The author of a new book on nightmares talks about monsters, demons, and the fragility of the self| From Perspectives | By Art Jahnke
Illustration by Yuko Shimizu
Patrick McNamara knows nightmares. The neurocognitive scientist and School of Medicine associate professor of neurology and psychiatry spent ten years researching and writing about them. The result of his efforts, Nightmares: The Science and Solution of Those Frightening Visions During Sleep, was published last year by Praeger. McNamara’s book covers a lot of ground, from cultural interpretations to biology to horror films inspired by our most disturbing dreams.
Bostonia editors, nervous types themselves, had a few questions for the author, who is also director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory at MED and the Veterans Affairs New England Healthcare System.
Bostonia: What makes a nightmare a nightmare?
McNamara: The official criteria define a nightmare as a frightening dream that occurs in REM sleep, causes the dreamer to awaken, and creates emotional distress. Many scientists who study nightmares (me among them) argue that that official criteria need revision. Many nightmares do not cause you to awaken. Another distinguishing mark of the nightmare — besides the level of terror involved — is its content. Nightmares very often involve supernatural characters that attack or target the dreamer in some way. I mean monsters, creatures, demons, spirits, unusual animals, and the like. From a cognitive point of view, one interesting aspect of the presence of the supernatural being in a nightmare is that the dreamer cannot read the mind of the supernatural being. All we can do is understand that the monster’s intentions are malevolent.
Nightmares also often involve the dreamer, or self. Interestingly, the self responds to the monster with a wide range of feeling, from terror to awe and fascination. The self escapes unscathed only if it refuses to look at or speak to or in any way engage the monster. When the self engages the monster, all kinds of ill effects ensue, including, in ancestral cultures, demonic or spirit possession.
You write about the possession theme of nightmares. Why is that particularly disturbing?
There is a danger involved in the encounter with spirit beings; you may not psychically survive the encounter. Instead, the malevolent spirit will take up residence in your consciousness and control your actions. You become possessed. It is an interesting clinical fact that, even today, most cases of involuntary spirit possession across the world occur overnight. The person wakes up possessed. Traditional cultures have developed ways to identify the demon-possessed people. They are usually self-destructive, they have chronic physical pains and physical distress, they are irreverent toward the culture’s religious rituals, they are restless, and they have recurrent nightmares.
We in modern university settings do not realize how widespread spirit possession phenomena are throughout the world and throughout history. It is a universal human experience. For people who encounter a possessed person, it is an uncanny experience. It is a terrifying experience if the possessing spirit is demonic.
Patrick McNamara. Photo by Vernon Doucette
What time of life are we most likely to have nightmares?
Nightmare frequency is high in childhood and in adolescence and young adulthood. Young girls tend to experience nightmares more frequently than boys.
Is there a certain type of person who is more likely than others to have nightmares?
In adults, recurrent nightmares occur in people with so-called thin boundaries. These are people who are especially sensitive to sensory impressions. Creative people, like artists, writers, musicians, and so forth, also report more nightmares than others. A different form of nightmare, heavily influenced by memory, occurs frequently in people who have experienced trauma of one kind or another.
What about recurrent nightmares? Are they really recurrent, or do we just think they are?
In about 2 percent of the adult population, nightmares occur frequently. They do not recur in the sense that the same scene is replayed night after night, but they do recur insofar as the individual experiences frequent nightmares. Post-traumatic nightmares, on the other hand, do recur with the same scene, with minor variations, being replayed over and over again.
If a person feels plagued by nightmares, is there something to do to inhibit their recurrence?
Yes. Scientists have found that various forms of cognitive restructuring of the imagery associated with a nightmare can reduce the distress associated with nightmares. In cognitive restructuring, you take a central image from the nightmare and literally redraw it, on paper or in imagination, so that it is less threatening or frightening. You can also do this with the use of stories. Take the nightmare story and retell it, with less frightening themes and a less frightening outcome.
What can we learn about ourselves from the details of our nightmares?
The traditional answer to your question is something along the following lines: our dreams and nightmares reflect unconscious conflicts and fears. So, examining images and themes of dreams and nightmares can tell us something important about our unconscious fears and conflicts. I doubt that this is true.
