Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Dream Life

Railroad Sunset (1929, oil on canvas).

Edward Hopper.

I’ve noticed that I’ve recently started to dream in German. Well, the people who pop up in my dreams are speaking German, and I seem to understand them and act accordingly, but I never speak in German in my dreams. Actually, I rarely say anything aloud in my dreams anymore; probably a reflection of real life.

The interesting thing about this is that I don’t speak German. Well, I can utter a few words or phrases here and there, and my comprehension of spoken German is growing, but I don’t speak it myself.

Oddly, even though I still have a fairly decent command of the Spanish language, I don’t recall if I ever dreamt in Spanish. I never lived in a Spanish-speaking country but I did — later — live in a Spanish-speaking area of Manhattan (it might surprise you to learn that much of Manhattan consists of those who speak Spanish as their first or only language, except for the wealthy areas, where English is the primary or only language spoken). Although in Manhattan, I was hearing Dominican Spanish, which was very different from the Spanish I spoke: Madrid Spanish at first, then Mexican Spanish (both due to my teachers and friends), and later, when in college, I added Colombian Spanish to my repertoire (thanks to my two Colombian roommates).

Even though I did live in Tokyo for a little while, I didn’t dream in Japanese when I was there. I learned Japanese much more quickly than German, thanks to my labmates, colleagues, and mentors, so I imagine this disparity is a matter of time: I did not live in Japan long enough to actually start dreaming in Japanese.

But my dreams have not been limited to languages I’ve been surrounded with for a long period of time. For example, when I took calculus classes, I dreamt in calculus, often dreaming the solutions to “problems” I had solved during the day .. those dreams were fantastic episodes like something you’d see in an art museum, Dali, Escher, Hopper and other painters whose names escape me at the moment. Much better than drug-induced visions, those were some of the most fascinating dreams I’ve ever had, in fact. It makes me want to take a calculus course again, just for the dreams I had.

So this has led me to wonder what my mind is accomplishing by dreaming in a language I don’t speak? And in a bigger sense, I wonder what is the purpose of dreams at all? Do animals dream? (I suspect they do, based on my observations). If so, what function do dreams perform in their lives? I know a lot has been written about this topic, but what do you think?

Comments

  1. #1 llewelly
    July 10, 2010

    Dreaming is the brain’s equivalent of cleaning the office, taking out the trash, doing the dishes, and so forth. Everything you see, hear, or otherwise sense while dreaming is either something being cleaned, or something being thrown away.

  2. #2 arby
    July 10, 2010

    I’m of two minds, so to speak, about dreaming. Doesn’t the latest research suggest there is a strong “rehearsal” (pre-hearsal?) thing going on. That is, it takes elements of what you were concerned with that day, and tosses in variables and plays them out. A sort of practice for the future.
    On the other hand, I’ve always considered the elements of the dream as just being a side effect of more or less random brain activation. Stuff just tossed on top of the neurological activity by the ‘explainer’ circuits of the mind. It is cut off from outside cues, and just dresses it up with whatever is handy, image-wise. I’m not doubting that important and necessary activity is going on, but the dreamscape itself is mostly irrelevant.
    I lived in Sydney for three years, I wonder if I ever dreamt in Strine?

  3. #3 ACW
    July 10, 2010

    I would apply due caution to any statement that begins, “Dreaming is …” because, in fact, we still don’t know. (I suspect that sometime in the next two decades, we will know; we just don’t know yet.) The “trash-collection” theory is plausible, but there’s not much supporting evidence. The same is true of the “random-activation” theory.

    But we can certainly concur that dreams are constructed of materials at hand; and GrrlScientist’s memory has a lot of German conversation at hand, at the moment.

    Also remember that the German in the dreams may not be real; it’s perfectly possible to dream that you are hearing (and understanding) German, while in fact you are dreaming gibberish with a patina of German-understanding-sensation slathered on top.

    Grrl, don’t despair of your German abilities. You still have under a year of exposure, and I would wager that you are way ahead of German babies that age. If you continue to interact with people, try to use German when you can, and be willing to sound like an idiot, the language will come to you. (I often think that the big advantage babies have in learning languages is not some magical neural language-learning circuit (though I don’t dismiss that possibility) but rather that they are willing to sound like idiots.)

  4. #4 AnALyZ
    July 12, 2010

    My amateur theory for dreaming due to the nature of it is- it is somewhat a contained simulation chamber. Humans tend to create things patterned after what we are and are surrounded by- its what we understand. In the same way that we have laboratories and computer simulations- we have dreams. The only difference is at the state of consciousness that we are at- we have relatively little control. A state can be achieved that one can have total control over the dream. It may either have to be induced or controlled.
    In this state, worlds can appear and disappear on command. Our brains already contain the deeper level of knowledge and information required for construction- which is the reason why- even if one cannot access a foreign language as well in daily life (Think working your way up the chain to gain access to a CEO (spokesmen) of a corporation)- the dream state has all the red tape removed- which means all the things that your subconscious was recording without your higher level conscience being aware- can now be accessed freely.
    Gestault theories harmonize with this. Our higher consciousness cannot read ALL information at once- otherwise we couldn’t function. So it actually may be opposite- our higher level functions as garbage collectors. Our lower level functions as an all inclusive recorder.
    The subconscious is the key. It is the reason why there is “intuition”. Intuition is simply sub-conscious level event recording that makes sense to our subconscious, but our higher conscious has not yet had time to perform analysis on. Thus, even our intuition can be wrong sometimes.
    So if you want to dream in more languages- train yourself to access your dreams- which is probably not possible without some sort of assistance.

  5. #5 Alex
    July 12, 2010

    I think a very important thing to realize is that when your brain gives off the ideas for your dreams, they are abstract, and are labeled according to what you have seen them to be. An example such as “think of a tree” and you think of the image and not the word. So what could be happening, and this is just a speculation unsupported by any proof, is that you are dreaming in abstract, but some ideas are being filled in by the labeling portion with the limited german that you know. The reason that you understand everything is because it is being manufactured by the brain – of course you should be able to understand it, even if they were speaking Chinese. Thoughts?

  6. #6 AnALyZ
    July 12, 2010

    Not everyone has abstract dreams. Some have truly grounded dreams at times- that they actually accomplish tasks in (Musicians writing music/ Architects with new concepts/ etc.). Abstract just may mean that they are unaware of how to have a greater level of purpose to the state (which is not so easy to control anyway).
    However, the labeling manner is interesting. For a foreign language- you mean that we already know what we want to say and hear- so whatever words in that language that come out, we’re going to understand regardless.
    I guess the next question is whether any sentences remembered are properly structured and knowledge that was not previously recognized before the dream.

  7. #7 mdiehl
    July 13, 2010

    A native-speaking Italian who taught said language told her students that she felt she was truly learning German when she dreamt in German.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.