What is a Dream?
What is a dream?
Really, I’m asking. I’m not sure I know.
I suppose on one hand its an easy enough question to answer.
A dream is what we experience when we go to sleep at night.
But, on the other hand, that doesn’t really tell us much about what a dream actually is, does it? So, let’s look at it another way.
How would you explain a dream to someone who had never had one before?
See, that question is much more difficult to answer. It’s the difference between explaining something by explaining how we experience it and explaining the actual thing.
Perhaps some of you might answer the question this way: that dreams are just the brain’s way of sorting through thoughts, feelings, and memories — kind of like a neurological disc defragging (for those of you who remember what that is).
We’ll call that the mind-maintenance theory.
And there’s certainly something to that idea. After all, the dream experience is usually pretty different from waking life. We often lack the feeling of embodiment, sometimes we don’t see color, sometimes a dream is more like watching a movie than it is a first-person, participatory experience. Like, you might be walking down the street in a dream, but rather than seeing it from inside your body, you’re watching yourself do it — sometimes from above, sometimes off to the side. It’s pretty weird when you think about it.
Anyway, these are exactly the sort of limitations you might expect of a piece of software that runs something like a maintenance routine while the hardware isn’t being used. Maybe that’s how the brain works.
But you know what? You can poke holes in that theory, too.
What about those dreams where you do feel things, or where you see things you’ve never seen before, or where you create things that didn’t exist before?
For example, did you know that the inventor of the sewing machine claimed that the idea came to him in a dream? You see, way back in 1846, a guy named Elias Howe had been struggling to figure out how to design a motorized sewing needle for months.
But one night, he had a dream. He found himself in a strange and unfamiliar place, and he was being cooked in a large cauldron by a group of spear-wielding cannibals. Now, from within their boiling soup, he noticed something curious. He could see that each of the cannibals’ spears had a hole in its tip, and he became fixated on it as the group thrust their spears up and down in the air while they danced around him.
Before the dream, he’d been trying to figure out a way to automate the movement of a sewing needle. Here’s why that’s hard:
Typically, thread is strung through a hole at the opposite end of a needle’s tip — they eye. Then, the needle must pass all the way through the fabric being sewn, trailing the thread behind it. This is no problem when you’re sewing by hand. You just push it through the fabric and pull it out the other end. But Howe wanted the machine to hold the needle, and to build something that could pass the it all the way through and neatly catch it on the other end was just too complicated. In a way, that would really be like two machines.
When he woke up from his dream , he had his solution. He realized that all he needed to do was move the eye of the needle to the tip, so that the entire needle wouldn’t need to pass through the cloth it was working to sew. If the person using his machine could handle moving the fabric, all the needle had to do was move up and down, just like the cannibal’s spears.
It’s a good story, isn’t it? But does it actually debunk the mind-maintenance theory? Perhaps Howe’s subconscious — that part of the brain that is collecting data and noticing patterns, whether we know it or not — cobbled together a scenario out of bits and pieces of his memory — almost like a collage — in order to bring the solution out to his awareness. It sounds plausible, but I wonder about the raw materials of that memory collage.
I mean, we can at least agree that it’s rather unlikely that Elias Howe actually spent any time in a cannibals crockpot. I looked it up, by the way, and aside from a couple of trips to London, he never left the East Coast. He lived from 1819 to 1867 — before radio, before television, before cinema.
So, the question is, where would those images have come from?
Ahhhh… Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Well, if you’re still not impressed, let me share three more quick stories with you.
James Watson, a scientist, dreamed of a spiral staircase while working on the problem of DNA back in the 1950s, which led him to the double-helix structure we all learned about in school.
Paul McCartney, of the Beatles, claims he wrote the melody to his song, Yesterday, in a dream.
Similarly, Keith Richards says he wrote the lead guitar riff of Satisfaction in a dream. Although you never really know about Keith Richards. After all, this is the guy who wrote in his autobiography that he snorted his father’s ashes. Death, drugs, and rock ’n roll, man.
So let’s get back to our original question, then.
How would you explain a dream to someone who had never had one before?
Well, if you don’t find the mind-maintenance theory convincing, you might conclude something else. Like, that dreams are a valid source of information — perhaps about the future or other metaphysical truths. There’s a word for that, by the way. It’s called oneiromancy. So if you’re into the idea that dreams can relay information to you from sources outside of yourself, you now have the perfect title to add to your Twitter bio.