Instead, nightmares appear to be about the strength of the ego, or the “I,” the self. It is always the self that is under attack in a nightmare. On the surface it appears that people who suffer frequent nightmares have more fragile egos than the rest of us, but when you look deeper, these people very likely have the strongest egos, or sense of self, on the planet. Nightmare images stay with us for hours or days, haunting our awareness for days. But frequent nightmare sufferers cope with this stuff on a regular basis. They handle the frightening images on a daily basis. They are very strong individuals.
How have nightmares influenced culture: visual arts, literature, movies?
The horror story/novel/movie. The most reliably best-selling novels tend to be horror stories, like those of Stephen King. The visual artists, like painters, tend to display a profound understanding of nightmares, perhaps because they experience nightmares themselves. You might say that a whole industry has been built on the nightmare.
You Asked, We Answered
Many readers took advantage of our invitation to ask Patrick McNamara, associate professor of neurology and psychiatry, about their bad dreams. Here are some of those questions, along with McNamara's responses.
QDo individuals with PTSD suffer from nightmares or night terrors? Does cognitive restructuring work for the disturbed sleep of individuals with PTSD? Are there other strategies that may help individuals plagued by nightmares/terrors due to PTSD? Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing your research. — Margaret Klehm (SPH'87)
AHi Margaret. Yes, people with PTSD report frequent nightmares but they are of a special kind. Nightmares of people with a history of severe trauma are very often filled with the same imagery from night to night with a only minor variations. Ernest Hartmann, however, has shown that the dreams and nightmares of persons with PTSD evolve over time such that there is a greater and greater integration of the emotional aspects of the trauma into the cognitive, personality and emotional system that dampens down the emotional charge associated with the trauma so that daily functioning can carry on. As recovery evolves, the nightmare imagery starts to fade and become less repetitive but this often takes years. Cognitive restructuring has been shown to help as has some pharmaocotherapeutic and pharmacotherapy during the acute phase (months after trauma) but then cognitive and psychotherapy can do the job thereafter.
QDr. McNamara, I am a 66 year old married man For the last several years I been having a recurring nightmare several times a month. I'm being chased by one or a number of unfamiliar men. I fall to the ground and as they approach I violently kick my feet to keep them at bay. At this point I am usually kicking so hard that I awaken my wife, often by kicking her. I have fallen out of bed several times and just before Christmas last year broke my big toe.
A friend (??) told me that I have REM Sleep Disorder and that it is a risk factor for Alzheimer's. While the dreams and falls from bed bother me somewhat, I didn't consider them as anything very serious. Should I be more concerned and perhaps seek treatment? — Steve Silverman (CAS'64)
AHi Mr. Silverman. I, of course, cannot say whether you have REM behavior disorder but I do think it worth you being seen by a sleep medicine specialist. REM Behavior Disorder is characterized by the sorts of dreams you describe. As the disorder progresses the acting out of the dreams/nightmares may become more violent — there re many cases of patients really injuring themselves and bedpartners. There are effective drug therapies for REM Behavior Disorders and related conditions. REM Behavior Disorder is sometimes — not always — a sign of early Parkinson's Disease and related conditions including Alzheimer's but many people have signs of REM Behavior Disorder and never develop these degenerative disorders. Every case is different. Whether or not you have REM Behavior Disorder, it is worth speaking to your doctor and sleep medicine specialist and perhaps undergoing an overnight sleep study. Even if you do not have REM Behavior Disorder the sleep study can identify the extent to which your sleep is disrupted by your dreams/nightmares. Once you have that info treatment options can be considered with your doctor.
Q Do recurring anxiety dreams count as nightmares? I have 2 major themes, one is that my car has been stolen. I even remember in my dream it having been stolen previously (in dreams) and keep track, as in, "Oh, not again! This is the 5th time it's been stolen!" [if in fact I have had 5 dreams in recent months or years about my car being stolen) or "I just had my car stolen (in a recent dream)--no way the insurance company is going to believe me."
