t quite remember whether I actually lived it or whether it was only a dream.
The thing is, real life and dreams appear exactly the same in our memory: a mental image of the event. It’s not like a video recording or a photograph, preserved exactly as it was forever. When we remember something, our brains have to reconstruct the memory in our imagination—just like dreams. Depending on the person and the memory, what we remember may be close to reality, but oftentimes it’s not. With time, even the sharpest of memories begin to blur. Memories of dreams and reality are stored in the same parts of our brain, so after enough time has passed, we may forget which was which.
Obviously, with the more fantastical dreams like flying, it’s easy to realize that was just a dream. But what about the more mundane and realistic dreams with nothing fantastical—ordinary events that could have easily happened in real life? I have certainly had dreams like this as well. Eventually, because of our poor memories, we will not be able to tell with certainty whether it was real life or a dream. I have some memories like this—vague recollections of events from years ago that I can’t for the life of me discern whether it actually happened or was just a dream.
The act of remembering a dream is especially difficult. I was so struck by that dream about my friend shooting himself that I had the idea to write this very blog post about it. So I wrote what I remembered from the dream in the morning, but I couldn’t remember everything exactly as it was. What I wrote above was only the gist of the dream, and some of the details I remember may be wrong. The dream (and my first draft of this blog post) happened over a year ago, so looking back now, I remember even less. Honestly, I don’t even remember who Gary was. I changed the name to protect his identity, and now, a year later, I completely forget which childhood friend it originally was. I can’t remember the dream itself—only my memory of the dream. We never remember things as they were; we remember our memories of things. Then we remember our memories of the memories. And all memories are constructions of our imagination. So is any memory really real?
Bottom line: you should never assume any memory to be 100% accurate because it almost certainly isn’t. Not only do we have difficulty remembering things accurately, but false memories can easily be implanted by others. (Which doesn’t bode well for eye-witness testimony in the courtroom.) We can remember the generalities of events from the past, but rarely the specifics. Or, we may remember certain odd, specific details but neglect others. Our minds never preserve the full picture—though pictures, video, and writing do help to augment the faulty memory of our brains. (This is the idea of the extended mind.)
Dreams, memories, and imagination are inextricably linked to the ultimate mystery that is human consciousness. Scientists are still not sure how or why we are conscious—that is, how we have this feeling of subjective experience. Perhaps dreams and memories may be keys to understanding the hard problem of consciousness.