Chris Butler, Oneiromancer.
Sounds cool, right? Well, maybe for a guy who wears a cape on a regular basis, or, like, has a lot of jeweled rings or something.
If you don’t take that seriously, that’s ok. You’re in good company. You know who else would scoff at the oneiromancers of the world? Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher.
If we were to ask him about dreams, he’d probably just roll his eyes and wave the question aside. See, for him, material was all there is, and so whether dreams were the product of mind-maintenance or the continuance of thought — albeit at a subconscious level — there was absolutely nothing spooky about them.
“From this ignorance of how to distinguish dreams from vision and sense, did arise the greatest part of the religion of the gentiles in time past, that worshipped satyrs, fawns, nymphs, and the like; and now-a-days the opinion that rude people have of fairies, ghosts, and goblins,and of the power of witches.”
- Thomas Hobbes, 1651
I know, I know. Another clip of bad voice acting. I couldn’t help myself. Is he gonna do this in every episode?
I promise you, I won’t do that in every episode.
So Thomas Hobbes thought about as much of the verity of dreams as he did fairies, ghosts and goblins. Fair enough. But before we write off dreams entirely, there is one other idea about dreams worth exploring.
If the notion of mind-maintenance doesn’t hold water for you, and you think that oneiromancy is a neat idea that could explain some kinds of dreams but not all of them, you might consider that perhaps dreams are their own reality…
Now hear me out.
..that the experiences you have in a dream actually happen, albeit on some other plane of existence, where your soul can interact with things outside of your body, or perhaps even in an alternate universe where you actually did show up to work naked one day.
Sounds pretty wild, right?
Well, let me up the ante a bit then.
What if when you’re sleeping, your soul leaves your body to have those astral plane adventures we’re imagining?
That’s not an idea I just made up. I heard it first from this guy…
“And also, a very important thing is that everyone does this. The fact that you do not remember it does not infer that it does not happen.”
So, that’s Robert Monroe. I’m going to tell you more about him in a moment, but for now, what you need to know is that he spent many decades studying sleep and dream states, and it wasn’t too far into it that he began having pretty strange experiences of his own that completely changed how he understood non only the nature of sleep, but our very existence. But before we get too far down that path, let’s hear him explain a bit more about just the dreaming and astral travel part.
“During what we call delta sleep at night, which everyone goes through, is quite probably, according to our research, the time when everyone goes into this out of body state.”
“Now is that like a dream?”
“No, it’s something apart from a dream. It is a — there’s no philosophic connotation in our approach to it. But it is somewhat a process of the recharging mechanism that you get during sleep.”
I love how this guy comes on some run of the mill morning show where the preceding segment was probably something about how to make a casserole and drops this crazy bomb about out of body experiences, and the hosts are just like, hmmm…
So, that was Robert Monroe being interviewed in 1979 as part of a publicity tour for his first book, Journeys Out of the Body.
You’ve got to see the video for yourself, by the way — you can find it by searching for “Robert Monroe Explains His First OOBE” on YouTube — because when he’s finished his bit about how everyone leaves their body at some point during sleep, and the hosts are all “things that make you go hmmm…”, Monroe’s “hmm” comes with a priceless look on his face, like did you hear what I said, lady? I said you leave your body!
That’s the key bit in the interview. Monroe said that his research indicated that everyone — you, me, Richard Dawkins, your grandmother — regardless of what we believe — everyone goes into an out-of-body state when they enter into delta sleep.
What Monroe means by delta sleep is the third stage of NREM — or non-rapid eye movement — sleep, which is also referred to as slow-wave sleep. That’s because during this stage, there is an increase in delta wave activity in the brain. Typically, longer periods of delta sleep occur earlier in your sleep cycle, and tend to occupy around three hours of combined time.
Three hours, which, according to Monroe, you — or a part of you — heads for the astral plane.
So who is this Robert Monroe guy, anyway? Why should we listen to him?
Well, Monroe got his start in radio broadcasting in the 1950s after a stint producing radio for the National Aeronautic Association. A few years after starting his own broadcasting company, he created a Research and Development department tasked with studying how sound affects human consciousness.
Here’s Monroe again:
“I decided we would try something else. And being very professional in sound, we naturally began to think of some way to use sound as a new means of — a new direction for our company. And what we first came up with and started conducting — in our research and development division of our company — was how to help people learn while they are asleep.
