What happens inside one’s brain during sleep? Answering that question, as journalist Robb’s inviting exploration makes clear, takes some work, but it yields some fascinating answers.
Telling someone that he or she was in your dream last night is a timeworn, even cheesy pickup line. Why do we dream? Ask a neurophysiologist, and you may get a suitably mechanistic answer: Dreaming is a way for the brain to do a reboot and flush its cache. Robb, a columnist for New York magazine, is more given to metaphor and lyric in looking at the ways dreams tell us what we’re really thinking about—for, by another theory, dreams are ways the brain processes bits of information gleaned in waking life and uses "them to make guesses about the future.” Granted, she writes, that in-my-dream line is “still basically an innuendo,” especially if the dream-inhabiting person in question was climbing a ladder, a pure Freudian trope for intercourse. That person may figure in an innocent dream that still has meaning, just as the content of dreams of patients about to undergo surgery speaks to “anxieties and fears, in symbols and metaphors if not literally.” (Robb adds that if you’re dreaming about “broken knives and blocked-up sewers” before undergoing the procedures, you’re anxious for sure.) The author tends toward the softer side of the neuropsychological spectrum; there’s been much hard neuroscience work on the sleeping and dreaming brain, for instance, that doesn’t figure here. She writes at some length of “lucid dreaming” and ways to cultivate a better understanding of what’s happening inside our minds when the lights are out. Even if we don’t quite know why certain ingredients may be in a dream or “why our brains choose a particular night to play a particular scene,” the content can be made more meaningful—and thus more useful to the dreamer who’s paying attention, making dreamtime a time “imbued with a sense of opportunity instead of anxiety.”
A friendly primer for would-be oneirologists.