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Dream or Reality?


This photo is a wonderful representation of how our minds consist of both conscious and subconscious. Our waking, alert mentality, what we tend to think of as our self, is only a portion of the vast reality that is the true Self. The area of the photo seen above the water can represent the conscious, waking mind, while all beneath, under the reflection that mirrors what we call reality, lie unknown realms of the subconscious and -deeper still- the unconscious mind.

It is from the subconscious mind, just beneath the surface of awareness, that all of our dreams arise.

blue shag.jpg

Dream or Reality???

You wake from an intense nightmare or a particularly vivid dream, find yourself sitting upright in bed, sweating or weeping or maybe laughing out loud, and wonder, "Where am I? What was that? Who said... who did... Was that real or... what?"

At that moment, the difference between dream and reality can be completely lost. Distinguishing between the imagination and reality can become tricky. So how do we always know the difference?

Some people will think this is a silly question with an obvious answer, but it actually is quite profound, and has been argued by philosophers for many centuries (see "butterfly dream" on Wikipedia.) One quick answer is that those things that happen only within your mind are not "real" in the same sense as things that happen independently of your self. If another person can see, hear, touch or remember whatever it is you are not sure about, then it cannot exist only in your imagination. It must have some sort of reality.

Let's say that you have a vague memory about beer being spilled on a blue shag rug. But you don't know whether you had a dream about that beer on a blue rug or whether you are remembering something from your past. So you begin asking around your family and no one remembers any such blue shag. Maybe it was a dream. Or maybe you could be remembering something that happened in a past life! Then Aunt Maggie comes to visit. "Good heavens, child," she says, "how could you remember your Uncle Ralph spilling that beer in our old apartment? I was so angry with him, and he tried to blame it on you kids. But how could you remember that, you were still in diapers!"

So there you are, with a legitimate memory, no past life required. But to echo Aunt Maggie, how DID you manage to remember something from when you were a baby? The answer (and the memory) lies in a part of your mind called the subconscious. (The subconscious is also called the unconscious and in other contexts referred to as the soul or spirit, but that can get very complicated. Let's stick with subconscious.)


In Control ... Or Not?

Knowing about these two different parts of your mind is very important to understanding dreams. It also helps to explain why dreams often can be very difficult to remember. Your conscious (waking) mind is resting in sleep while your subconscious is actively dreaming. So when you awaken, and the conscious mind takes over control from the subconscious, you might not remember your dreams or you might have only vague impressions of images and feelings that dissolve as you try to reach them. Later in the day, though, something might trigger the memory of a dream, so that it FEELS as if it just pops up out of nowhere. But it has really been there in your subconscious all along.

This is also why you can't just order up whatever dream you'd like to have each night. Wanting or deciding about something is a function of your conscious (waking) mind. You could say that it is the part of your mind that is above the water. But it is the subconscious mind, the part of your mind below the water, that produces the dream. The subconscious is an independent cuss and doesn't take orders from the conscious without a lot of persuasion.

This is also why lucid dreaming requires practice and patience. The word "lucid" means to think rationally and clearly; in other words, consciously. When lucid dreaming, the conscious mind becomes aware and takes control of the dream from the subconscious mind. Some individuals find this very difficult, some find that it comes naturally, and others simply cannot do it at all. The subconscious resists yielding control because it has important tasks to perform related to emotional and physical health. The conscious mind also requires adequate periods of rest in order to function properly when fully awake. So while experimenting with lucid dreaming can be fascinating and helpful in dispelling nightmares and recurring dreams, too much lucid dreaming disrupts natural sleep and has the potential to cause problems of its own.



Each area of knowledge has its own specialized words. It's impossible to even think about something, much less discuss it, if you don't have adequate words. Imagine trying to teach someone to cook without having words like "boil," "roast," "pan-fry," and "braise" to explain different methods of heating, or words like "slice," "dice," "mince" and "chop" to describe ways of cutting. Could you understand computers without words for "keyboard," "motherboard," "memory" and "drive?"

In exactly the same way, specialized words help us when discussing dreams. To give a good answer to even a simple question such as, "Why are dreams hard to remember?" we need to be able to distinguish between the conscious and subconscious as explained above. It also helps to know about the long-term memory and short-term memory.

Long- and short-term memory are pretty much just what they sound like. Long-term memory stores memories of your experiences for the long term, so that you can pull up memories of things that happened years and decades ago. Short-term memory only holds the impressions of things that happened within the past minutes, hours or days. If something is not particularly important or useful, your mind won't bother moving it into long-term memory.

It can help to think of memory as two or more sets of file drawers. Everything you sense or experience, imagine or think, is filed in one of these "memory file drawers" somewhere in your mind. Whether you are able to remembering a certain experience depends on whether and how easily you can find it in the proper file drawer. For example, let's say that you have several memories:

> you dreamed about a baby in a shoebox

> you had Cheerios for breakfast

> you went on a trip last summer

> you have a book report due in two weeks

You don't hold all of these thoughts in your head simultaneously, that's too difficult for anyone. So your mind sorts these thoughts into the appropriate file drawers.

The Cheerios you had for breakfast start out in your short term memory. Two months from now, you might not remember exactly what you had for breakfast today as opposed to yesterday or tomorrow, because it's not terribly important. So when your mind sorts through your files (memories) it doesn't bother to move the Cheerio breakfast into the long term memory file drawer.

How about last summer's trip? You thought about it as you reviewed all the photos you took on the trip, and you thought about it again each time you described it to a friend. So your mind moved that into the long term memory file drawer. Whenever you think, "Last summer?" your mind instantly produces the memory of your trip, because it's safely stored in your long term memory where you can always find it.

That book report? It sat in short term memory for a while. But if you didn't pick up research material or review your notes in the following days, it might not have been tucked into the long-term file. It could literally slip your mind.

As you might expect, dreams are different. Because they do not originate in the conscious mind they may not arrive in the short-term memory at all. Without awakening during or immediately afterward, the dream won't be registered by the conscious mind, and no memory is created. Yet even some of those dreams can be remembered with the help of hypnosis. Ultimately we must admit that there is a lot about dreams, memory and the unconscious mind that we just don't know.