The Profits of Dreaming: On Fiction and Sleep

By posted at 6:00 am on September 15, 2014 4


Freud famously said “the madman is the dreamer awake”: better, we think, to let him lie. Like Mr. Rochester’s woman upstairs, we quarantine the dreaming mind in time and deny its existence by day. But what if it were true that night and day were not separate, and that our fictions were considered to be as serious, as vital, as what we do while awake?

I’ve always had strange dreams, but when I entered my mid-twenties, they became much stranger. By day, my life was unremarkable: I was a graduate student in a college town, then an adjunct instructor of writing and an administrative assistant at a non-profit; I lived in an apartment in a quiet neighborhood with my fiancé, a fellow graduate student, and went to bed by 10:30.

At night, though, things were far more exciting. I underwent terrifying medical experiments while strapped to a hospital bed. I bought a pet porcupine named Sweetie and dressed her in a fur coat, so that I could pet her, feeding her yogurt from a spoon. I gave birth to tacos and teddybears and human children, always boys, one of which came out fused to my hands. I joined the French Resistance and witnessed an alternate ending to World War Two in which Eva Braun, Hitler’s longtime mistress, detonated the wrong bomb, killing Hitler instead of us. When I started my novel, no one who knew me was surprised to hear that it explores dreams and the human subconscious.

coverI’m certainly not the first writer to lead a real life less dramatic than the one in my imagination—or, perhaps, to wonder about the worth of fiction in the face of reality. Emily Dickinson—dubbed “the Queen Recluse” by her good friend Samuel Bowles—spent most of her life at home, watching with frustration as the men of her family pursued careers in politics and public service. Jane Austen wrote love stories that resonate centuries after her death, despite the fact that she likely did not experience a romantic relationship herself. Charlotte Bronte had so powerful an imagination that she referred to her characters as her “inmates.” Marcel Proust worked from a Paris apartment soundproofed with cork and curtained from the sun. While writing In Search of Lost Time, Proust was lost in time himself: he slept during the day and worked at night. Once, he walked to the Louvre, realizing only when he arrived that it was midnight and the museum was closed.

covercoverFor other writers, sleep offers a wellspring of creativity. Dreams have played a key role in some of literature’s greatest works of fiction: Frankenstein was conceived in a dream by Mary Shelley, as was E.B. White’s Stuart Little. Robert Louis Stevenson dreamt about a doctor with split personality disorder so vividly that he wrote a novel about this character—later titled The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—in an astonishing three days. In her book Writers Dreaming, Naomi Epel interviewed a collection of writers, including Stephen King and Maya Angelou. King, a famous proponent of the creative power generated via sleep, said creativity and dreams are “just so similar that they’ve got to be related. Part of my function as a writer is to dream awake.” Angelou agreed: “I do believe dreams have a function. I don’t see anything that has no function, not anything that has been created. The brain is so strange and wondrous in its mystery.”

It’s this tension—the potential functionality of dreams versus their ultimate mystery—that makes our relationship to the sleeping mind so fraught. While non-REM sleep has been tied to an array of critical subconscious processes, from emotional regulation to restoration and homeostasis, the function of REM sleep, when dreaming occurs, remains controversial. Some researchers believe it plays a role in learning and memory processing. Others think that dreams rid the brain of unwanted thoughts that could otherwise lead to obsession or paranoia. Michel Jouvet, a leading dream researcher from the University of Lyon, believes dreams give us the opportunity to rehearse our responses to frightening situations ahead of time, preparing us for their occurrence in waking life.

But in the absence of conclusive evidence, sleep’s utility—like that of fiction—is still in doubt. How much, in the end, does either one matter? Neither fiction nor dreams are what we call “real life,” that conscious space sandwiched in the sunny hours of each day. No matter how vital my dreams are to me, they—like my writing—exist in the margins of my daily life, the shadowed wings to either side of whatever action is happening onstage. The decrease in the financial support and cultural priority allotted to all forms of the arts has enhanced the sense that what writers are doing is not quite a job, not quite worth professional payment—not quite, well, necessary.

Business is now the most popular college major in the United States. Since 2009, funding for humanities and liberal arts programs—called “nonstrategic disciplines” by Florida Gov. Rick Scott—has decreased across the nation. It’s not all dire: the National Endowment for the Arts recently avoided a 49% budget cut, and Michelle Obama’s campaign on behalf of arts education has brought attention to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the two-year-old Humanities Turnaround Arts program. Still, cultural funding has been in global decline since 2009: Australia and Britain, as well as a range of European governments, have instituted major cuts; Portugal closed its Ministry of Culture after legislative elections in 2011.