The other is more frequent these days--I have to pack up all my stuff & move suddenly, or maybe go on a trip. But I don't have enough boxes to fit all my stuff in, nor enough time even if I did. Variations may also include not just not enough boxes, but also only a small car to transport them. If it's a trip, of course I'm also supposed to be in the airport in an hour ... I have moved a lot in my life... I dream very vividly. I haven't had monster/demon dreams in a long time however. The times I wake yself up are usually when I talk (or yell) outloud & these are generally very surface dreams--talking/complaining about something I'm dealing with in waking life. No mystery. Any comments on the above are welcome! — Liz (SED'91)
AHi Liz. Yes, many recurring anxiety dreams can be considered nightmares - particularly when they wake you up and your affect is negative. Regardless of their name, if your anxiety dreams are bothering you or interfering with your daytime functioning you may try the cognitive restructuring techniques I mentioned in the interview (above). I would recommend doing these with a therapist but you can also do them alone with a workbook. There are many good cognitive behavioral workbooks in the bookstores. You can modify the exercises therein to fit your situation.
Your stolen car dreams are intriguing given that you remember a previous dream while you are in a dream. Many people report similar phenomena regarding their dreams thus refuting theories of dreams/nightmares that consign them to random, incoherent noise.
QI have a lot of nightmares as I have wicked PTSD. But my question is this: what is happening when I have a nightmare and scream in my sleep and wake everyone in the house BUT me. Shouldn't that wake me too? If not, why not. Thanks.— Cecilia F. Roberts (STH’01)
AHi Cecilia. That is a very excellent question. For most dreamers who cry out in their sleep they do wake themselves up when the voice or scream becomes loud enough. But it true that some dreamers take a longer time to transition out of the REM brain state into a non-REM or waking state and for the people (you may be one of them) the dream state is a very deep brain state and so transition to another sleep state or to waking takes longer. So you need to scream longer or louder to rouse from the REM state.
Q Can't wait to read your book. Have always been very interested in dreams because of my own personal library of recurring dream images some of which have been harrowing. My question: Are there major differences between the sexes in the kinds of nightmares that they have? More specifically in childhood nightmares. Thank you so much.— Jody Gelb (CFA’78)
AHi Jody. Yes there are major differences between the sexes in the kinds of dreams they report and the kinds of nightmares they experience. The differences exist from childhood on up to old age. It is impossible to summarize all the differences that occur but differences in nightmare content stands out. In women, nightmares very often contain unknown male strangers (these can be natural or supernatural agents) that are out to harm the dreamer. The dreamer, however, only rarely interacts with these strangers. Instead she is being chased by them or is trying to avoid or flee from them, etc. In men, when male strangers appear there is very often a violent confrontation between the strangers and the dreamer. In women's nightmares the strangers are usually a group and in men the stranger is usually one person. In children's dreams you get the same kind of differences but the unknown male strangers are replaced by animals. Now these are just generalizations derived from hundreds of dream content studies. Every person/dreamer is different and thus you can have violent confrontation in women's dreams/nightmares as well. The point here is that across a range of cultural populations these differences seem to occur fairly reliably.
QWhen I have nightmares, they are usually about one of the following two situations: 1) My teeth have become extremely loose. This is quietly horrifying, but I usually don't awaken. 2) I'm in the backseat of my car, it is slowly moving and I can't get to the driver's seat, which is empty. I can't move very well and I can't see very well. This scenario does wake me up. In waking life my teeth are fine, and I don't have inordinate fears related to driving. Are these themes common? — Gwen Perkins Murphy (CFA’90)
AHi Gwen. Yes, these are fairly common dream themes but they rarely rise to the level of a horrifying nightmare. On the other hand the tense anxiety associated with such content can stay with you for days afterwards. Common interpretations of the "In a moving car but can't get to the steering wheel" content is that it is metaphoric of a difficult to control and anxiety-provoking situation in your life. These sorts of dreams fade away as the situation in your life resolves. The loose teeth dream is also very common but it often involves teeth shattering and falling out. It is often associated with distress but no-one knows why these teeth falling out dreams occur. It would be an interesting study to look at its associations. Who gets the dream, when and in association with what life circumstances? At this point we just don't know. There are lots of things that need to be investigated in the dream world.