The first problem was was how to get people to sleep. Because you can’t take a subject and say, now, go to sleep. You do not want to give them chemicals or drugs to get them to sleep because that won’t serve the purpose. So we began to use sound to help people to get to sleep.”
At that time, Monroe felt that what they were doing was risky enough that he wasn’t comfortable asking anyone else to be the guinea pig. So, he made himself the chief subject of this research.
His team experimented with measuring brain activity while listening to different frequencies of sound and began to infer that different waveform patterns in sound played a role in enhancing focus, inducing sleep, and even entering altered states of consciousness.
As this research was going on, Monroe began to experience what he calls a recurring “vibration,” which he writes about in great detail in that first book of his, Journeys Out of the Body.
He would try to wait these vibrations out as he prepared to sleep at night, but one evening, he suddenly found himself out of his body
“One particular afternoon when I was lying down, I said, alright fine, if the vibration came, if it’s going to kill me let it kill me. So I waited and waited and waited, and after a while — after about five minutes — it faded away…”
After that first time, Monroe found himself floating outside his body on a regular basis. Sometimes as often as a few times a week. And each time, these out of body experiences came after that odd vibration feeling he felt when he laid down to go to sleep.
Though initially frightened by this recurring experience — and come on, who wouldn’t be?? — Robert Monroe’s fear eventually turned to curiosity after he concluded that these out of body experiences were not preludes to dying, but something else. Something he could explore.
At that point, his out of body jaunts were pretty short. We’re talking no more than a minute or two. Once he’d find himself looking down at his own body, or right up against the ceiling, or partway through a wall, Monroe would worry, “what if I can’t get back in my body?” or “what if while I’m out here, something else takes my place in there?” But those things never happened, and so his real exploration began.
There’s much more to Robert Monroe’s out of body experience story. Way more than I can cover in this program.
And hey, if you’re still listening, look, I get it. We started with a pretty safe conversation about dreams — one where we could entertain some odd ideas without having to worry about how sane we seem.
You could have been playing this aloud on your phone in the gym and that cute person on the treadmill next to you might have even thought, “ohh and they’re smart, too!” Just kidding, nobody plays stuff on their phone out loud at the gym. That’s some seriously antisocial behavior right there.
But you get what I mean. We were in benign territory.
But now? Now we’re into some deep new-age weirdness. Well, we’re going to stay there. But we’re not going to just listen to one guy talk about it. We’re going to join in.
We’re going to try a technique Robert Monroe called hemi-sync.
“It started very simply…to create a binaural beat. And that’s how hemi-sync was born.”
See, while Robert Monroe was having his out of body experiences, he and his team continued with their work on sound, sleep, and consciousness.
Now, remember how he was talking about using particular frequencies to put people to sleep? Well, they began to use a specific kind of sound to do that. They used a technique that engaged something called binaural hearing.
What they did is play back two pure tones for subjects simultaneously over headphones. What makes it binaural is that each tone is isolated to one ear.
So, for example, a subject might hear a 100hz tone in their left ear, while a 104hz tone plays in their right. What’s special about this technique is that it produces an auditory illusion — something called a binaural beat.
You hear it as a third tone, even though that tone does not exist. The reason this happens is because your brain is accounting for the difference in frequency between those two isolated tones — even just that 4hz difference — and the binaural beat will sound to you like a tone at the frequency of that difference. Trust me, this is a real thing! I’ll prove it to you.
Right now, there are two different tones playing at the same time.
One on the left.
And one on the right.
The difference in frequency between them is 20hz. So when they’re played simultaneously, your brain creates a third tone — one that sounds like a pure, 20hz tone.
If you take your right headphone out, you’ll hear how much higher the tone on the left sounds. And if you take your left headphone out, you’ll hear how much lower the tone on the right sounds. Together, they create this vibrating sound.
Ok. Enough of that. So that was just a few seconds. Can you imagine listening to that tone — just that, nothing else — for an hour or more?
That’s what Robert Monroe’s study subjects did. They’d spend hours listening to different binaural tones, just like the one we just heard, and eventually, they’d go into pretty deep states of meditation.
I found a pretty good explanation of what this does to the brain, and since I’ve been doing so much of the talking so far, I thought I’d let Dr. Johnny Apocalypse explain the rest:
“How binaural beats work.”
Monroe writes of the wide spectrum of applications of hemi-sync. It can be used to keep a person awake — so they can maintain their focus for a long period of time. And, it can be used to put someone to sleep.
