The first thing I learned is: Everybody flies.
Consider the surly taxi driver I met in Ukraine who, when asked what he dreamed of at night, responded, “I jump and then I fly—higher than the trees, higher than the trolley wires.”
“I think when I die,” he mused, “that’s what it’s going to be like.”
As an instructor in psychology at the City College of New York, I teach about the power of the subconscious, whose hidden cognition comprises the vast majority of brain activity. Increasingly, research is confirming that we humans are almost entirely subconscious beings, largely oblivious to the mind’s extensive inner workings.
Dreams are one of the few exceptions.
I’ve always had an active dream life (just recently, I sent a herd of buffalo rampaging through a deserted Times Square, and performed psychic surgery on a thousand-chambered heart). Curious whether others had similar experiences,
I started the World Dream Atlas project, stockpiling dreams on my off hours while traveling as a journalist. Over the last 10 months, I’ve collected dreams from hundreds of people in 17 countries.
In class, I teach from a scientific perspective—everything from Freud’s interpretation of dreams as encrypted “emotional and intellectual trains of thought” to Jie Zhang’s theory of dreams as a byproduct of memory-encoding. Each paradigm is different, but most ignore the innate power of dreams. Dreams are typically regarded as part of a subordinate reality that only becomes significant if it can be translated into something rational.
But when dreams are experienced on their own terms, they offer a glimpse of how expansive our minds can be outside the strictures of physical reality. They remind us that some of our most meaningful and transformative experiences are, by nature, irrational. Since most academic research on dreams is generated in the West, I ventured overseas for a fuller understanding of that potential.
I have found that, across cultures, dreams often entail a return to mysticism or the divine, and allow people to engage in magical thinking without stigma.
But I’ve noticed population-specific trends as well. Violent nightmares are common in the gang-ridden border towns of Mexico and the war zone of eastern Ukraine. Scenes of nuclear war still haunt the “duck-and-cover” generation in both the East and the West.
Blessings by gods and goddesses are frequently reported in heavily religious India, whereas in more secular Western populations, those same functions are often performed by celebrities. I’m not the first to document the link between culture and dream content.
In one study, the dreams of Palestinian children in violent areas were found to feature more aggression and persecution than those of Palestinian children living in peaceful areas; in another, African American women were shown to have more dreams in which they are victims of circumstance or fate than Mexican American or Anglo American women.
I’ve received my share of rude rebuffs, as well as a few heartbroken looks from people who mistook me for Humans of New York. Still, the most common reaction to my elevator pitch is a smile. People are more open than I ever imagined; it amazes me that I can walk up to someone I’ve never met before and, in a matter of minutes, be talking to them about some of their deepest and most personal reflections, or laughing like old friends.
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