I’m taking a little break from my rather relentless posting about publishing and editing this week, because, well, a change is good now and then, right? Also, I’ve been dreaming a great deal.
All my life, I’ve dreamed as other people. Not of other people, but as them. Not myself in other circumstances, or even myself in different bodies, but as other people entirely. A four-year-old boy cleaning up after the animals on the family farm, a middle-aged trophy wife healing from plastic surgery, a young man going to work in a brightly lit office. And though it doesn’t happen every night, and it doesn’t happen in every dream, when I dream as other people, my thoughts, my moral coding, my own desires and beliefs are gone; I’m someone else entirely.
I didn’t realize this was strange until just a few years ago. In fact, I assumed that everyone had dreams like this at some time or another until I brought it up in conversation. As I was sitting around a lunch table with fellow students and a fiction teacher in my MFA program, chatting about using dream scenarios for fiction fodder, I mentioned dreaming as other people. My comments were met with perplexed stares and at least one “Wait, what are you talking about?” When I explained myself, the strange looks on everyone’s faces got even stranger. When I suggested that everyone must do this every once in a while, my teacher maintained that my experience was pretty darned unusual. (I didn’t then go into the fact that I have also died in my dreams–a scenario that I’ve often been told is impossible.)
The evolutionary theory of dreaming holds that, when we dream, we practice our fight-or-flight response to stimuli. This theory suggests that the heightened activity of the amygdala during REM sleep is due to our assessing danger, and making wise choices between battle and hiding. This makes a good deal of sense to me as I watch my snowshoe cat lurch about and flail her little legs as she snores away the afternoon. I can’t quite believe that she’d be sorting through her inner thoughts and emotions, as she’s a relatively simple critter: eat, nap, destroy my furniture, repeat. I’m almost entirely sure her tiny brain is processing potential responses to threats. (Though I have to wonder what fight or flight responses she needs to practice, as a cat that’s been indoors 99.9 percent of her life. Is she practicing what to do if confronted by a giant tartar-control snack? Or how to address a really threatening houseplant?)
But it never made much sense to me what the heck I was doing in my dreams. There’s not a lot of fighting or fleeing going on at all. What was I practicing by going around in other people’s bodies and minds?
Lately, as I work on my new book about someone I wouldn’t likely know in my real life, and someone who does things I would never consider doing myself, I’m beginning to realize that maybe that misfiring amygdala isn’t just a curiosity. Maybe it’s not just my research that’s letting me empathize with the characters who present themselves to me and insist to be written about. And maybe all those characters who live in my dreams have something to do with how compelled I feel to put stories on paper. Is it possible that at least part of the creative process is hardwired? That sometimes people are overdetermined to write stories? I like to think so.