In between those two extremes are many different states of consciousness that hemi-sync can induce, all depending upon the particular frequencies of sound on either side of the binaural recording.
For instance, a state of mental awareness — a state of being very awake — even while the body is asleep.
Think about what that means: we assume that when we are asleep, we are unconscious. But Monroe demonstrated that sound can be used to show that consciousness is much more complicated than we thought, and that we remain conscious during sleep. We just typically don’t know it.
At the time of the interview that I’ve been sampling, Monroe shared that they’d gotten so far into exploring the diversity of tones in hemi-sync and the applications for them that for any given application — across that wide spectrum between awake and asleep — they had identified up to 35 different tones or frequencies, all having unique attributes and effects.
In other words, Monroe’s team’s research showed that the brain and body are so sensitive to sound that thousands of frequencies could be applied — almost like software patches — to hack our normal awareness and enable radically different kinds of perception.
“Hemi-sync is tremendously valuable…the mind can accept it or reject it.”
What connects hemi-sync to where we started — dreaming — and where we’ve ended up — that consciousness extends beyond the body in ways we still have yet to understand and explain — is that sound reveals the extent to which our experience of reality is created by vibration.
After all, sound is nothing more than particular vibrations that resonate with our particular hardware — the auditory system in our heads.
And one particularly spooky thing to consider further is Monroe’s conclusion that consciousness continues even when we are observably unconscious. That means that our sense of self may be somewhat incomplete.
That consciousness — the awareness of will and intent — might in fact be layered, just like the conscious and sub-conscious theorized by psychologists like Carl Jung, but in real and measurable ways.
The only thing between us and discovering that is the very real fear of the unknown.
I’ll tell you, that fear is something I’ve experienced for myself. Let me share with you a couple of stories.
Well over a decade ago, in 2004, I was living in Providence, Rhode Island. Just a few months beforehand, my girlfriend had flown off to Malaysia to start a job teaching at a school in Penang. I was preparing to fly out there myself, to visit her.
One night, about a month before my departure, I had a dream. In the dream, I had arrived in Malaysia. It was morning. My girlfriend was giving me a tour of her school. Suddenly, everyone around us began to panic. Scattering, running, shouting. I looked to my left and saw the shore, just feet from where we stood at the edge of the campus. Enormous waves were curling up, casting a cold, dark shadow upon us all, and roaring in the distance. I grabbed her hand. We ran. We ran up the street, and away from the school. I kept looking to my left, watching these waves come closer and closer. We needed to move faster.
Then, from behind us, I heard the deep shudder of the ground as the first waves bore down upon the shore. As the school crumbled beneath them and was sucked away, it sounded like a thousand orchestral drums rolling, the tone only growing deeper as the water level rose. And still, we ran.
I awoke from this dream, breathing heavily, my heart pounding in my chest. I sprang out of my bed and darted over to the little desk I kept in my room, turned on my computer, and wrote it all down in an email — everything I’d just dreamed — and hit send.
It was the middle of the night where I was, but early afternoon for my girlfriend. I went back to bed. The next day, I awoke to find her reply. What a strange dream, she wrote. What do you think it means? We traded a few emails back and forth about the dream.
I’d been so shaken by it the night before, but in the light of the next day, with every new moment filled with work to be done, it faded away. And that email I sent, it, too, faded away, just one of hundreds of messages we sent and received between then and our reunion a few weeks later. By the time I actually arrived in Malaysia, the dream — and the emails we’d written about it — were completely forgotten by us both. We spent most of the next three weeks exploring Penang, eating all kinds of new and strange and wonderful things, visiting, talking about the future, and, toward the end, celebrating Christmas.
The day after Christmas, with only two more days left until I would fly back home, we were awoken early in the morning by a shaking room. It took a few moments to realize that there had been an earthquake.
We were staying in a highrise, and to say that the entire thing felt like it wobbled back and forth, as flexible as the branch of a tree blowing in the wind, doesn’t seem like much of an exaggeration. I certainly haven’t felt anything like it since.
Nevertheless, even that — an earthquake for goodness sake! — faded away with the morning. We got up, ate breakfast, walked down to the school’s beachfront — just feet from the classroom where she taught — and prepared to kayak out to a little rocky island just a half mile or so offshore. But then, even with life jackets on, kayaks dragged out, and oars in hand, something came over us and we thought, let’s go into town instead.
