The Frontal Cortex

Dreams and Narrative Suspense

I had a very bizarre dream last night. I was driving to the gas station to buy milk. It was the middle of the night. (In case you were wondering, I don’t normally make nocturnal milk runs, or buy my dairy products at the local Exxon-Mobil station.) As I pull into the gas station, I notice several police cars parked outside. That’s odd, I think. Then, as I get out of my car, I notice a police officer frantically waving at someone near me, trying to tell them something. But I’m determined to get milk, so I head inside. That’s when I notice that the store clerk is being held hostage. I’ve walked into an armed robbery. I wake up cloaked in sweat.

My dream, of course, is entirely banal. But it’s also extremely weird. What I can’t understand is how my brain knew the ending of the dream before I did. I was just a bit character – my unconscious was the director. It was as if my own mind was deliberately withholding information from me in order to generate narrative suspense. After I realized that I had walked into a hostage situation, all the prior anomalies that my brain had crammed into the dream – the police cars parked out front, the officer trying to get my attention – suddenly made sense.

The larger question, I guess, is whether the narrative suspense that characterizes so many dreams requires an omniscient director, an unconscious who knows what will happen before we do. Has this ever happened to you? Or were all the suggestive details just a retroactive delusion?


  1. #1 Joshua Lucan
    April 2, 2007

    I’m fond of Damasio’s hypothesis that first the body reacts viscerally, then the higher cognitive systems of the brain interpret the emotional milieu of the body within the context of the environment. Perhaps while asleep the brain continues to interpret the emotional and visceral state of the body. The narrative suspense then would unfold from the identification of specific feelings from a complex background emotion–quotidian desire (milk) mixed with quotidian habits (gas station) mixed with unease or distress. The complete feeling having been present initially, the dream would ensue through the process of identifying its components symbolically.

  2. #2 Mitch Harden
    April 2, 2007

    That assumes that there was a structure to the dream before you awoke. What I mean is, if your dream was just random firings of neurons, when you awake, you have a disjointed and random collection of (simulated) stimuli, that you press a narrative onto “post hoc.” And working backwards from the end requires you to be ignorant earlier in the story to enable you to reach said end-point.

  3. #3 Paul Sunstone
    April 2, 2007

    I’ve experienced a similar sense of narrattive suspense in dreams. But I cannot say whether that was a delusion or not. Good question!

    I don’t know if this is relevant or not, but a larger question is which part of the brain creates narratives? And what all is involved in creating a narrative?

  4. #4 David Sewell
    April 2, 2007

    This might be a case where neuroscientists working on the phenomenon of dreaming could benefit from reading around in work on narrative dynamics by people in folklore studies, sociology of language, and literature and linguistics departments. There’s plenty of evidence for the existence of a kind of narrative grammar that, for example, enables storytellers to improvise within the constraints of a familiar plot situation. Dreams rely on our mastery of natural languages (including acquired ones; dreaming in a foreign language for the first time is an exciting thing when you’re learning a new language), so it intuitive that they’d rely on other metalinguistic knowledge as well.

    From that point of view it’s no more remarkable that one can dream the conclusion of a story when you’re not initially aware of how it will end, than that you can dream the final clause in a sentence that you begin without knowing how ti will end.

  5. #5 Lisa
    April 3, 2007

    I think that previous comment by David is great.

    Also wanted to point out that I (at least) find daydreaming quite a bit like dreaming, and even fiction writing not so different. In those processes, I can certainly envision setting a tone and inserting foreboding details, even before my brain has settled on a specific ending that’s compatible with the mood.

  6. #6 Mary Dreyer
    April 9, 2007

    I vividly remember a dream which had a long and winding plot in the way dreams do, culminating in an explosion, as dynamite or something. The thing was, I remembered this in the moments after being awoken by my alarm radio– which happened to switch on during an explosive, percussive drum beat. So creating the narrative backwards seems entirely plausible. I often have dreams which seem to be trying hard to piece together miscellaneous brain junk (create a plot involving a toothbrush, a dog walking through the garden and breaking flowers, and changing a lightbulb). How about the occaisional vivid sensory (olfactory or touch) images in dreams? Do we remember them because they are unusual? How do they get into what I experience as a mainly visual and linguistic phenom? How do blind people dream? Or those with language disabilities that result in structureless or primitive narratives? Are small children’s dreams as simple and unelaborated as their play schema? Are they more sensory, if language is less available? How can we know? Do we remember dreams, or some reconstruction of what was floating around at the moment of waking? A zillion tiny questions!

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