I have traveled to space, back in time and turned into a superhero. I’ve been close friends with many celebrities. I’ve created new memories with friends and family, some deceased. I have committed terrible crimes. And I’ve saved the day, repeatedly.
Our sleeping mind is a private theater where you are the director and usually the star, and there is no limit to the production budget. Yes, some of them are boring (the majority of mine are about work), but many are entertaining, incisive and occasionally problem-solving. That’s why you should consider turning a blank notebook into your first dream journal.
There is little scientific research into the benefits of dream journaling, but those who make it a practice find it useful or insightful at best, and interesting at the very least.
The first potential benefit of dream journaling is that it may lead to a creative breakthrough. Your subconscious dreaming mind is, by nature, more inventive. Your dreams jump around in time, make leaps in logic, accept contradictions and sometimes make no sense at all to our more conventional conscious mind.
“Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives” is how William Dement, founder of the Sleep Research Center at Stanford University, once put it.
In centuries past, people believed dreams were messages from the dead that contained clues for what the living should do. Egyptian pharaohs believed gods sent messages to us in our dreams; they called them omina, the origin of the word omen. And the major faiths today contain stories in their sacred texts in which dreams are important riddles whose meaning must be worked out.
A more current theory about why we dream is that it helps sort, organize and process all the stimuli from our waking life, like clearing out cobwebs. But sometimes there’s silk to be made of the webs, when the answer to a problem you can’t solve in your waking life gets worked out in your more creative dreaming one.
Dream solutions have the advantage of operating “without the limits of time, logic, space or other real-world rules,” Dr. Allan Peterkin wrote in a guided dream journal published by National Geographic. Peterkin is a professor of psychiatry and family medicine at the University of Toronto.
Sigmund Freud, who wrote the first scholarly research on interpreting dreams, thought they primarily reveal secrets and embarrassing moments from our past. But his mentee-turned-rival, Carl Jung, thought dreams tap into universal archetypes and contain clues from our subconscious life to help us find happiness and answers to problems.
Another theory is that dreams act like a dress rehearsal for real life, a way to safely test out alternatives. That seems a likely explanation of nightmares. Scary dreams originate in your brains’ amygdala, where intense negative emotions such as anger and fear reside, Peterkin explained. They are useful, according to researchers, because they can help train your brain to prepare for challenges and fears in your waking life.
By the way, the word nightmare comes from an image that sounds like a nightmare itself: the Old English word for evil female spirits (maeres) believed to sit on your chest and suffocate you.
‘The royal road’
Dreams are windows into your deepest self. By gazing into a cracked, fun house mirror of reality, it changes your perspective. And by writing them down and considering what they mean, you travel along “the royal road,” as Freud put it, leading to the knowledge of your mind’s unconscious.
“Trying to understand your dreams can become an important part of understanding yourself, your relationships, and your world, both inside and out,” Peterkin wrote.
‘Poor man’s opera’
One more benefit of recounting and recording your dreams is simply escape. And who doesn’t need a vacation from life from time to time? In your dreams you can visit the past or future, go anywhere in the world or off it, and fly there with or without a plane.
As Kahlil Gibran put it more poetically, “permit us to surrender ourselves to slumber and perhaps the beautiful bride of dreams will carry our souls into a world cleaner than this one.”
The word dream comes from the Old English word for “joy, noise or music.” And there is joy in recording the music or deciphering the noise.
“Bed is the poor man’s opera,” an old Italian saying goes. And there is a new performance daily. Dreams can be “an incredible virtual reality model of the world,” Peterkin wrote, “updated with cool new content several times each night.”
In some of my wildest dreams, I married Nicole Kidman, joined Laird Hamilton’s surfing crew, beat LL Cool J in a rap battle and drove Speed Racer’s car, the Mach 5. In still others, Sarah Silverman was my therapist, Ally Sheedy and I had a fling while we made an ’80s movie together, and I played Han Solo in a version of “Hamlet,” using a script made out of graham crackers. I went to high school in the 1800s, with Hulk Hogan, at which time I attended Gen. Robert E. Lee’s funeral. And I was the Batman.
I can remember these dreams and hundreds more because I have been writing them down since high school. It’s the simple act of recording dreams that keeps them from evaporating in the sunlight of day.
Of the many dream-themed movies, my two favorites are Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” and the lesser-known 1991 Wim Wenders’ film, “Until the End of the World,” with William Hurt, Sam Neill and Max von Sydow. As a subplot in “Until,” the main characters find a way to video-record their dreams and subsequently become narcissistically addicted to watching them (to the point of madness).
There’s little you need to get started. Find a dream journal app or designate a notebook to keep next to your bed. And the next time you recall a dream, even a hazy, half-remembered one, write it down. Even if it’s boring and doesn’t seem worth remembering, write it down. The more you get in the habit of recording them, the better your recall will get.
I also leave a scrap of paper out in case I make some scribbled notes of key words and elements in the middle of the night. Even a single detail can bring back the memory of an entire dream. Telling someone your dream soon after you wake up can also help hold on to it until you write it down.
My dream journals have evolved over the years to include headlines for them, tracking themes, people and locations, as well as noting how many were “good” “bad” or “neutral/in between.” I do that to look for trends, but don’t make the bar too high for yourself, especially when you’re starting.
I also, on occasion, will write a note at the end of the dream if I feel I have some insight into its meaning. I may instantly recognize that a dream about being lost in a city is really about losing a work file, for example.
Dream dictionaries compile mythology, psychology and cultural symbolism and can be interesting to look up reoccurring themes in, even if there is little that is scientific about them, except in a Jungian collective, unconscious way.
Just remember always to interpret a dream through your personal experience. For example, a dream dictionary may suggest a dog in a dream means loyalty. But if you’re scared of dogs, it more likely represents something else you’re afraid of. Or if your mom owns five dogs, your dream dog may be standing in for her.
As the great myth expert Joseph Campbell put it, “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”