Dreams: an activity we spend one-third of our lives doing, yet we know so little about them. I have very vivid dreams and unlike others I can remember a great deal of content about my dreams— as long as I make a conscious effort to recall them in less than two minutes after waking up. After that they are like a thin, misty cloud that blows away leaving almost nothing behind. Last night I had another dream that held my attention throughout the night. Yes throughout the night. I know some claim we dream all that we dream in only seconds, but I don’t buy it. I can start a dream at midnight, wake up and piss at 3am and then re-insert myself into the dream and pick up where I left off until I wake in the morning.
Last night I had one of those dreams. It was vivid, exciting and scary. The detailed content is not important, but it largely involved me returning to the United States and signing a contract to work a job for what I thought was only 6 weeks. But then the manager informed me that I had just signed a binding contract for 6 years! I was devastated because I couldn’t imagine being separated from “my kids” in Cambodia for that long. I insisted I be allowed to leave after six weeks but was rebuffed. Any attempt to break the contract before six years and return to Cambodia would result in my arrest. Like most dreams there was much exaggeration and imaginative creativity that gave it sensational twists and turns. I soon made my escape and the military was sent after me. I was dodging helicopters, running from tanks, swimming through swamps and sneaking onto jet planes to get back to Cambodia. The dialogue was intense and the action sequences were powerful. I made friends along the way who assisted me, and others who betrayed me. The most interesting feature of all was the level of anxiety I felt as each unexpected surprise came my way.
That is what I want to focus on. How can you surprise yourself in a dream?
How can you create inventive dialogue and plot twists in your dream that leave you in a state of shock or fear? How can your mind create a nightmare that wakes you up in a state of panic? How can you split yourself into two people and be both the author and the audience. Why does a dream state allow you to do what you cannot while awake?
Can you tickle yourself? Can you throw your hands up in front of your face, say, “boo” and scare yourself? No you cannot. It is impossible because you already know what is coming. You cannot surprise yourself in real life. So why does a dream state allow you to do what you cannot do when you are awake? I believe the answer to this question holds a key to uncovering one of the many mysteries related to the nature of dreams.
Here is my theory. It will sound strange initially but allow me to develop it. I believe we are tripartite beings: body, soul and spirit. Hebrews 4:12 declares that the Word of God is so sharp it can penetrate our very being, “dividing even soul and spirit, joint and marrow.” I believe when you enter a deep sleep your spirit becomes partially separated from your soul and body and is actually in a state of “suspension” above your soul (mind) and body— and yet still tethered to it. Think of it like a balloon tied to your hand; the balloon is suspended above you but still tethered to you by a thin string. This temporary separation allows you to become both the author and audience of your own dreams. Your soul or mind becomes the active creator of an entire dream world filled with imaginative action sequences, colors, thrills, fears, surprises and intelligent dialogue between multiple people. Your spirit is the passive part of you suspended and separated from your soul and taking it all in as an impressionable audience. Through your mind/soul you are literally scripting a movie as you dream and re-tell it to your spirit-self. The reason you can actually converse intelligently with other people in your dreams and be genuinely surprised by their comments directed at you, is that your spirit was not previously clued in to what your soul was imagining (as it is when you are awake). Moreover, the reason you can wake yourself up in a panic through a nightmare of your own creation is that your spirit became overwhelmed by an emotional onslaught coming from your unconscious mind it was not prepared to deal with.
The notion that our spirit or even our soul is able to separate from our body is not as radical an idea as it first sounds. Firstly we know that in Christian theology such an action takes place at death. Paul states, “I have the desire to depart and be with Christ—which is far better— but to remain in the body is more necessary for you” (Phil. 1:22-23). Paul also wrote of himself, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows” (2 Cor. 12:2).
Secondly there is actually a growing amount of research in the field of Out of Body Experiences (OBE) and Near Death Experiences (NDE) stemming from medically induced unconscious states that may be supportive of such an assertion. For example there are numerous accounts of people experiencing inexplicable, out-of-body experiences when they are put into a medically induced state of deep sleep for surgery. I have no doubt that many reported OBE and NDE experiences could be explained and accounted for neurologically and dismissed. But there are some accounts that are extraordinary wherein persons report being suspended above their bodies under anesthesia or after being declared brain dead and being able to look down upon themselves lying on the table and observe specific details of activity in the room and accurately recall those conversations of doctors during surgery.
Thirdly, I find it very interesting that the Bible does not treat dreams as a neutral subject. Almost every time the Bible mentions dreaming it does so in a context of a supernatural, spiritual visitation of some sort. For example we have Joseph receiving a prophetic dream from God about his brothers bowing down to him in the future. We have Joseph later interpreting the dreams of prison mates and Pharaoh. We have Jacob falling asleep and receiving a vision of a ladder full of activity as angels ascend and descend between heaven and earth. We have Joseph being visited by an angel in his dream telling him that Mary’s baby is from the Holy Spirit. On and on we could go. The point is the Bible speaks of dreams as an avenue that God can use to give us a message. Now let me say for the record that I believe 99% of what we dream is nothing more than the creative product of our own imagination and serves as little more than self-created entertainment while we sleep with no supernatural dimension to it. That being said there is no denying that the Bible often treats dreams as being a gateway to the supernatural. I believe there is a good explanation for that as well. Because our spirits are temporarily separated or suspended from our bodies and minds when we sleep, our spirits are more impressionable and vulnerable to the spiritual world around us. When we awake there are layers of human nature that immediately encloses around our spirit and makes our spirit less sensitive and impressionable and more prone to distraction, disturbance and doubt.
Fourthly I find it all the more remarkable that science has yet to discover a comprehensive reason why we really need to spend a third of our lives in an unconscious state. Some researchers regard sleep as “one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of science.” Theories abound from brain consolidation of memories to releasing stress levels “but many of these theories are mutually exclusive.” In my opinion it is understandable that science has been unable to competently explain the nature of sleep given the fact that modern science disdains any talk of an immaterial part of our minds we call the soul benefiting from sleep. However through sleep deprivation tests we have learned that a lack of sleep can literally make our minds drift into insanity after only 3 days— but researches still don’t know why. The truth is the Bible speaks of the mind as being more than spongy grey matter. It is part of our emotional, immaterial soul. When we are in grief or in great despair the grey matter is not grieving, the soul is grieving. The mind or soul is more than neurons and synapses. If deep sleep is primarily for the benefit of our soul and spirit and not just for our bodies, then it would make sense that most sleep studies have only scratched the surface due to their myopic focus on physical, biological affects related to sleep or a lack thereof.
So what is the conclusion of the matter? I make no claim other than to say the mere fact that we can dream is evidence we are more than bags of skin housing organs. Moreover that we are able to routinely tell ourselves stories and surprise ourselves while dreaming, in ways we cannot do while awake, is reason enough to give us pause before discarding dreams as nothing more than quirky, neurological processes dumping memory waste.