Though I’m strongly in favor of arts funding, I still feel a near-constant sense of doubt about the worth of my work. I wonder whether my contributions could ever be equal to that of a doctor, a social worker, a soldier. As the earth’s climate warms and its resources thin, indulgence—both material and psychological—feels increasingly unsustainable. Even sleep has become a luxury, commodified for its relationship to performance. But the profits of dreaming remain unclear; in schools, excessive daydreaming—dreaming’s voluntary counterpart, commonly dismissed as “spacing out” or frivolous wishful thinking—has even been named a disorder.

Certainly, daydreaming has its drawbacks. As a child, a teenager and even a college student, I could spend hours imagining scenes so detailed that I was oblivious to everything around me until I came to, minutes or hours later, in a classroom whose lessons I hadn’t learned.

But daydreaming, like a self-built raft, has also carried me through years of fear and loneliness. Those moments were self-building, too, opportunities to experiment with experience and personality—and ultimately, to develop the character who will accompany me throughout my life: me. Like fiction, daydreaming allows me to imagine my way into a life that isn’t mine, and in the process, it offers emotional sustenance. And though it might not be real life, fiction can feel like it. In fact, a 2006 scientific study found that reading fiction activates the brain in a way that is very similar to actual, lived experience: reading vivid metaphors arouses the sensory cortex, and action-oriented sentences do the same for the motor cortex.

But the fact remains: no matter how many studies link fiction to empathy or dreaming to memory consolidation, we still don’t know conclusively what fiction or dreaming do for us, and perhaps we never will. It’s the most painful thorn in our side, this not-knowing, the eternal bane of human existence: we like to marvel at mystery, but we also like to contain it. Perhaps our limited tolerance for mystery has made us similarly resistant to the same in-between qualities in ourselves: irrationality, indecision, eccentricity. Yet peculiarity is as inherent to the human animal as muscle or bone. The mind is a beast in itself: like the body, it needs time and space to roam. In cordoning it off, we run the risk of alienating ourselves from the miraculous absurdity of life itself. We forget how to wonder, to drift. We forget that most questions in this world—the ones that really matter—are impossible to answer completely.

Readers of fiction are notoriously divided on open-ended conclusions. But are there any other kinds? In fiction, as in dreams, we muck around in the innards of things. We play and pretend. I get the same feeling, reading a novel or a short story, that I do when I look up at the stars: I am silenced, awed by the unknowable. Is sleep villain or hero, enabler or hindrance, site of action or useless intermission? If we knew, we might know a great many other things, too, and then there would be little reason to write fiction at all.

Image via ramsd/Flickr

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4 Responses to “The Profits of Dreaming: On Fiction and Sleep”

  1. Janelle
    at 8:52 am on September 15, 2014

    I find the most vivid answers to problem scenes just before I drift off into a deep sleep. Beautiful descriptions and the perfect line of dialogue roll through my brain so often that I keep a notebook and pen on my bedside table. Sometimes I jump up four or five times a night to write whole scenes– the same scenes I couldn’t describe in eight hours of daylight writing. Janelle

  2. CJ
    at 9:31 am on September 15, 2014

    A. Alvarez’s _Night_ contains a wonderful chapter on dreaming and its accessory phenomena.

  3. Lorrie Bodger
    at 8:49 am on September 20, 2014

    Very interesting piece, though I wish Ms. Benjamin hadn’t tried to cover so many topics; I’d like to read more of her thoughts on any ONE of them. I’ve posted a link to the piece (AND to The Millions home page) on my writers’/readers’ blog called The Book Under Her Bed, because I’m sure my readers will find it fascinating. Would she consider a guest-post on TBUHB?

  4. TF
    at 9:36 pm on March 31, 2015

    Like the previous commenter, I thought this was neat, but would have found this a lot more interesting if it hadn’t been so meandering. In my personal experience as a non-reading consumer of fiction (mostly though playing games and occasionally binge-watching a show), I’ve never found it to make much difference what I’m doing the night before an especially vivid dream, and that even adjusting my sleep duration outside my average 5 hours doesn’t alter much. I don’t consider myself a writer either, but over the last few years have taken to typing my dreams out, in some cases over a week later, as the face-value short stories they are in my mind, complete with smells, tastes, being in different mediums, etc. My question is, what’s the deal with lucid dreams and where do those fit in here?

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