QAre dreams where I am being physically attacked (by an intruder, or someone on the street) considered nightmares? Whenever I have these dreams I always wake up feeling so uneasy and that feeling carries with me thoughout the day. And what about dreams that have people who have died in them? Sometimes I wake up from those dreams with a sense of unease and other times I feel as if that person just needed to pay a visit. — Sandie Keogler (CAS’74)
AHi Sandie. Dreams of being physically attacked are not necessarily considered a nightmare even when you awaken in distress. A nightmare typically is associated with feelings of extreme fear and distress. If you have that extreme fear in association with these dreams then I would say that yes you are experiencing nightmares. In any case recurrent dreams that cause you distress during the daytime should be talked over with a therapist if you have one. If the dreams are recurrent and if they are causing increasing amounts of distress then I would recommend seeing a therapist. If on the other hand they are just bothersome but do not cause you too much distress or chronic stress then you can use meditative or cognitive techniques on your own to deal with them.
Dreams when you are "visited" by people who have died are very common, particularly when the departed is a loved one. Typically after bereavement most people dream about the loved one for months afterwards bu tthen the dreams of that person stop and only occasionally reappear. While these visitation dreams can be quite emotional they are generally experienced as healing. The dreamer gets the message that the loved one is okay and that life must go on.
QDr. McNamara: This sounds like a fascinating and important project. But I wonder why you named it "Unholy Spirits" when the subject has nothing to do with "holy" or "spirits"--neither psychological terms but religious ones totally irrelevant and inappropriate to the subject. Best, David Eller "Introducing Anthropology of Religion" (Routledge) — David Eller (GRS'90)
AHi David. The editors called the interview "Unholy Spirits", not me, but I nevertheless think the title is okay. Indeed in my book I show that traditional cultures and very likely our ancestors treated beings in dreams and especially in nightmares as supernatural agents. For ancestral populations, dreams and nightmares were often — though not invariably — what we would call today religious phenomena. They were times whe you might interact with spirit beings, gods and demons. So religious concepts are not only not totally irrelevant to the subject of dreams and nightmares, they are vitally important to understanding them.
QI have recurrent nightmares of a dark time in my life when I owned a transmission business that went through a year and a half of bankruptcy reorganization and then collapsed. I had mechanics stealing everything from me: my shop tools, my customers. One time my manager had opened the shop on a Sunday and was selling my parts to friends of his. My nightmares occur fairly often but with variations of what is going on. None of the stuff in the nightmares actually happened just that way but all thing would be quite possible given the reality of the situations. I suffered depression during this time and often left the shop to be run by the manager who was only pocketing stuff for himself. The shop opened in September '78, just half a year after my getting double degrees. The shop closed for good in April of '85. I also was undergoing a run away child who was thought to be dead for two and a half years as well as a first wife who came down with chronic asthma partly due to working around the fumes in the garage. We had no money to heat our house and so we taped off all rooms except the kitchen and the master bedroom, the two rooms that we lived in during the winter. Lots of trauma which led me into ordained ministry.— Ron Francey (MET'78)
AHi Ron. Dreams and nightmares sometimes operate as a means by which you work through painful emotional memories. When the process works properly the nightmares and painful dreams last a few months or perhaps a few years. If you continue to have nightmares about a particular period of life after years and years then therapy or counseling might be in order. There is no good reason to suffer repeated memories of those bad times if the memories cause further suffering now and when help is available.
QHello. I enjoyed the article about your work but wondered whether the monstrous element always appears in a nightmare as a supernatural being. Are there not nightmares where spaces or places are dreadful, terrifying, monstrous, not to be entered, etc.? As a child, I dreamed repeatedly of such a place/room/house. Also, you discuss the monstrous as something that confronts the self, but are there not also nightmares where the dreamer sees the self as or as becoming a monster? As a young woman, I once dreamed I morphed into a sort-of many-fanged tree-like monster who turned open mawed on my terrified date. Very Freudian, I'm sure, but it was interesting, since the horror wasn't felt as fear, but as belonging to the dread strangeness of the situation.— CR (GRS'00)
AHi and thanks for these excellent questions. Yes, the monstrous element does not always reappear in the dream as a supernatural agent. There can be merely a sense of foreboding and dread or there can be as you say scenes of terrifying rooms or doorways or caves, etc. For some people it's a good sign when the monstrous element is personified as a supernatural being as it sometimes indicates that the cognitive/emotional content associated with the monster has been been brought into finer focus and thus can be more easily be dealt with. For other people the appearance of a supernatural agent within a dream signals no such progress. In reference to your other question when the dream self morphs into a monster it is usually, in my opinion, a danger signal (indicating submersion of the self into very negative territory) but sometimes the morphing of the self into a monstrous being is a sign of progress if the self had previously been powerless of unwilling to experience anger or rage, etc. I point out in my book however that interactions with the monstrous in dreams should never be taken lightly.