We put everything back, climbed the hill away from the water and toward the main road, and caught a bus heading for Georgetown. Ten minutes later, there was a boat in the road. Out of nowhere. People shouted from within the bus. The driver swerved to the right and onto a smaller road heading into a crowded neighborhood. Everyone slid to the left side of the bus and pressed up against the windows. What was happening? Neither of us could make sense of it.
Shouting in Malay, Hokkien, and Tamil swirled, unintelligibly around us. All we could make sense of was that whatever was going on, it was not good.
Eventually, we made it to Georgetown, but by that point we just felt an urgency to turn around and head home. But no one — no bus driver, nor any cabby — wanted to go back that way. I eventually offered enough cash for one brave driver, and we made our way back through windy neighborhood roads.
Over the course of the next day, we gradually figured out what had happened. The earthquake, the tsunami, the devastation in places nearby that was far worse than anything we’d seen ourselves. But back then, with no social media to spread the news like it would today, it wasn’t for two more days — on my stop in Singapore at the beginning of my journey home — that the terminal televisions told me the whole story.
A few months later, my girlfriend forwarded that email back to me. The email with the dream. The one we’d both completely forgotten about until then. What did it mean? Had it been a premonition? I read and re-read it many times over. The details were uncanny.
At the time of the dream, I’d seen only one picture of the area — a closely cropped selfie she’d taken walking away from the school in the rain, carrying a big, yellow umbrella. Other than that, I had no idea what the school looked like, or the geography surrounding it. Yet, I could now compare the details of the dream with the actual place. Where the school was in relation to the water. The direction we’d headed when the tsunami hit. All accurate.
Sure, in real life we hadn’t run from the waves on foot, we’d been carried by bus. A minor detail, relatively. So what to make of this? I’ve juggled interpretations ever since.
Was it mind-maintenance? I sure don’t think so. Was it oneiromancy? It’s hard to see it any other way. Of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. There were certainly aspects of my dream that could be interpreted as both — and, could have actually been both. But more compelling to me was not what this dream was, but why I had it in the first place.
I used to ask that all the time: why? Why see something so big, so catastrophic, ahead of time, when you cannot possibly do anything about it? But over time, the urge to answer why has kind of gone away.
The more I explore ideas about consciousness, the more I start to understand it not as me and my experience of the world, but as the very fabric of reality. Think back to Robert Monroe, floating over his own body. If playing with vibrations had unlocked his consciousness — freeing it from this person suit we’re all steering — then it seems that all kinds of boundaries disappear. Physical ones, but also conceptual ones. Like information: if the mind continues to run, disconnected from the body, then what exactly is information, and where is it stored?
And time. If your mind can be in one place one moment, and far off in another the next, time as a barrier seems to erode.
A dream like mine, where I experienced an event that had yet to happen, may be evidence of the permeability of those boundaries.
It may be that anything, anywhere, any time can be experienced — in dreams or in some other form of altered consciousness — and that that is not a hack or a miracle, but just the way the universe works.
There’s only one way to find out. Fire up that hemi-sync and let me know what you find.
Well, friends, I hate to say it, but that’s it for now.
This episode was brought to you by me, Christopher Butler. Thanks to Kid Cholera and Opsound.org for our opening and closing music, as well as Podington Bear for a bunch of the sound in between. You can find more of Kid Cholera’s stuff at choleramusic.nihilus.net and Podington Bear’s at FreeMusicArchive.org.
The piece of music playing during Thomas Hobbes’ interlude was Corelli’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 in D Major.
If you’re interested in hearing more about what Thomas Hobbes thinks about the world, you should start by reading Leviathan. That’s where the bit about dreams comes from.
If you’d like to read more about Robert Monroe’s experiences, start with his first book, Journey’s Out of the Body, which was published by Doubleday in 1971. Some of my excerpts come from an hour-long documentary called Robert Monroe’s Out-of-Body Experiences, which you can find on YouTube. You can also find out more at MonroeInstitute.org.
If you’re game to try out some heme-sync on your own, I’d recommend starting with the Full Length Binaurals collection on YouTube. That’s at youtube.com/user/FulLengthBinaurals.
I hope you’ll join me next time for another foray into the mysterious.
Until then, you can find the show online at theliminal.co and follow along on Twitter @liminalco.
From my little booth in Durham, North Carolina, this is Chris Butler, signing off.