The importance of daydreams

6 February 2021

9:00 AM

6 February 2021

9:00 AM

I miss daydreaming. It’s a small problem to have in a pandemic, but it nags at me. Laptop, cooker, home-school, broom. ‘Mum, Mum, Mumma, Mum… You’re not looking, Mum. You have to look!’ The gap between things seems to have disappeared. There’s no time to drift and wander. I look at my phone too much, and sometimes I have the strange feeling my brain is suffocating.

And I might not have thought this worth mentioning were it not for a new book, When Brains Dream, by a pair of American sleep scientists, Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold. Bob and Tony, they call themselves throughout the book, and if they’re right, Bob and Tony have an answer to a problem that’s been puzzling people for 200 years: why do we dream? They explain why we daydream too; why it’s vital for sanity, so for me When Brains Dream has acted as an intervention. No more compulsive swiping between Facebook and MailOnline. Home-schooling can wait. I shall stare out of the window and let my jaw hang slack.

The first satisfying thing about When Brains Dream is that it gives short shrift to Sigmund Freud. I’ve held a grudge against Freud since A-level psychology. All the hours wasted on poor little Hans and his fear of horse penises. There’s no evidence that dreams express repressed desires, which is a relief. The second satisfying thing is that Bob and Tony think my husband, Dom, is wrong too. Like most sensible people, Dom takes the view that dreams are simply a by-product of the process of filing away memories: your sleeping self picking up fag ends. Dreams are just epiphenomenon, or spandrels, serving no evolutionary purpose.

What Bob and Tony have discovered — after what sounds like years of waking people violently from deep REM sleep — is that dreaming isn’t a by-product of memory sorting, it is the process of memory sorting. In REM sleep, as your eyeballs twitch and roll beneath their lids, as you arrive naked in the office pursued by cats, you’re actually on a mission to explore and understand the experiences of the day. Bob and Tony call their theory Nextup: Network Exploration To Understand Possibilities. The idea is that by pulling your experiences apart into unrecognisable fragments, and by comparing them with all manner of other seemingly unrelated ideas and images in your dreams, your brain can tease the meaning from memories. By day, you’re in lockdown, a laptop slave. By night, you’re the protagonist in a single-player virtual-reality computer game designed to teach you how to survive.

It’s surreal, it’s daft, but the whole loopy process works. After sleeping, rats who have previously been trapped suddenly find their way out of a maze. Musicians wake to find they’ve mastered some tricky piece. Daniel Margoliash, a Chicago biologist, has proved that songbirds dream of singing, and wake having learned new songs. The chemist Mendeleev first saw the layout of the periodic table in a dream. ‘I saw a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.’ If artificial intelligence never sleeps, can it learn the way we do? Make the same weird but brilliant connections?

I once had a terrible romance with a man who used to tell me at length how much he liked other women. On I struggled with the whole thing, until one night I dreamed that I was knocking on a thick glass wall, shouting through it at myself: ‘He just doesn’t like you, idiot! Get out!’ So I did.

When Brains Dream is about sleep, but it’s also a hymn of praise to the Default Mode Network (DMN), the bits of the brain that switch on when the mind wanders. And buried in Bob and Tony’s book is a warning: ‘Although the increasing rates of insomnia around the world may well reflect increased worrying, we think there’s another contributor: smartphones and earbuds. Take a look at people walking down the street, driving their cars, eating alone in restaurants and cafés. Not so long ago these people wouldn’t be doing anything else. Their minds would wander and they would daydream. Their DMN would be active and although they were totally unaware of it, they would be tagging recent memories for processing later that night. But the DMN has slowly been squeezed out of our daily lives.’ I belong to the last generation who grew up without phones and already I’m a bore on the subject: gather round, kids, and I’ll tell you about waiting for the bus, no way of knowing when it’d arrive, nothing to do but smoke fags and rip our Levis.

But what if we 20th-century bores are right? Over hundreds of thousands of years, we evolved to dream and to daydream, to let our thoughts spiral. What if Apple and co. are eating into the spaces in our minds, and what if corporate giants begin to invade our dreams too?

As it happens, they are trying. And by some William Gibson-style coincidence, the first invasion came this week. Just after I finished When Brains Dream, an excitable advert arrived on my phone: join the Coors Big Game dream. Coors, the beer company, can’t legally advertise in the run-up to America’s Super Bowl this weekend, so its big idea is to be the first company to advertise inside our dreaming heads instead. As of Wednesday you could go to its website, listen to the soundtrack, follow instructions and for the next few nights you would miraculously dream the new Coors Super Bowl ad, which I think involves flying and waterfalls. The trailer for the ad shows sleeping men being shaken roughly awake by what look like prison guards, and repeating details from the Coors-designed dream they’ve just woken from.

As part of my week of sleep research, I had an idle look at lucid dreaming (it’s a lockdown trend) and I learned that one way a lucid dreamer tells whether he’s inside a dream or not is to hold his nose and blow. If you can still breathe out, that’s a sure sign you’re asleep. As I went to the Coors site to find out more, I did, just quickly, pinch my nose and check.

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