QI'm wondering what it might mean if one does not experience terrifying nightmares (other than perhaps occasional nightmares of the anxiety variety, like waking up late, forgetting where to go for a mtg, etc.). Is it significant that I, for example, enjoy my dream life and look forward to it because it is almost always interesting and gives me pleasure?— Anonymous (GRS)
AI have never met anyone that had never experienced at least one terrifying nightmare in their lives. But there are many, many people who only very rarely experience bad dreams. So rest assured it is perfectly normal not to experience nightmares! If you enjoy your dream life please continue to do so. Revel in it! You ask about the significance of being able to enjoy your dreams. There are people who are classified as "fantasy prone" or who exhibit high scores on a personality trait called "absorption". These are people who also often report a rich and enjoyable dream life. Again, I urge you to continue to enjoy your dreams but I also urge a little bit of caution. Dream images are more powerful than most people assume. It is important to be enriched by your dreams, not absorbed into them.
Q What do you make of dreams containing relatively benign images of people in a painful past that leave one shaken on waking?—Sally Glass (SPC'72)
ADreams where you see people in ordinary imagery and contexts but who were part of a painful past are not uncommon in dreams. I think most scientists who study dreams would say that some positive emotional work was occurring in such dreams — work that helps you to integrate the painful memories and then move beyond them. From another point of view dreams sometimes point to people in your current life or past who need something from you.
QA lot of people believe that there is great symbolism in dreams, with some maintaining that specific images are associated with specific fears, needs,ideation in general. What are your thoughts about this? — David Chiriboga (CLA'64)
ASymbolic images definitely occur in dreams if we are to take the testimony of many dreamer's as accurate but every dream is composed of several layers of semantic and perceptual content. One layer is certainly symbolic, such as when a monster is symbolizing or metaphorically representing an overwhelming affect that you are experiencing. But when seen from another point of view, that of traditional peoples and ancestral populations, that same monster takes on a "supernatural" significance — Freud called it the "uncanny" — and it is that aspect of the image that yields the intense fear and horror that is associated with nightmares.
QDreams of being stuck in a basement where the stairs turn into a slippery slope that I can get up. Recurring nightmare since child hood. — Maureen Savage (GRS'96)
AHi Maureen. Your recurring nightmare sounds a lot like those dreams where you run and run to escape some monster but get nowhere. Many dream scientists suggest that such dreams are related to the paralysis that accompanies REM sleep. REM sleep is associated with inhibition of the anti-gravity muscles in the body so that you are essentially paralyzed while you undergo REM sleep. That sense of paralysis then invades your dream life occasionally. Dream images picture the feeling of being unable to move as a frightening experience.
QWhat is the significance of recurring imagery in nightmares? Many of my nightmares include the same features . . . e.g., elevator with a cut cable, falling from great heights. Also can you explain why some in a dream a person has an out of body experience (e.g., looking down at oneself from above)? Thanks in advance for your insights. — Beth (GSM'91)
AHi Beth. There are many theories out there that seek to explain recurring imagery in dreams and nightmares. Some scientists claim that the recurring imagery is a perseverative phenomena associated with down regulation of the prefrontal lobes during REM sleep. Let me explain a little. During REM or dream sleep blood flow to the areas of the brain called the prefrontal cortex is decreased relative to waking. Now the prefrontal cortex normally helps us to switch attention whenever we need to. So when it is not working properly (as in REM) then it is more difficult to switch attention and so you get repetitive imagery. But that theory does not explain why the repetitive imagery occurs across dream periods or nights rather than just within the same dream. So other scientists say that repetitive dream imagery represents attempts by the dream to overcome some emotionally charged issue. The jury is still out on this issue. No one really knows why some images recur in dreams and nightmares. With respect to out-of-body experiences, the standard explanation relates to the paralysis that normally occurs during REM. The mind interprets the paralysis as lack of restriction in this case (in stark contrast to cases often interpreted out-of-body experiences as the dream self leaving the body to visit other places or even other supernatural realities. None of these explanations seem satisfactory to me. Only further research will settle the issue.
QI need to ask about sleep walking. I used to live in a townhouse with the bedrooms upstairs. I would sleep walk and wake up by falling on the stairs. I would open the door and call for my cat, even though he was already indoors. I would continue to do this nightly. The fall would wake me up and then I'd continue to sleep walk. I live in a one story house now, and if I am sleep walking, I am not awakened by falling. What causes sleep walking? Why would I sleep walk and awake and go back to sleep while walking? — Joanne Lowell (CLA'73)
AHi Joanne. I am glad you now live in a one story house. People who regularly sleep walk need to take it seriously and make the sleep environment as safe as possible. Sleep walking occurs for most people they are in slow wave sleep — a very deep form of sleep. Sleep walking occurs when your brain is still in slow wave sleep but the transition to that sleep state is incomplete. For some people the sleepwalking is repetitive — they always go to the same place when they sleep walk. For others, the walking is random. For yet others, the walking is dangerous as they do not avoid objects or stairs or even roads and highways. For yet others, the walkers are uncannily able to avoid obstacles even though they are sound asleep. Some people respond well to medication so it may be worth speaking to your sleep medicine specialist about this.
QWhen one has nightmares of a reoccurring theme, are these nightmares actually helping the person work through the issue or is it simply an expression of the associated emotions? — Jana (CAS'90)
AHi Jana. Reoccurring dreams/nightmares for some people does represent attempts at integrations of emotionally threatening material. If the dream images do not begin to recede after several months, then an experienced therapist or trusted confidant might help. To the extent that the recurring imagery diminishes over time while the dreamer feels better over time then we can say that the recurring dreams are helping the individual integrate the emotionally threatening material.
QI only experience nightmares when I'm sick. Otherwise I rarely remember dreaming at all. This has been true since I was a child. Often it's the same four nightmares, each one a disturbing circumstance that awaken me slowly, and leave me with a sensation I need to shake off. Are nightmares when sick common? And what purpose do they serve, if any? — William (COM'04)
AHi William. Yes, nightmares are common when you are sick, particularly when there is fever. If you buy the theory that dreams in general help you to integrate painful emotional experiences then it would make sense that they are called in to help when that painful experience is an illness.
QAre you serious? Is there actually malevolent spirit possession? I assumed it was the substance of scary fictional stories: Rosemary's Baby et al. Do you know any "possessed" people? — Ralph Bergman (LAW’63)
AHi Ralph. As I review in my book, many traditional peoples and ancient peoples and presumably ancestral humans believed in spirit possession and believed that nightmares were triggered by and reflected malevolent spirit possession. Nightmares in modern people also sometimes involve spirit possession. Nightmares in modern people also sometimes involve spirit possession themes and virtually always involves the dreamer's ego or self being under threat of annihilation or takeover by an alien and monstrous entity. And yes, demonic possession is alive and well in people from all over the world as the medical and psychiatric literature attests. Since I have written about spirit possession I regularly get contacted by people who claim demonic possession. I always refer them to psychiatric services.
QDr. McNamara, Does your book expand upon the comment in the article which states, "A different form of nightmare, heavily influenced by memory, occurs frequently in people who have experienced trauma of one kind or another." My wife had quite a traumatic childhood (abuse, rape, assualt on several occasions.) Sometimes she has bad dreams (especially after a stressful or disturbing evening) during the night in which she finds herself back in the situation she experienced as a child or teenager. She opens her eyes and speaks as if she is experiencing it right then. She actually communicates with me as if I am part of the scene but does not recognize me as her present day husband. I even ask questions that she would only know in today's world (like about our children or pets) in which she hears but is unable to give me the right answer. How can these dreams be minimized? What should I do while she is having this dream? Are there other resources you would suggest? — Al (ENG’87)
AHi Al. Yes, my book does cover nightmares that are linked to trauma memories and yes there are many resources available now to people who experience these types of nightmares. The kinds of dreams your wife experiences can be minimized with proper cognitive behavioral techniques and sometimes with proper medication or a combination of these two. Your wife should see a therapist who has been trained in latest treatments of post-traumatic stress disorder. There is a very good center for treatment of PTSD at the Boston VA center under direction of Dr. Terence Keane - a world authority on the disorder.. If you call that center I am sure they can put you in touch with some good resources I would also recommend that your wife see a sleep medicine specialist to have an overnight sleep study done because it sounds like she has what is known as a parasomnia. This is a mild sleep disorder that can effectively treated as well.
Q Hi Dr. Mcnamara, As a teenager I had a dream that took place in a small cabin by a placid lake, on what seemed like a moor. The cabin was rustic, isolated. I was there with my brother, in the midst of a kids' game: lying on our stomachs on either side of a couch, and looking at each other through the space under the couch, we were shooting rubber bands at each other's faces and trying not to flinch. This game continued, but then I heard this strange sound, growing louder. I sat up to listen, and it was a horrifying noise, a weird, fake stretching noise. (It reminded me of the sound effects used in Last Werewolf in London). Then, from behind the couch, my brother's face appeared. It was all wrong though. The eyes were frightening, the skin was mottled. And his neck was stretching, his face floating up from behind the back of the couch. I ducked down but kept watching under the couch, and then his face appeared suddenly in the space there and moved toward me very quickly. The sound and image and cold feeling of dread was so terrifying that I forced myself awake to avoid seeing anything more. My heart was pounding. I kept slipping back into this dream whenever I tried to go back to sleep. Then, for a long while, every dream I had, no matter how benign, would eventually find me in strangely familiar territory: I would see an aerial view of this moor, lake, and cabin and I would shoot toward it. The terror would explode and I'd force myself awake at once. Sometimes I could barely avoid being in the cabin, and that would raise the fright-level. Other times I avoided the cabin, but would end up in a strange, Victorian-like factory with all these warrens and pipes, a maze, and I would feel as if i was being stalked by the potential of this image. Eventually the dreams stopped, but I still visualize them to this day. I always wondered what that dream was indicating. It was really vivid and the image, for some reason, was truly horrifying. Thanks for your thoughts! — Nathaniel (CAS’94)
AHi Nathaniel. Of course only you can say what this dream/nightmare was about but modern psychology would probably say that it contains a memory of something scary and disturbing that happened to you and that involved your brother. Alternatively, it could just have been a young boy who was worried about himself and his brother and so was imagining scary things etc. You could probably find out what the dream was about if you worked with it with a good therapist, one who knows how to listen and reflect and who will not impose some weird interpretation of the dream on you. Traditional pre-modern peoples would sometimes take a dream like this and claim that an evil spirit was trying to get you to through an image that you trusted (your brother). They would see you as prestigious because you avoided the possession by the evil spirit as it never possessed you but could only stalk you. Eventually apparently giving up entirely as the bad dream does not haunt you.
Q Hi Patrick. I experienced a recurring imagery, while awake, that turned out to be a warning of things to come. In my mind, I kept seeing a blade attempting to cut my left eye. When I went to the ophthalmologist for a new prescription, he had to refer me to the retinologist who in turn had to perform laser surgery to prevent detachment of the retina. About two years later, I began having the same recurring imagery with my right eye, and soon after cobweb-like floaters and light flashes appeared. Fortunately, surgery was not necessar, though the floaters and flashes are now permanent. How would you explain this imagery? My belief is that there's a spiritual world parallel to ours that gets involved from time to time for our sake; I've had other types of experiences, including nightmares, that have convinced me of this. — Jose Antonio Santos (SED’87)
AHi Jose. These are dreams that are sometimes called somatic dreams because they contain imagery that is directly analogous to some bodily process or injury or illness. In the literature there are many such dreams and ancient physicians sometimes tried to elicit such dreams from their patients so they could better localize a diseased organ. Your dreams were particularly dramatic instances - the dream imagery reflected apparently a very localized disease process. The explanation that is typically given is that a disease process sends sensory information up to the brain. During waking we just feel discomfort or pain and then say to ourselves my eyes hurt or my vision is blurry. When this same set of sensory information is sent while you are asleep the dreaming brain does not use language to interpret the info - instead it uses visual imagery to do so and thus you get these amazing visual translations of a disease process. As for your belief that a spiritual world parallels this world science cannot adjudicate the issue, but I think most spiritual traditions would say that the spiritual world is not separate from us but is in some sense our world.